Smartphones are becoming more affordable, more generally available, and more popular with kids. That’s why startup Kytephone, out of Toronto’s Ryerson DMZ incubator, is helping transform Android devices into kid-friendly communication devices, allowing them exactly as much access as their parents deem appropriate. Kytephone soft-launched in April, but the company is now offering additional features, along with free access to help it grow its user base and get the word out.
For those already familiar with Android, Kytephone is basically a launcher replacement; that means it replaces the stock launcher on a device, handling all the tasks of organizing, presenting and granting access to applications and functions on the phone. Since it’s not just an app, but a full-scale launcher, Kytephone can provide unparalleled privacy controls, enabling parents to, for example, lock down access to anything but the Android device’s phone features, or its messaging application. Parents can restrict access to certain applications, thereby helping them prevent kids from getting into applications that aren’t necessarily aimed at their demographic, or that might contain objectionable content.
While other systems of parental control are subject to workarounds by kids, including removing and reinstalling the battery, Kytephone can only be deactivated via the entry of a passcode of the parent’s choice. But beyond that, the service is also designed to be fun for kids to use; it re-skins the UI with a focus on fun graphics and engaging colors, the idea being that restricted access doesn’t have to make a device feel hamstrung or deficient.
In fact, Kytephone actually adds some features. “We recently enabled camera features for the kids to take photos, and every time photos are taken they’re uploaded to the server, and parents are notified,” Kytephone co-founder Renat Gautaullin told BetaKit in an interview. “So there’s a full connection between what’s happening on the phone, and what parents can see in the cloud.” Users will then be able to view and optionally share photos taken by their kids via Kytephone in a web-based interface, sort of like what Apple announced as an addition to its iCloud services yesterday, but rolled into Kytephone’s additional security and privacy features.
Kytephone also hopes to become much more granular in terms of the control it provides, according to Gautallin. That’s also where it sees an opportunity to drive revenue. “All of the features currently available will be free forever, but in the future we’re going to be implementing some premium features,” he said. “For instance, one premium features parents are currently asking for could be having time limits on games, so parents could only allow one hour of gaming per day, after which the phone will restrict access to that type of content.”
There are other competitors looking at the same problem Kytephone addresses, including Safely, which is targeting carriers first to help increase the number of devices it appears on rapidly. But Gautaullin said that his company has also been in discussion with carriers, and partnering directly is definitely something they want to explore. That would help them sell Kytephone pre-loaded on devices, something that could be especially appealing to carriers selling multi-device family plans. Another key competitor is Play Safe, which offers incredibly similar functionality, most likely because it’s helmed by Boris Vaisman, who worked with Gautaullin and Kytephone during Y Combinator’s winter class before dropping out.
But in terms of challenges, doppelgängers and competitors might not be the biggest threat. Kytephone’s greatest hurdle might be its platform limitations. Android provides the kind of access it needs to give parents an easy option for what amounts to a complete system lockdown, but Apple doesn’t offer those kinds of permissions out of the box on iOS. For Kytephone to work on Apple mobile devices in its current form would require devices to be jailbroken, which severely limits the target audience. Still, Gautaullin points out that Android devices are available in many more models, and for much cheaper than iPhone devices, making them ideal for kids’ use.
Gautaullin also shared that some users are giving Kytephone devices not to kids, but to senior citizens since they find them much less complicated than an unaltered smartphone device. There’s opportunity there to broaden its markets, and he also said the company is targeting Windows Phone and possible BlackBerry releases down the road. For the company to achieve long-term success, it’ll have to convince users that future freemium services are worth paying for, or else work out deals with carriers that work in its financial favor, but right now Kytephone definitely offers an idea that seems to fit with a growing trend in smartphone usage.