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Last Updated: Thursday, 7 October, 2004, 23:01 GMT 00:01 UK
New software lets toddlers e-mail and surf
By Jorn Madslien
BBC News Online business reporter

Magic Mail icon
Even very young children can use the program
Children as young as two are the target audience of a new software that will enable toddlers to both surf and send e-mails safely without help from their parents.

The software is described by its developer as a "children's own operating system" and is aimed at two- to 12-year-olds.

The idea is to protect them from sex and drugs spam and other unsavoury aspects of the internet, while at the same time give them access to the web's more useful and entertaining sides.

The man behind the software, Easybits program developer and partner Lars Jolstad, describes it as a "protective shell" that is placed over Microsoft Windows.

Only authorised content can pass through the shell, so parents can draw up "white lists" of e-mail addresses with which their children can communicate, and of websites they can access, he told BBC News Online.

Easy to use

When sending or receiving e-mails, the children use Magic Mail's clickable pictures and icons rather than text.

When the industry produces something [in response to our calls for better protection of children] we must be able to say whether it is positive or negative
Knut Haanes
Deputy
Norway's Ombudsman for Children

To send an e-mail to granny, a toddler simply clicks on the "Talking Parrot" button to record a song or a bit of gurgling, before clicking on a photo of the smiling grandmother.

The sound file is then compressed to make sure one minute takes up no more than 100K of file space, then sent.

The package also includes a drawing program so the child can send across its modern art, or they can add photos from a "white listed" picture gallery.

"It is so user friendly, a two or three-year-old can do it," Mr Jolstad said.

Solution required

This is largely because the program was developed with his own boys in mind.

Easy Learning, Magic Desktop
Children must work before they play

Three years ago, Mr Jolstad and his three and four-year-old sons were living in Spain, far away from their Norwegian grandparents.

The children tried his laptop, but using conventional e-mail programs was of course difficult, while accessing inappropriate websites or deleting daddy's work files proved easy.

Mr Jolstad realised something had to be done and set to work.

Carrot and stick

Three years later he has come up with Magic Mail.

The children's e-mail program - which is being launched on Friday in cooperation with Norway's leading internet service provider (ISP) Telenor - is part of Magic Desktop, a package that includes another ten programs.

Some of them are educational, others purely entertaining.

Built into the software is a points system; to enter the fun and games programs the children must first earn points by doing maths, practice spelling or play instruments.

Parents can even add points to reward children who sit properly at the table or tidy their room, or they can program in time limits on games or on surfing.

Work is safe

For the technologically minded, the software has other advantages.

Magic Desktop browser
The children's browser lies as a shell over Windows

It takes just one click to open a program, not two as is usual with adult software.

And even if a child clicks on an icon 15 times, as they often do, it will only open once. This prevents the PC from crashing due to too many demanding applications being opened up at the same time.

But best of all, perhaps: the parent's computer is safe from the little children's clicking fingers.

They cannot exit the programme to enter the computer's central heart, and they are prevented from reformatting settings, or deleting mum's accounts or dad's unpublished novel.

Praise

Magic Desktop was launched in Norway in June this year and it has received a warm welcome.

The country's Ministry of Education and Research has helped distribute the program which has been given away for free to all schools and nurseries in the country.

While Norway's Ombudsman for Children recommends that all parents should install the program on their PCs.

"When the industry produces something [in response to our calls for better protection of children] we must be able to say whether it is positive or negative," Deputy Ombudsman Knut Haanes told BBC News Online.

"Magic Desktop gives parents total control over the environment their children are working in on the PC and we consider that very positive."

Computer trade magazines have heaped praise on Magic Desktop too, and Mr Jolstad insists his business is about to land significant deals with ISPs abroad.

Magic Desktop is available in 10 languages. The Magic Mail component is currently only available in English and Norwegian, but by next month all languages will be added to the list, he said.

The programme is about to enter the Spanish market where it will retail for 59 euros, deals are imminent with ISPs in Sweden, Ireland, Belgium, Spain and Italy, and trials are ongoing with a leading technological university in the US, Mr Jolstad said.


SEE ALSO:
Computer surfing on the beach
09 Apr 02 |  Business
Pupils bear spam e-mail overload
10 Aug 04 |  Technology
Can technology help schools?
18 Mar 04 |  Education


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