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Mattel's PC plans reach deeper than appearance

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It happened to lunch boxes. It happened to sneakers. Now it is happening to personal computers.

The bland and boxy PC has been transformed into a colorful machine built to look like many kids' favorites toys _ Barbie and Hot Wheels _ and sold at a family-friendly price.

The move last week by Mattel Inc. marked the launch of the first line of themed computers and underscores several important trends in the computer and toy industries. New waves of computer buyers are looking for machines that reflect their personalities. And toymakers are eager to expand their reach into interactive entertainment.

But the attempt to stamp conventional children's brands onto technology also is raising concerns that toy-inspired computers may reinforce gender stereotypes rather than help kids break free.

In recent years, Mattel has lost steam in its primary business, in part because children are choosing to spend time with computers in place of traditional toys and games.

But since the success of its Barbie software, launched in 1996, Mattel of El Segundo, Calif., has been on a campaign to expand its influence in the realm of electronic entertainment.

To build the new PCs, Mattel partnered with Patriot Computers of Markham, Ontario. The computers will be sold through Patriot or on the Web (www.barbiepc.com or www.hotwheelspc.com), beginning Sept. 15, for $599 or a $14.98 monthly payment. The deal includes a 15-inch monitor, speakers and a pre-installed library of 20 educational and entertainment software titles with a retail value of $500.

The two designs are in keeping with Mattel's vision of what girls and boys want _ a split often criticized for promoting gender stereotypes.

The Barbie PC is silver and decorated with purple and pink flowers reminiscent of a 1960s mini-skirt. Orange and yellow flames give pizazz to the sleek, dark blue Hot Wheels model.

But kids aren't the only ones looking for something more than a beige box. Consumers are starting to balk at the notion _ long sold to them by engineers _ that function is paramount to form.

The horsepower of basic PCs has evolved to outstrip the needs of most consumers, who mainly use them to get on the Internet or for low-impact computing such as word processing, even as prices have dropped sharply.

As a result, today's home computer buyers take high performance as a given. They want a machine that looks like art _ or at least furniture _ not a scaled-down supercomputer.

The new computers may give Mattel the best of both worlds, analysts say. Mattel hopes to compete in the frenzied market for low-cost computers driven by first-time buyers and by families looking for a second PC and at the same time, capture the growing interest in more customized PCs, much as Apple Computer Inc. has done with the iMac and the iBook portable.

"Kids want a machine they can call their own," said Cynthia Neiman, vice president of marketing for Mattel Media, the company's interactive division. She said the Mattel designed the machines to fit into the image kids ages 4 to 12 have of the Barbie and Hot Wheels brand.

A toy company is perfectly positioned to revolutionize PC sales to kids, said Malcolm Smith, vice president of design and engineering for Palo Alto Design Group. They have the ability to quickly churn out products and change their identity without a second thought. "I am amazed that we don't already have a Mickey Mouse-shaped PC," he said.

But for a device touted as a children's PC, the adaptations are largely superficial. Not much has been done to make using the computer more friendly to little hands or young minds. Both computers use the Microsoft Windows 98 operating system, but only the icons _ like a cursor turned into a race car _ have been changed to match the toy theme.

Mattel used a similar strategy in July when it introduced the Barbie printer in partnership with Apollo Consumer Products Inc., a subsidiary of Hewlett-Packard Co. The company did not attempt to make printing easier for kids, it simply put a low-cost version of an HP color inkjet in a pink package with Barbie decals and bundled it with the Barbie Magic Hairstyler CD-ROM, a game that lets kids create new looks for Barbie and print out the results.

"It is simply a personalized version of an already popular product," said Robert Borden, director of marketing for Apollo.

Critics wonder if Mattel's influence in technology products is a good thing for kids. "The message of a boys' and girls' computer is a little odd," said Justine Cassell, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Laboratory and co-editor of From Barbie to Mortal Kombat: Gender and Computer Games.

She questioned what Mattel conveys when it equips the Hot Wheels PC _ but not the Barbie model _ with a CD-ROM game about exploring the Oregon Trail. And much of the Barbie software deals with fashion while the Hot Wheels applications tilt toward action and adventure. The Hot Wheels version even comes with a steering wheel attachment.

"If the computer is a tool to revolutionize the future, are we saying to both boys and girls that they are only capable of doing the highly gendered activities we stereotypically assume they can do?" Cassell said.

The flip side, Cassell said, is that Mattel has such power in the market that it can potentially "open a door." She hopes that such an inviting, low-cost kid computer will help with the digital divide and perhaps attract more innovative software development that plays less into stereotypes.

Mattel has said it plans to pursue a more progressive approach. And its purchases of the Learning Company, the largest maker of children's educational software, and Purple Moon, a developer of unconventional girls' software, in 1998 are a step in a more thoughtful direction.

Despite her criticisms, Cassell thinks Mattel, if it lives up to its promises, can have a positive influence. It wasn't little-known pioneers such as Purple Moon, she said, "but the success of Barbie software that brought the issue of girls being left behind in computer literacy to light."

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