The Accidental Classism and Unintentional Racism Of iOS Development for Children

There is a gulf between children that are able to access the tools that will help them prepare for the future, and those that simply cannot.

by Donyae Coles on August 13th, 2015

Children are using tech more and more as part of their normal lives. Once upon a time, the only real interaction that most children had with technology was through a few visits to the class computer to play Oregon Trail, but now tablets and smartphones have become commonplace in small hands.

Developers have caught up with this trend and are busy pumping out not only apps but products that interface with smartphones and tablets in hopes of catering to a younger demographic. This is a wonderful trend as it helps young children grasp the usage of technology. However, these products and high quality apps are most likely developed to work on iOS devices first, which unintentionally keeps underprivileged children from accessing them: the cost of Apple products makes it prohibitive for lower income families to afford. This greatly impacts people of color particularly, as they are more likely to live in a poverty-stricken situation. As of 2010, 38.2% of Black children and 35% of Hispanic children were living in poverty versus 12.4% of white children, according to figures provided by the National Poverty Center.

Why iOS Over Android

A shattered tablet.

Photo CC-BY Debs (ò‿ó)♪, filtered.

Children are among the heaviest users of tablet technology. There are many apps and toys that are marketed just for them. Independent toy designers like the makers of Tiggly are crafting new playthings that work with tablets as well as many established companies such as Fisherprice and even LEGO. This is separate from the app market which has a wealth of both free and paid apps like Funkybots, an app to inspire creativity in young minds, or the new Reading Rainbow app.

Unfortunately, not every parent can afford to pay $300 for a device, currently the cheapest price for a new iPad, for their child. A device, in the frugal mind of low-income parent, that may end up broken. The much more varied pricing of Android based tablets allows parents who have limited means to purchase a device for their child more freely. Android based tablets can start as low as $40. These budget basement tablets are not the most advanced and quality-wise are not the best, however, if purchasing for a child, they are an attractive option.

There are more Android devices sold than iOS. There are more physical units sold containing the Android operating system than iOS. From that point of view, it would make more logical sense to develop for Android first, as there are simply more units out there. Yet many developers continue to focus on iOS-first development: from a unoffical poll taken by Tech.Co of 25 mobile founders, CEOs and developers, it’s clear that Apple is the prefered starting point even if they plan on eventually developing an app or product for both systems. Why?

One reason may be simply name recognition. Apple, unlike Android, is a brand. Android is an operating system that is utilized for a series of devices from a plethora of manufacturers. A Samsung tablet is different from a Dell or Google Nexus. Yet iPads are made by Apple and only by Apple. This serves as a huge advantage, especially when making satellite products like app-controlled devices. Toys designed to work with or on an iPad benefit from the uniform nature of iPads. The majority of users with iPads are running on the same version of iOS, as opposed to Android where users are all over the place.

Person typing on an iPad keyboard.

Photo CC-BY Esther Vargas, cropped and filtered.

The same goes for the physical hardware: instead of hundreds of possibilities with different specs, Apple presents two basic types which makes development much less complex because you simply don’t have to consider so many variables. With a stable and limited platform, developers can account for all of the variables while testing and implementing new products. They are able to know exactly what size screen they are dealing with, how sensitive it is, what the camera resolution is, etc. Android is at a stark disadvantage in this area as although devices meant to compete with the iPad directly are made comparably, those made outside of that goal may not be.

The secondary, more unspoken issue that goes into the iOS-first development trend is the idea that you can simply make more money with iOS development than with Android. This is not always the case, with many apps listed as free in both the Apple and Play Stores, but certainly has some bearing when developing satellite products. Due to the cost of developing new apps, there must be some guarantee of a return. On the surface, this idea holds merit: after all, with the higher ticket price already paid, it can be assumed that the purchaser will be more likely to purchase secondary products. So iOS apps are put into the market first, while the market for a similar satellite device in the Android market goes untested and is likely assumed unprofitable.

The Unintentional Classist and Racist Outcome

A black woman and girl high-fiving over a large tablet in a classroom environment.

Photo CC-BY Texas A&M University-Commerce Marketing Communications Photography, filtered.

Today the sight of children with tablets is ubiquitous. But the same ideals that push developers to work with Apple products first or exclusively are creating a market that limits the options of lower income families.

Most parents, no matter their own lack of education in technology, are aware of tablets and their fixture in tiny hands. The issue here is that the less the parents know about technology, the more likely they are to assume that all tablets are iPads or that the only tablet worth purchasing is an iPad. This belief is reinforced by the marketing of children’s products for both apps and physical toys that utilize mobile connectivity. If parents, who themselves don’t know much about the world of devices, are constantly presented with ads that feature iPads, it’s extremely unlikely that the parent would seek out the toy or game and check to see if it will work with an Android device at all. A parent who may have no more technological knowledge but a higher income can afford the iPad without question.

This creates an environment in which there exists a gulf between children that are able to access the tools that will help them prepare for the future, and those that simply cannot. Toys and games seem trivial to adult eyes, however, they are the ways that children access the world. Playing with a smartphone or tablet gives them familiarity with an object. The more familiar they are with it, the more comfortably they can interact with it.

Picture two coworkers. One is older and has very limited interaction with Microsoft Windows, the other is young and has been using computers their whole life. When the office updates the system with a new version of Windows, the older person is likely to struggle with the new system due to their limited interaction with the technology in general, whereas the younger person, who has had a chance to work with Windows and other technology for a longer period, is likely to work fluidly with the updates.

Similarly, children who had means and were exposed to technology early in life in a variety of different, tangible ways (i.e., through toys and games) will have an easier time adapting to it in a future classroom and workplace and likely will have the skills an employer is looking for. Children without this background will have a longer uphill battle to gain the skills they need as they will have had less chance to truly interact and experiment with technology at a young age.

As class and race are irrevocably linked in America, appealing to the buying habits of the upper class becomes a starkly racist practice. Although unintentional, it assures that the product and its benefits are only available to those who hold privilege which, in turn, continues to support the same divisions as generations go on. Due to the housing practices that have kept the country segregated, it is also more likely that these same children will not have access to these devices even in school. In fact, throughout the communities that these children live in, they are unlikely to see technology as an important part of their life: after all, they and most of the people they know have gotten along just fine without it.

This plays out further as these children begin to enter classrooms, higher education and the workforce. Having had less exposure to technology, they are less likely to go into STEM fields, which further exacerbates the lack of diversity in these high-growth and well-paying sectors.

Breaking the Cycle

Young children lounging on a beanbag, playing with their tablet devices.

Photo CC-BY Intel Free Press, filtered.

These issues are complicated, but they are not impossible to overcome. On the surface, the easiest thing would be for developers to create apps and toys that function with Android systems as an equal or first priority. That answer, however, ignores the very real logistical issues behind why developers side with one operating system over the other.

Simply saying, “Do this thing differently” will not solve the problem, because essential differences between the two systems are what is causing the issue. In order to open up the gates to allow for a more diverse population to utilize the products and apps that are out there, there has to be significant changes to how things are developed in general. That shift must include moving from “how can we make the most money” to “how can we reach the most people,” which may or may not be the same thing. Of course, with a larger audience, the price can be lowered due to the likelihood of more people making the purchase.

Tech is still widely considered to be something of a luxury even though the world we currently live in is awashed with technology. In order to make a significant change in access, this attitude is the first that has to change. Access and understanding of current technologies should be considered mandatory education along with reading, writing, and arithmetic.

Having a better understanding of how the lack of exposure while young impacts diversity and opportunities when these children become adults would also go a long way to finding solutions to this growing problem. The technology boom has only been in effect for a few decades, so the existence of a gap has been a relatively new issue. Devoting time to investigating this further would lead to more and better solutions for how to solve the issue. Studies can provide the impetus we need to create programs that will give access to tech to underprivileged communities. Once the gap and its consequences have been more strongly identified, moves can be made to start correcting it.

This does not absolve the developers themselves from exploring the accessibility of their own products. Makers must hold themselves responsible for ensuring that whatever they are creating, be it an app or a physical toy, that it reaches the most people especially when they are creating something to help educate and enrich. By being concerned only in what they can charge and how they can make it easier for themselves, they are continuing to profit from a system that only serves to keep people oppressed.

It is often argued that since lower income people are already short on means, it is unlikely they will be willing to spend money on higher quality apps for children or toys designed to work with their tablets. However, this is a belief based in stereotypes about poor people. People with limited incomes still want the best for their children and if reasonably priced products were on the market, then those parents would be likely to purchase them.

The biggest hurdle is access. Right now, Apple dominates the market of children’s products with movie makers and specialized blocks, to name just a few items, but it does not have to be this way. These same products can be developed and pushed for a lower price point which will allow for those of lower income to purchase them for their children.

Technology should ultimately bring us all together. Isn’t it time to start developing so that it can?