Preschoolers can now find Barney on the ComfyNet

JERUSALEM — Snaily, the friendly Comfy character who made the PC part of Israeli toddler playtime, recently moved onto the World Wide Web to introduce preschoolers to the intricacies of maneuvering the Internet without a mouse or parental help.

The smiling snail's newest talents are the discovery of Gil Lemel, a breakthrough that led the real estate company MRI to rename its multimedia children's company ComfyNet and put Lemel at the helm.

"I always believed that Comfy — the basic idea of designing an interface for kids before they know how to read or use a mouse — was a genius idea, and just not implemented very well," says Lemel, who established and sold one high-tech company before selling MRI his toddler browser idea.

With 200,000 of the original Comfy keyboards already in 50 percent of the targeted Israeli households, Lemel wasn't exactly going out on a limb when he used it as a basis for his browser, which looks like a transparent copy of the original.

Lemel's brought his idea to Comfy — and its MRI owners — just when the real estate company was considering reeling in whatever profits were left to be made in the multimedia children's market and calling it quits.

"I told them that I wanted to establish a new company and make this machine for the Internet and instead of telling me, 'OK let's do it; we'll help with the financing,' they said why don't you come inside our company," Lemel recalls.

ComfyNet was born with MRI retaining 65 percent and Lemel and other employees holding a little more than 17 percent. Bezeq, which Lemel brought in as a strategic partner, owns the rest of the company.

Since Lemel's toddler browser is likely to increase the telephone company's revenue from Internet dial-up in the short run as well as create a future Web savvy generation, Bezeq's interest in participating in the company is clear. The same goes for the Bezeq subsidiary, the Internet Service Provider Bezeq International, which offers three months free Internet connection to anyone who buys the $100 keyboard.

The new keyboard allows children as young as 18 months to surf the Net, directing them to age-appropriate sites that educate as well as entrance: interactive tales about cavemen; games in which they must dodge obstacles by identifying whether a ball is behind, inside or on top of a box; artwork they uncover by pushing the appropriate color buttons; and music made by choosing children of different ethnic groups to make various sounds.

The idea is to make learning fun, and Lemel notes that children quizzed about the subject matter of their Internet play showed they absorbed the material completely.

The possibilities for fun and education are endless, and thousands of Web sites for toddlers already exist and are waiting to be discovered.

"ComfyNet can consolidate into one environment Web sites from the BBC, Disney and others, bringing specific content for the children to browse with the Comfy keyboard, allowing them to take advantage of the good things on the Web not necessarily accessible to the 1-5 age group," says David Chissick, chairman and CEO of Entertec Entertainment Technologies. His company, which specializes in business development in the entertainment industries, has taken on ComfyNet as a client.

Content for the ComfyNet keyboard and browser will be developed independently in every country; the system will automatically identify where the child is logging in from and connect them to the appropriate sites that speak their language.

The keyboard — which was built on what Lemel calls the Rainbow system — directs children to different activities by color recognition and runs on a regular 56K modem.

The browser is a walled garden of sites specially chosen and adapted by ComfyNet for use with its keyboard, eliminating parental concern that toddlers and preschoolers may accidentally bump into inappropriate content or fall prey to Internet predators.

This is particularly important given the fact that Lemel expects the preschoolers to use his transparent keyboard to surf the Web alone.

"We wanted a system that would give the kids 100 percent control," says Lemel, whose 5-year-old daughter was one of the first to try out his system. "We didn't want to make him think about what he has to do, so we have a Comfy bear character narrating at all times. The system is also aware of what the child is doing and if he pauses, the character tells him what to do."

Lemel insists that the $100 package of hardware and software, which serves as a gateway to thousands of different games, is a steal. The issue of paying for the Internet connection will disappear, he adds, once homeowners move over to fixed-price service.

"That is like saying that the child is sitting in front of the TV all day and I have to pay for the cable service. The child is not the only Internet user in the home," notes Lemel.

Chissick calls the ComfyNet keyboard "one of the most amazing products to come out of Israel."

Despite extensive research, ComfyNet has yet to locate a similar toddler browser on the market, although Chissick doesn't rule out the possibility that one could be under development by other companies capitalizing on the 1-to-5 year old market.

Other ComfyNet business strategies include selling a set of yet undesignated buttons on the keyboard to either TV shows like "Teletubbies" or the HOP channel in Israel, and to film distributors like DreamWorks.

The strategy is based on precision advertising ComfyNet offers a captive, target, age-defined audience.

"Let's say DreamWorks comes out with a new movie for kids and I come to them and say we have 150,000 users in England of children aged 2 to 6, exactly the age the movie is directed at. I tell them that I will give them the cloud button for one month and that every click on that button will show the child a preview of the movie.

"Instead of advertising the movie on the TV or on the Internet, I can tell them that after two weeks, 148,000 children clicked the button and saw the preview," says Lemel.

The ultimate goal, of course, is to become an international standard for preschool browsing.

For Lemel, the sky is the limit.

"We have the technology. We have the solution. Everyone sees that."