Apple’s iPad may be the perfect computer for kids

I’m excited about Apple’s new iPad for a couple of reasons. While a lot of the iPad’s features and services had been leaked in advance, I found myself gasping along with the audience in San Francisco when the price was announced. This is a product that is going to have vastly more impact for under $500 than it would have had at $800 or $1,000. And as I’ve pondered the iPad’s possibilities for the past day or so, one particular use has begun to dominate my thinking and that’s the iPad as the perfect starter computer for my pre-teen kids.

The three kids in our family are a pretty tech savvy bunch, with their iPods and Nintendos, PSPs and Wii. They’re also happy for all the time they can get with mom and dad’s laptops, desktops and the Kindle. They know how to work Tivo, download from iTunes and find stuff on YouTube. They need a lot of supervision and we’re seemingly forever in search of the perfect parental controls and web filters that will let them access all that’s good and fun while protecting them from all the garbage and viruses and worse.

But I have to say, the more I think about it, the more perfect the iPad seems as a solution. One of the biggest problem the kids have is dealing with the complexity and fragile nature of our current computers, running either Mac or Windows. It’s just too easy for the mouse cursor to get lost, file systems to overwhelm and key settings to get munged. On one computer the kids use, flash was somehow disabled one day and won’t come back no matter how much re-installing and uninstalling I’ve done. Another laptop last only a few weeks before they had it unable to boot. It’s not maliciousness or ignorance on their part. Modern PCs just remain pretty darn delicate and temperamental beasts.

The iPad does away with much of this complexity and hides much of what ails the modern PC. Simple is good. No mouse — use your finger. No searching for missing files — they’re all inside each application just when you want them. And no complicated and mysterious settings and system files just waiting to be accidentally deleted. Some people call the iPad/iPhone software platform a “sandbox” due to its limitations but what better metaphor for the kind of computing environment my kids need than a sandbox?

The kids get homework but they hardly need a full-powered copy of Word or Excel to complete it. The iWorks programs look more than adequate. They need a physical keyboard, I’d expect, for the occasional short essay but thankfully Steve Jobs has seen fit — finally — to let use Bluetooth keyboards with the iPad (a feature that would REALLY come in handy with the iPhone, but I digress). And they need a browser but one simpler and safer from malware than the average copy on a PC.

Of course, like all their little digerati friends, the kids are both big consumers and producers of digital media. They take pictures and make movies, record their own songs and even try their hand at blogging. They watch shows downloaded from iTunes or the Tivo or on YouTube or other sites. They play with Ze Frank’s funny frog, use Club Penguin and all the wonderful games PBS has created to accompany its television shows. Flash limitations aside, I think they can do most or all of this stuff on the iPad. And once Amazon ports its Kindle app, they won’t even have to borrow mine anymore. Hallelujah.

I’ve got a couple of months to keep thinking about this and I’m interested in your thoughts as well as the likely stream of additional information that will be flowing out of Cupertino. On the parental controls front, for example, I’m disappointed with what Apple offers for the iPhone/iPod Touch platform and I’m hoping for far more on the iPad. For homework, we’re really going to need to be able to connect to a printer, too. So please weigh in if you have any thoughts and stay tuned for more details.

UPDATE: Over on Twitter, Mark Nikolewski says his four- and seven-year-olds mainly use web sites with embedded games and videos that rely on Adobe’s flash plug-in. There’s no flash on the iPhone and so far none on the iPad. This is a problem but maybe Apple and Adobe get with it? Wired, John Gruber and other Mac followers are less than optimistic. Web sites could, however, offer alternatives if the iPad caught on. They already do so in some cases for the iPhone. Why wouldn’t Disney, with Steve Jobs on the board, want to make an iPad app version of Club Penguin, for example?

UPDATE2: A couple of other folks channeling this same idea include Warren Buckleitner over on the New York Times Gadgetwise blog and, surprisingly, Dallas Mavericks owner and frequent Internet buffoon Mark Cuban. He’s right on when he writes:

It will be the product that kids of this generation grow up with and look back on with affection just like we did with the first video games. Video games changed how we grew up. The iPad will change how kids today grow up.