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Should Apple iChildproof its devices and apps?

Screenshot from Smurfs' Village, a game that has caused a great deal of consternation to parents who unwittingly paid for in-app purchases by their kids.
Screenshot from Smurfs' Village, a game that has caused a great deal of consternation to parents who unwittingly paid for in-app purchases by their kids.

Ever seen kids pick up iPads, iPhones and iPod touches? Their ease with using the touchscreens is amazing to behold. They play games, but they also sometimes make phone calls, send gobbledy-gook texts and mistakenly buy songs and apps.

Many parents take this in stride. What are you going to do, they say, kids are kids.

Robert Scoble, aka the "Scobleizer" (he should really put that on a boxing robe), thinks Apple can do a heckuva lot more.

On his blog, Scoble laments how his toddlers have wreaked havoc with his iStuff, deleting his apps and photos, buying new apps; sent tweets and videos; and made a call. Sounds like par for the course for parents who can afford devices like the iPhone, the iPad and the iPod touch; and whose kids are tech savvy from crawling age.

He comes up with this revelation: "Kids are VERY fast at playing with these devices and it only takes you turning your head for a minute or two for lots of bad things to happen to your mobile devices." As any of my parent friends will tell you: duh. Turn your head for second, and all kinds of things can happen, not just to your mobile devices. They're wily creatures, these little bundles of joy.

Scoble learned his lesson after the fact, now finally putting a code lock on his iPhone — and he reiterates the importance of backing up data, which most folks will tell you is vital. But he also complains about the 15-minute window that's left open post-password insertion in the app store, which is like a lifetime for kids to buy up a Smurfs' Village worth of goodies. (More on that in a bit.)

Don't even think about suggesting closer supervision to Scoble.

And don’t give me the hooey about watching my kids closer. These are their favorite toys and contain their favorite games and entertainment. We even turn on Thomas the Tank Engine on Netflix for them to watch.

Scoble admits there are already some parental locks in place, but "we need the parental control features to be easier to find." If this "technical evangelist" is having so much trouble, what hope can there be for mere mortals? 

While it's soooo easy for kids to outsmart these smart phones, it's soooo hard, you see, for parents to figure out how to find those parental controls, which after some work, he found in "Settings/General/Restrictions." He was able to turn off the ability to Delete Apps and In-App Purchases, though he found the wording confusing.

Ok, so Apple needs clearer language. He also wants help for each item "to explain what the consequences are" for the actions he's taking on the device. 

But besides, Scoble, there are others, like GigaOM's Ryan Kim, who think it's in Apple's best interest to "establish more safeguards to assure parents."

Apple's taken a lot of heat for its in-app purchasing system and big tabs racked up by little kids, like the $1,400 bill for Smurfberries that jump started all the in-app outrage in this Washington Post story by Cecilia Kang and other examples in this AP story. That 15-minute loophole has caused nothing but grief for parents who have channeled Grouchy Smurf in discovering their children's buys, which they didn't even know were buys. 

It does look like all their grumbling is having some effect on Apple, with PocketGamer.biz's Jon Jordan cites a "well placed source" for information about Apple cracking down on Capcom for the Smurfs' Village fiasco by tightening up its iTunes log in process, possibly reducing it to as little as five minutes to decrease the chances of uh-oh purchases. Jordan also says refunds have made it back to parents, which should also soothe the outrage, at least a little.

Kim makes some compelling arguments that somehow, don't sound as whiny as Scoble's:

It would be easy for Apple to flip a switch and close the 15-minute window or allow parents to turn it off themselves through the iOS parental settings. Right now there is an option to restrict all in-app purchases, but that also prevents anyone who uses the phone to buy anything inside an app. And as some have noted, it’s deep inside the setting menu where many aren’t aware it’s there. Apple responded to a request for comment by noting that "a password is required to buy any goods in the App Store including using in-app purchases and parents can use our parental controls settings to restrict app downloading and turn off in-app purchasing."I imagine Apple will address this either by implementing a new setting option for parents, or they’ll renew their efforts to advertise the existing parental settings. But I doubt Apple will try to close the overall 15-minute window for all transactions because it would stifle purchases and add one more hurdle to impulse buys. The App Store sells because it’s elegant, easy to use and there are few barriers to buying. And changing that would jeopardize Apple’s 30 percent cut of all in-app purchases.

So, do you think Apple needs to do more for parents?

More Apple and apps stories:

Check out Technolog on Facebook, and on Twitter, follow Athima Chansanchai, who has a lock on her Android, but now is thinking about putting a code on there in addition to that.