Parents: How do you feel about your children being beaten up?
Some would say that it builds character. Others would suggest that it instead builds lifelong psychological scarring and the odd broken bone. Depending on your viewpoint, Telstra's TicTalk -- essentially a mobile phone for the very junior crowd -- is either a tool to help prevent bullying, or in fact ensure that it will happen to your child.
That might seem like a big swathe for one product to encompass, so we'll explain ourselves. The TicTalk is a limited use -- based on calling profiles and numbers that you, as a parent, approve -- mobile phone in an unusual form factor that most closely resembles the love child of a stopwatch and an overly amourous Tamagotchi. On the not being bullied side, having an easy way to contact you may be a good safety measure for your child. On the being bullied side, the rather ugly physical nature of the TicTalk, combined with the fact that media-savvy kids will cotton on that it's not a "real" mobile phone, could lead to your offspring being on the receiving end of more than a little taunting. That's a social issue that the TicTalk itself probably can't address, but if Telstra's going to pitch to this market, then it's something that they're somewhat inviting by virtue of simply being in the market.
The TicTalk itself is a chunky (53 x 23 x 84mm) silver ovoid shaped phone with a relatively small greyscale LCD in the middle. We're still not sure if it resembles a Tamagotchi, a stopwatch or something out of HR Giger's worst nightmares. It sports the simplest interface layout possible, with two selection buttons on the left hand side and a clickable rocker on the right hand side. There's no dialling pad, or even virtual dialling pad, but that's to do with the rather interesting way that the TicTalk manages its calling functionality. It's arguably a bit large for the pockets of most of the target audience, although it'd fit fairly well into the average schoolbag.
The TicTalk itself is a standard GSM phone that out of the box won't in fact work. That's because it's designed to be activated from Telstra's Kids In Touch Web portal. There you can activate the phone -- and the site notes that any and all changes can take up to 30 minutes to propagate to the phone -- and then enter the numbers that can be called from the phone. Only numbers that are pre-approved can call the phone too, which is a nice safety feature. You can also set the times the phone and inbuilt LeapFrog games can or can't be used, and how many minutes of calling can be used for normal dialling (for, say home phone numbers) or as "reward" minutes -- to, for example, your child's friends. It's also possible to send SMS-style messages -- of the "when are you coming home?" variety -- to the TicTalk via the Web interface.
Aside from basic phone functionality, the TicTalk also features four LeapFrog educational games -- Hangman, Monkey Math, Monkey Spelling and Math Defender. These are all basic educational games controlled mostly with the rocker. It's possible to tie the number of reward minutes on offer to success in the games, as well as to set word lists for Hangman via the Web interface. The TicTalk also features a basic personal organiser, photo gallery, stopwatch, simple sound gallery -- which in itself will probably see a few TicTalks confiscated in classrooms -- and even a magic eight ball application.
As a phone, the TicTalk is understandably a bit basic, and it's also rather on the loud side; if your'e a parent who can't resist calling their little snooky-ookums while they're in the playground to tell them exactly how much you WUV them, you might want to tone your language down a little to save your offspring terminal embarrassment. Telstra's figures rate it as being good for up to eight hours talk time -- more on that shortly -- and just over four days standby time, so you're not likely to be out of contact with your kids due to battery issues.
There are issues with the TicTalk, however. For all that it is a rather well targeted vertical application of mobile technology, the pricing of the unit and plans are a touch on the rich side. Each TicTalk will set you back $259 -- that's a fair chunk of change for something that could rather easily be lost or bullied away from your child -- or $0 on a 24 month plan. The currently available plans come in $15, $20 or $30 per month, with a measly 15, 40 or 60 minutes of postpaid calls -- also mean that the claimed eight hours talk time isn't likely to be challenged by too many cash-strapped parents all that quickly. It's also rather bad value in the current climate of virtually-all-you-can-eat capped plans.
There's undoubtedly a challenge with the TicTalk as your child gets older; younger children will probably like the simple nature of the unit, and the fact that they're trusted with a phone unit, but older kids may well bemoan the fact that it's a very locked down unit that doesn't look like their friend's mobile phones, or act like them in many important ways. The rather high asking price, coupled with the rather expensive calling plans makes it a difficult phone to recommend -- after all, for the asking price you could buy around four to five very cheap prepaid mobiles, plug them in with very limited cost SIM cards and just try to trust your kids. It's just a thought...