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Some recent experiences had me thinking more about the evolution of parental controls on tablets and e-reading devices. Some progress has been made—Whispercast and rudimentary child management tools on the Kindle, for instance—but so far, parental controls seem to consist of either ‘it’s open! no controls at all!’ or ‘it’s all locked down! safe as houses!’ I think there’s a need for more refinement in the parental control options, and for more flexibility from Big Tech about what we’re allowed to run, and where.

Let’s take Whispercast as Exhibit A:

It was designed for those who plan to deploy a fleet of Kindles into a school and want to have the ability to push updates and content to some, or all, of their chosen devices. I think this is a great idea. I just spent an entire Friday afternoon updating my school’s nine iPads to iOS6 so that a teacher could run an app which required it. Some of the updating ran happily in the background while I did other work, but some of it was hands-on and tedious.

Apps had to be grouped, individually on each iPad, into their appropriate folders so that every iPad looked the same and both teachers and students could find the apps when they needed them. Settings had to be manually adjusted, on each device, for certain apps. I worked steadily from just past lunchtime until four in the afternoon. How much easier would it have been to set everything up to my liking on some kind of home base software or web interface, click ‘send to all devices’ and have it be done?

And how nice would it be to have these same management options on one’s home devices? I think an important next step for Amazon, Apple, et al. will be to reconsider the issue of device limits. Some executive somewhere decides that the average person probably has ‘x’ number of  devices, and no more than that can be registered. I don’t think that’s realistic anymore. In my home, for instance, there is a chief gadget officer—me—and I seem to responsible for setting up all the toys that come into the house. I have two Kobo devices registered to my account that I don’t even use because they belong to family members for whom I was setting them up. And I think this is an increasingly common situation. So, while the executive might be right that I personally only need ‘x’ devices, I may exceed that limit on stuff that isn’t even mine, and then have trouble loading content onto my own device.

The solution? Better family controls. My Internet provider can set up sub-accounts with no problem. You can send an email to me, and my partner won’t see it. You can send an email to him, at his own address, and it will be for his eyes only. Why can’t I set up a child account on my main Amazon profile and use it to segregate all the books—and gadgets—intended for my Beloved? That way, my archived items area won’t be cluttered with his stuff, and his won’t be cluttered with mine.

When I purchase a book, Amazon can prompt me for whose account it should count toward, and then only that person (and the devices registered to their sub-account) could use it. Even better would be to include an option to emancipate the child account later on. That way, when your child grows up and has their own credit card, they can take their books with them and build their library themselves.

And for Exhibit B, let’s consider the flaws in the present ‘open/closed’ binary. It means that kids can’t explore and discover on their own. What if I want to restrict the Internet so my kid can’t buy stuff on my dime, but I want them to still be able to browse and wishlist? What if I want to restrict their ability to view adult content, but still enable their ability to view content for kids? There is no mechanism right now. It’s an either/or scenario: It’s open, or it’s closed.

Other companies do it better. We use the Xbox to watch streaming movies on Netflix, and we recently noticed a new ‘Netflix for Kids’ option. It was, as you might expect, Netflix—but only the kids’ section. We could turn the children in our lives loose in there and let them browse and watch, without worrying that we had to sit beside them and make sure they stayed out of trouble. Why can’t we do that with Amazon or Kobo or Barnes & Noble?

It’s high time we had some evolution in the ‘one user, one device’ gadget world. In my home, we have about ten devices that could access the Internet if they had to. Once we add in the eventual kid or two, we’ll have more choices than ever in what we use to access our growing digital content collections. Why shouldn’t we get more choices, too, in how we deploy that stuff? Why shouldn’t I be able to set up an e-book reader for a child to use independently, but safely? Why should I be penalized for violating some arbitrary ‘device limit’ just because I set up a Kobo for my spouse or parent instead of keeping it for myself? I’d like to see Big Tech give us the tools to run our growing fleet of tech with a little more refinement and control.

What do you think?

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