LeapFrog Enterprises

Meet the tablet for... babies

August 10, 2011: 9:35 AM ET

Gadget-maker Vinci is about to start selling an iPad-like device aim squarely at infants -- and it's not cheap.

FORTUNE -- With over 25 million sold, Apple's iPad isn't just a hit with adult consumers but also with their kids. In fact, they often learn to tap, swipe and pinch their way around its slick user interface faster than their parents. But whether or not they ought to at such an early age is a matter still up for debate. Dr. Dan Yang, founder of the Santa Monica, California-based Vinci, believes they should.

After discovering her daughter playing around with a smartphone back in 2009, Yang self-funded Vinci, a startup with 40-plus employees. Named after Leonardo da Vinci, the company plans to release the Vinci Tab, a tablet geared toward children ages zero to four years old.

As Yang tells it, the Vinci Tab isn't intended to replace current early child development tools, but complement them. "What I was trying to do was look at different cultures and combine different strengths and find a better solution for early learning," says Yang. She believes that Eastern cultures tend to place a heavier emphasis on cognition, while Western cultures focus on creativity, communication and independence. (Case in point, she argues: a three-year-old in China may know how to count to 20, while that may not happen for an American child until the age of five.)

The Vinci Tab sports a red rubber handle fashioned out of non-toxic, medical-grade material surrounding a 7-inch display. It comes loaded with the Android 2.3 operating system, a 1 GHz processor, 512 MB of RAM and a 3-megapixel camera on the back. Hardware-wise, that puts it in league with other tablets from the likes of Apple (AAPL) and Samsung. It's missing WiFi and 3G connectivity to reduce radio emissions potentially harmful to the youngest users. Also onboard: games, music videos and story books for different age groups aimed at developing fine motor, language, cognitive, and sensory skills.

Yang thinks current apps for children aren't comprehensive enough to nurture early child development. "Developers don't even understand what the developmental signs in children mean. They think they can make some money by putting something together and putting it in the [Apple App Store]," says Yang. "When we designed the content, we had to consider what the age of the child was. We had to look at all aspects of the developing child."

When it launches Wednesday, the Vinci Tab will come in two flavors, a $389 and $479 version. The pricier tablet doubles storage to 8 GB, boosts battery life to six hours and comes with more pre-loaded apps. It will also serve as the first salvo into what Yang envisions as a larger digital ecosystem of the team's own design. (Up next: A downloadable set of digitized blocks featuring spelling and number games.)

It won't be alone on shelves, though. The Vinci Tab arrives around the same time as LeapFrog's (LF) LeapPad, a significantly cheaper $99 tablet with a smaller 5-inch screen and less storage skewed towards kids between ages four and nine. LeapFrog's offering reportedly sold out during early pre-sales -- a boon for the struggling education company which posted losses the last two quarters.

While LeapPad pre-sales indicate a possible success, reception of the Vinci Tab could be a better gauge of whether there's a sizable market for tablets aimed at the younger set, even if their target customers are a few years apart. After all, the Vinci Tab starts at $389 -- just $110 less than the more versatile iPad and nearly $300 more than the LeapPad. By limiting its scope to young children, it's also possibly limiting its lifespan too.

Detractors may also see it as merely a play on the iPad, the reigning tablet champ with a 61% global share in a market that's expected to rake in as much as $49 billion come 2015. If tablet makers like Vinci and LeapFrog can get even a mere sliver of the tablet gold rush, they'll have succeeded. Whether or not parents will actually shell out so much for a high-priced gadget remains to be seen.

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