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Bill's pretend playmate

The dinosaur that wouldn't die--aka Barney--is now luring youngsters into the Microsoft ranks.

    "Get 'em while they're young" is good advice for cigarette makers--and for computer empires as well, it seems.

    As part of a push into "edutainment" today, Microsoft (MSFT) unveiled its first cuddly computer, a computer that comes in the form of the popular children's character Barney.

    No, the purple one doesn't run Windows, but yes, Microsoft is serious about this. The company will spend $14.5 million marketing the toy, which will be unveiled at the American International Toy Fair, a leading industry event that opens Monday in New York.

    Barney is "the first star" of Microsoft's ActiMates early learning system, which the company bills as "a dramatic advance in technology that will help preschoolers learn."

    The plush, plum-colored, multimedia Barney dinosaur doll can be accessorized and upgraded (sound familiar?) by plugging into PCs to play CD-ROMs and by connecting to--and talking along with--specially-produced Realmation Barney video tapes.

    Chairman Bill Gates must have noticed how much money there is to be made in toys now that he has a kid. No word yet on whether Gates's daughter was a beta tester.

    The ActiMates line is the product of a Microsoft licensing agreement with The Lyons Group, an entertainment unit of Texas-based Lyrick Studios. The system was designed in conjunction with early learning specialists and experts in technology and electronic learning, Microsoft said.

    Three products are sold separately:

  • The talking, moving $109.95 ActiMates Interactive Barney doll has a 2,000-word vocabulary and can talk to a child for learning-oriented activities.

  • A "TV Pack" comes at a cost of $64.95 to plug Barney into VCRs to operate specially-encoded VCR tapes. Realmation tapes are of course supposed to be continually added to a child's video library and cost $14.95.

  • A "PC Pack," also $64.95, plugs Barney into a PC to play CD-ROM titles such as Fun on Imagination Island. Three additional titles, all designed for Windows 95, cost $34.95 apiece.

    Microsoft notes that Barney, called the "Elvis of the preschool set," stars in a top-rated show that airs on six continents. But the company seems out of touch on the pop-culture preferences of its other big market: Net users.

    Though he has warmed the hearts of millions of children worldwide, Barney has inspired venomous wrath among Netizens; no less than 19 Web sites have been designed and maintained with the goal of killing Barney off. One of those with widest acclaim, The Jihad to Destroy Barney, featured no mention of Barney's latest incarnation today.