In a showdown of new parental controls in Apple's Leopard versus Microsoft's year-old Vista, there's one clear winner--the parent.
When Apple unveiled its newest operating system on October 26, the computer maker made its first major overture to parents by infusing Leopard with a slick set of child controls. New settings help parents manage a child's time online, block use of certain Web sites or applications like instant chat or iTunes, and watch over what kids do and who they communicate with when Mom and Dad aren't around.
Apple was playing catch-up to Microsoft's parental controls for Vista, which the computer giant unveiled in January. It, too, made its biggest push into the parental-control market with Vista, adding the same finely tuned features, so much so that parental advocates say Vista's parent controls are a reason to buy the software. And that's true of Apple now, too.
"The battle to one-up each other in parental controls is only going to benefit consumers," said Chris Swenson, director of software industry analysis at the research firm the NPD Group. "There's really no excuse now for parents not to lock down their PCs for their children."
Parents are clearly paying more attention to technology for managing their children's computer use, especially as more kids venture online at younger ages. As one proof point, U.S. retail sales of parental control software were up 47.3 percent in the first nine months of 2007 over the same period last year, according to NPD, which tracks sales of major retailers such as Amazon.com and BestBuy. Top sellers at stores are controls from Enteractive, Microforum, and ContentWatch.
Apple and Microsoft don't have numbers on how many customers use parental controls, but analysts say the feature will easily be a selling point for Leopard and Vista this holiday season. Apple sold 2 million copies of Leopard in the first weekend it was available, blowing away early adoption rates of its Tiger software. In contrast, Microsoft has sold as many as 88 million copies of Vista.
Despite the uptick in U.S. retail sales of parental controls, some parents buy such software and then are left baffled by how to use it, or don't have the time to properly install it, according to analysts and parent advocates. That's why experts believe that operating-system software must be extremely easy and effective to use--which both Vista and Apple have proved to be so far. As millions of parents begin to upgrade their computers with the preinstalled software, parental controls on the PC may start to become mainstream, they say.
"Parental controls at the operating system level is really the best way on the family PC," said Anne Collier, co-director of ConnectSafely.org, a community site for parents and kid safety. "There are more options for the parent and it's seamless, rather than having to install something that may or may not crash the system."
Feature by feature, Vista's and Leopard's parental controls are on par--with time settings, various levels of site and application blocking, and log activity files. But for parents of kids who play games online or on the desktop, Vista offers parents an edge with more granular controls for games. The settings include detailed age and content appropriateness ratings for games from an industry nonprofit called the Entertainment Software Rating Board, or ESRB. Parents of a 5-year-old boy could allow him to only play "early childhood" games, for example.
"That's definitely a strength with Vista--where families are using it for gaming it has the rating system so that parents can block games based on (their child's age and content appropriateness)," said Tom Laemmel, Windows product manager. That parental control feature was recently added to Microsoft's Xbox, too.
In addition, Apple's Leopard settings newly enable parents to control a child's computer from their own, unlike Vista.
"We have a rich set of parental controls that are incredibly easy to use and that give parents the flexibility to decide how to use them and to create a certain experience for their child on the Mac," said Chris Bourdon, senior product line manager for Mac OS.
Microsoft's Laemmel said the company is good at remote administrative controls in the business realm, but in the home, it's unnecessary.
"Within the home environment, you want it to be straightforward, you don't want to have to have an IT person," Laemmel said.
Continued: Controlling risque anime
Stefanie Olsen covers science and technology for CNET News.com. In this series, she examines the young generation's unique immersion in the Web, cell phones, IM and online communities.
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