What did your kids do on their last school vacation?
If they had access to a personal computer, they might have taken a safari, visited rock stars, solved a murder mystery--maybe even ruled the universe.
All from the safety of home, of course.
While parents may have derived similar experiences from books or movies in their younger days, today's kids are increasingly getting their thrills and chills high-tech style. And there's no shortage of software for them.
"The market for children's software is leaping into the stratosphere," said Arthur Pober, who heads the Entertainment Software Ratings Board, an industry-sponsored group established to rate software and video games. "I'm going to be a very busy man."
Software demand in general is on the rise, with about a third of all U.S. households owning a PC today and up to 60% expected to have one by the year 2000. Nearly 20% of the systems now in use have CD-ROM drives equipped to handle the latest multimedia interactive software.
The biggest sellers are programs most appealing to kids. Among them, home-education software soared 128% in the first quarter of 1994, drawing and painting rose 45% and entertainment rose 36%, the group said.
Those are alluring figures for both established and upstart companies.
Soaring sales convinced Chris Nicotra of Herndon, Va., to set up Tadpole Productions and rush out two math and early learning programs in time for a recent CD-ROM Home & Office World Expo in New York. "We just got the boxes printed up this week," he said, displaying his arcade-style animated graphics.
Also at the expo were companies with more proven track records, like Broderbund Software Inc., with its top-selling "Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego" detective series and Myst island surrealistic game.
The potential for profits was enough to finally get Apple Computer Inc. into the act. The maker of Macintosh computers will enter the children's software market this fall when it brings out one of several planned multimedia programs for children age 3 to 8, spokeswoman Mary Devincenzi said.
Microsoft Corp. also found the children's market too large to ignore. The world's largest PC software company--which built its fortunes on business applications and operating systems including DOS and Windows--only last year set up its Home Product Line. It's adding new titles at a fast clip.
Microsoft's Creative Writer and Fine Artist children's programs for Macs and IBM-compatible PCs "both have exceeded sales expectations to date," said Debra Johnson, a company spokeswoman.
For parents, choosing from all that software can be downright overwhelming, not to mention expensive. (Each program can set you back between $30 and $100.) "There's so much out there; it's all so tempting," said Anne Marie Inglis, 42, of Brighton, Mass. "But I'm pretty reluctant to choose anything that I haven't had a chance to see demonstrated."
Since purchasing the family PC a year ago, Inglis has spent about $500 on software, all for her four children. She's chosen programs designed to help with schoolwork and likely to grow with them as their skills develop.
A wise strategy, says Addie Swartz, founder of BrightIdeas, a Concord, Mass., company that reviews and sells children's software much like Avon cosmetics and Tupperware are distributed.
"If your child is 4, he or she can do certain tasks, but maybe in six to nine months from now they can do something else," said Swartz, the mother of a preschooler. "It's a little different than buying a book. Think of it as an investment."
Swartz, who once worked in marketing for Lotus Development Corp., said the explosion in children's titles prompted her to start BrightIdeas three years ago. Today the company has 70 representatives in 17 states.
"Since I was in the business . . . my friends were asking me all the time what I recommended," she said. "Many parents tend to gravitate to the programs or companies they have heard of, but not all their products are good."
Other businesses, groups and publications have sprung up recently to help parents decide.
KidSoft Inc., a software distributor based in Los Gatos, Calif., has created a Club KidSoft for children 4 to 12. Its 40,000 members receive a quarterly magazine with a companion CD-ROM that lets them and their parents sample the latest software and download what they like for an additional fee.
Mary Crum, director of developer relations, says KidSoft offers for sale about 150 of the 400 software programs that are "kid-tested, parent-approved" each year.
The Entertainment Software Ratings Board introduced a ratings system last fall. Games and programs are classified for five age groups: EC for early childhood, for children age 3 and older; K-A for kids to adults, for those 6 and older; T for teen, for 13 and older; M for mature, for 17 and older, and AO for adults only, for 18 and older.