Amazon’s Echo Dot Kids Edition gains new skills from Disney and others

Amazon is today rolling out a set of new features to its Echo Dot Kids Edition devices — the now $70 version of the Echo Dot smart speaker that ships with a protective case and a year’s subscription to Amazon FreeTime, normally a $2.99 per month subscription for Prime members. Now joining the Kids Edition’s parental controls and other exclusive content are new skills from Disney, Hotel Transylvania and Pac-Man, as well as a calming “Sleep Sounds” skill for bedtime.

There are now four new skills that play sounds of thunderstorms, rain, the ocean or a babbling brook, as well as an all-encompassing “Sleep Sounds” skill that offers 42 different soothing options from which to choose. New parents may be glad to know that this includes baby-soothing sounds like cars, trains and the vacuum (don’t knock it until you try it, folks — it works).

Amazon clarified to us that while there is a version of sleep sounds in the Skill Store today, this version launching on the Kids Edition is a different, child-directed version.

Also new to the Kids Edition is “Disney Plot Twist,” which is like a Disney version of Mad Libs, where players change out words and phrases in short adventure stories. The skill features popular Disney characters like Anna, Olaf and Kristoff as the narrators and is exclusive to Kids Edition devices.

The new movie “Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation” is featured in another new skill, Drac’s Pack, which includes monster stories, songs and jokes.

Meanwhile, Pac-Man Stories is a skill that includes interactive stories for the whole family that work similar to choose-your-own-adventures — that is, the decisions you make will affect the ending.

Both of these are broadly available on Alexa, meaning they don’t require a Kids Edition device to access.

Stories, however, does appear to be one of the areas Amazon is investing in to make its Alexa-powered speakers more appealing to families with young children. The company recently decided to stop working on its chat stories app Amazon Rapids, saying it will instead continue to adapt those Amazon Rapids stories for the Alexa platform.

Amazon also tries to market the Echo Dot Kids Edition to families by making some kid-friendly content, like Disney Plot Twist, available exclusively to device owners.

For example, it already offers with this device exclusive kid skills like Disney Stories, Loud House Challenge, No Way That’s True, Funny Fill In, Spongebob Challenge, Weird but True, Name that Animal, This or That, Word world, Ben ten, Classroom thirteen, Batman Adventures and Climb the Beanstalk.

But the Kids Edition can also be confusing to use, because the exclusive skills come whitelisted and ready to go, while other kid-safe skills have to be manually whitelisted through a parent’s dashboard. And there isn’t enough instruction either from Alexa or in the Alexa app on this process, at present, we found when testing the device earlier.

Unless there’s a specific exclusive skill that parents really want their kids to have, the savings are also minimal when buying the Kids Edition Dot/FreeTime bundle, versus buying a regular Dot and adding FreeTime separately.

Amazon Rapids, the chat fiction for kids, is now free

Amazon Rapids, the chat fiction that encourages kids to read by presenting stories in the form of text message conversations, is now going free. Previously, Amazon had been charging $2.99 per month for a subscription that allows unlimited access to its story collection, which now numbers in the hundreds.

First launched in November 2016, Amazon Rapids was meant to capitalize on kids’ interest in chat fiction apps like Hooked, Yarn, Tap and others, which tend to cater to a slightly older teenage crowd. Amazon Rapids, meanwhile, was the schoolager-appropriate version, without the swearing, alcohol, sex and yeah, even incest references you’ll find in the Hooked app, for example. (Yuck. Delete.)

Instead, Amazon Rapids’ stories are aimed at kids ages 5 to 12 and generally just silly and fun. They’re not meant to addict kids through the use of cliffhangers and timeouts, nor are they scary.

Some of the app’s stories also serve as crossovers that helped promote Amazon’s kids’ TV shows, like “Danger & Eggs,” and “Niko and the Sword of Light.” These were authored by the shows’ writers, allowing them to extend the show’s universe in a natural way.

In addition, the app included educational features like a built-in glossary and a read-along mode to help younger readers.

However, the app wasn’t heavily marketed by Amazon, and many parents don’t even know it exists, it seems.

According to data from Sensor Tower, Amazon Rapids has been installed only around 120,000+ times to date, three-quarters of which are on iOS. (Subscription revenue goes through Amazon, not the app stores, so the firm doesn’t have a figure for that.)

Amazon Rapids is ranked pretty low on the App Store, at No. 1105 for iPhone downloads in the Education category, and No. 1001 on iPad. The highest it ever reached was No. 65 on iPad.

Oddly, it chose not to compete in the “Books” category, where the other chat fiction apps reside, as do the other non-traditional “book” apps, like Wattpad’s crowd-sourced fiction app, Audible’s audiobooks app, various comics apps, and others.

Amazon now says that the hundreds of stories in Rapids will be free going forward. Families can also listen to some of these stories through the Storytime Alexa skill, launched last summer, which includes stories from Amazon Rapids, along with others.

Given Amazon Rapids’ small user base, it’s clear that Amazon no longer believes it makes sense to try to sell subscriptions, and likely now sees its database of stories as more of a value-add for Alexa owners.

That said, it’s unclear what this means for Rapids’ future development and story catalog, which may not continue to grow. (We’ve asked Amazon if it plans to keep adding content to Rapids, and will update if the company responds.)

Google’s Family Link software now recommends ‘teacher-approved’ apps

Google today is expanding the capabilities of its Android parental control software, Family Link, to go beyond helping parents better manage their child’s device and app usage. Now, the Family Link app will also help parents learn about what apps they may want to install for their kids, as well. In a new discovery section, Family Link will feature a list of educational apps for children ages six through nine that parents can install with a tap.

The apps are “recommended by teachers,” the section proclaims.

Google explains that it worked with teachers from across the U.S. to come up with this curated list of apps with educational value. The teachers were recruited to rate content based on their expertise in learning and child development, and had a diverse background in terms of things like years of experience, demographics, and locations in the U.S.

The apps must also meet Google’s Designed for Families (DFF) program requirements. 

At launch, the recommended apps come from publishers like MarcoPolo Learning Inc., BrainPOP, Edoki Academy and others, and include those that teach kids about facts and figures, interesting places around the world, and, of course – it’s Google! – the basics of coding, among other things.

There are currently a few dozen recommended apps, but they won’t appear all at once. Instead, Google tells us, the list will refresh on a weekly basis so as not to overwhelm either the parent or child.

Over time, Google plans to add more apps to the feature, including those for other age ranges.

Currently, all the apps are free, but Google may choose to highlight paid apps in the future, a spokesperson says.

Parents can tap on the apps to visit their page on Google Play, and add them directly to their child’s device with a tap on the “Install” button.

The feature is available in the Family Link mobile app for parents in the U.S. for the time being. Google says it will be available in other markets over time.

The recommendations of “nutritious” apps, as Google refers to them in an announcement, comes at a time when major tech companies are paying increased attention to the time spent on devices, and a growing concern among consumers – parents and otherwise – that it’s not time well spent.

At Google’s developer conference in May, the company detailed new Android-based tools for managing and monitoring screen time to promote healthier app and device usage. This includes ways to prevent the phone from distracting or stimulating users, as well as time limits for apps.

These sorts of controls are things parents want for their children, too, which is what Family Link, launched publicly in fall 2017, has provided.

But when even “screen time” itself is being seen as a concern, it makes sense that Google would want to showcase some of the apps that provide something of value.

The feature is launching today on Family Link for Android with iOS support to follow.

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