Like many ubiquitous applications, Web browsers suffer from a one-size-fits-all approach that can leave some out in the cold. This is especially true for young Web surfers, whose needs are very different from those of adults. Primarily, youthful Web surfers need protection from the harmful content that pervades the Web, but they may also need help with reading, comprehending, and interpreting online content.
Freeverse Software – the maker of excellent games such as Burning Monkey Casino (Macworld April 2004) – has created BumperCar, a browser designed for kids. Based on The Omni Group’s OmniWeb, one of the best Web browsers on the market, BumperCar has sophisticated but easy-to-use filters that block unwanted content without being overly restrictive. You must spend some time setting up even the best filters so they don’t inadvertently restrict innocuous content, but BumperCar’s filters make it relatively easy to balance the need to show young viewers safe, appropriate content and the need to prevent them from reaching questionable content.
BumperCar lets you base filters on sites’ ratings, set up black-lists (sites that can never be visited) and white lists (sites that can always be visited), block banners and cookies, and screen pages for language. Parents can also specify the hours their children can surf the Web and how long they can stay online.
BumperCar launches with an animated page designed to give kids clear paths to what they’re looking for. One especially good feature is the Tunnel of Mystery, a link that takes you to a random site chosen from a list of approved sites. However, despite the colourful launch page, BumperCar offers few specific features that will improve young users’ surfing experience. For example, many kids would benefit from having parts of Web pages read to them by the computer. Although BumperCar can read a page aloud (a feature built into OS X) a child has to select the text and choose the Start Speaking command from the pop-up menu, something even some adults might find challenging. A better option would be easy-to-use controls (such as buttons in the browser window) for not only reading the text but also defining words or even searching in an encyclopaedia.
BumperCar provides excellent filters and restrictions that let parents guide their children’s Internet experience. However, beyond a few introductory pages, it offers few specific advantages, and some of its great features, such as speech, are buried in its interface.