Children’s ebooks phone home

The Boston Globe reported yesterday that Isabella Products, a maker of wireless digital picture frames, has teamed up with publishing giant Houghton Mifflin Harcourt to bring a children’s e-reader to market next summer. Called the Fable, the device will be marketed as a networked color tablet for kids, and will feature a 7-inch color touchscreen and a wireless networking over a secure, managed connection. It’s likely the networking for the Fable will be based on the “Vizit” service now available on Isabella’s picture frames, which manages uploading and sharing of images for $5.99 a month, or $79 annually for enhanced service. The tablets will offer drawing, gaming, and photo apps, and will come preloaded with ebooks from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, which published the perennially-popular Curious George and Martha Speaks series, The Way Things Work author David Macaulay, and hundreds of titles for kids. The Fable will likely retail for $149 to $179, according to the Globe, with ebook titles running between 99 cents and $3.99.

The e-reader market for kids has been an elusive gamble for publishers and device makers alike. The punchy colors of children’s books lose their luster on monochrome e-ink displays, while the app environment of iPhone, iPad, and Android devices seems almost fatally dilute. In 2009, Nintendo introduced a line of interactive ebooks called “Flips” for use on the DS, but the company isn’t marketing titles aggressively. No one has yet to hit the sweet spot�as Texas Instruments did with its Speak & Spell, the iconic electronic spelling game device, which debuted in 1978 for $50. The Speak & Spell featured a one-line vacuum fluorescent display, 128k of solid-state memory, and the first single-chip voice synthesizer�which, with a little hacking, was all E.T. needed to call home. While it may be a stretch to call the Speak & Spell the first e-reader for kids, the device is a reminder that it takes more than functionality to implant a gadget in the culture.

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