Computer makers tool up for children

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Las Vegas

Parents who feel their offspring need a head start in an increasingly technological world will soon be able to buy computers designed for children aged between three and seven.

Mike Heil, a senior manager with the computer company Compaq, told the Consumer Electronics show in Las Vegas: "If children are too young to learn to use high-technology products, why can they work out how to program the videotape recorder before their parents?"

The new "Wonder Tools" are produced jointly by Compaq, the world's largest PC maker, and Fisher-Price, the biggest maker of pre-school products. Designed to plug into a multimedia PC capable of playing CD-roms, they consist of a "steering wheel" with joystick for younger children, and simplified keyboard with improved mouse for older children learning to spell.

Both companies see huge market potential: there are already 44 million multimedia PCs in homes world-wide and this figure is expected to reach 71 million by 1999. Although there have been computer games for pre- school children in the past, they have either not run on conventional PCs, or have needed a keyboard and mouse, which younger children find difficult to operate.

Another problem is young inquisitive players deleting important files. But the children's keyboards hide special keys - notably the "Delete" key.

The products will be available in the US from this summer, costing $150 (pounds 98) and in the UK by Christmas 1997.

The delay in international sales, Compaq's consumer vice-president, Celeste Dunn, said, was that "culturalising" the software required more than spelling changes. "We've noticed that in Britain when a cat makes a noise in a software game, it's more of a 'miaow' sound than in the US, where it's more like 'meow'. And rhymes and humour are different. And with children, if you get those sorts of things wrong, they just dismiss the product completely."