Twenty-year-old educational toy and tech company LeapFrog was a pioneer in the world of kids’ tablets, first with its LeapPad handheld learning device introduced in 1999, and then its LeapPad Explorer line, which debuted in 2011 as an iPad-like tablet limited to proprietary LeapFrog apps and games. But competition has soared in the last two years, with a wide range of kid-friendly tablet options offering a broad range of content, not to mention the increasing number of iPad-owning parents who default to handing over their own device loaded with everything from counting apps to Netflix. And LeapFrog tablets have continued to live in the electronic toy aisle, rather than in consumer electronics, where competitors like Nabi and Samsung Kids have proliferated.
Now the company, whose stock peaked in 2013 and has been in almost catastrophic decline since, is finally wedging its name between the iPads and Galaxy Tabs with the LeapFrog Epic, which will debut in late September. Designed for children ages 3 to 9 and priced at $139.99, the device is a full-feature tablet that comes out of the box with access to a limited set of child-appropriate content and websites, but can be configured to unlock a much broader range of mobile content as needed.
It’s the first LeapFrog device to partner with other content creators; the educator-curated LeapFrog app store on the Epic will include access to vetted popular Android apps such as Fruit Ninja Academy, Math Master, and 12 apps from Toca Boca. Parent controls can further refine time spent playing or app access for multiple child profiles. Ultimately, when children are ready, parents can white-list individual websites or enable the open web, as well as unlock the full Amazon App Store.
“This is the first time our LeapFrog content will be available on an Android-based device, and that’s a really big deal, because our brand really resonates with consumers looking for kids’ technology,” says LeapFrog chief marketing officer Greg Ahearn. “We wanted to build something from the ground up that thought through the experience and made it unique and made it very kid-like, but also parents don’t want to buy a tablet for a 4- to 5-year-old and they grow out of it. Particularly in consumer electronics. So we needed to build a proposition that grew with kids, that as they became more tech savvy, and as parents became more comfortable with their kids’ ability to handle technology and content, the parent can open up the device.”
The LeapFrog Epic’s design and interface is also focused on appealing to kids at different ages. A dynamic home screen lets kids populate a town with interactive stickers that change in appearance depending on the age set in the profile. The tablet has a shatter-safe screen and comes with a bright green rubber bumper, but when it’s removed, the device is a sleek black, silver, and green rounded rectangle that barely registers as being for kids. “It needs to pass the cool test,” says Ahearn. “When you’re sitting in an airport, and an 8-year-old boy or girl happens to be on the same flight as you, will they think it’s a baby tablet?”
The LeapFrog Epic is entering a crowded field a few years late to the party. But LeapFrog does have the advantage over other hardware makers of being a brand well known for dedicated, well-received educational toys and games. The LeapPad Explorer won a slew of awards at Toy Fair in 2012 before it lost ground to fuller-featured tablets, and the Just For Me technology in LeapFrog’s games and apps tracks a kid’s progress and level among different apps for personalized learning and feedback. The Epic’s interface is also full of activities itself that give it a more kid-friendly, active vibe than a row of app icons. The homescreen includes engaging prompts for kids to play spontaneous creative games such as Mad Libs-type story creation, and kids can do things like check the weather in their town. There’s also a large-diameter built-in stylus that’s critical to a range of LeapFrog’s educational activities.
The Epic may or may not turn things around for LeapFrog, but it’s necessary for the company to position itself within consumer electronics to capture an ambivalent customer base looking for a deep well of mobile content along with peace of mind. In a parent survey conducted this summer, LeapFrog determined that while 91% of parents with kids 3 to 8 say their kid uses a mobile device, just under half actually set any kind of parent controls, even though 76% feel it’s important that kids don’t see inappropriate content.
“There are some positive things about [the closed ecosystem on the existing LeapFrog products], about the content that we have and the level of safety we provide, so there’s a clever balance between offering everything, and being curated and appropriate,” says Ahearn. “With Epic, we’re bringing in the closed ecosystem of our app store…and then giving the parent the option to open it up to wider content and browsing ability than they’ve ever had on a LeapPad tablet.”