Kidpix is a new paint program for the Apple Macintosh that has the potential to become the computer-era equivalent of fingerpaints.
Broderbund Software Inc., which makes the popular Carmen San Diego series of educational games, has crafted Kidpix to be easy to learn, simple to use and just plain fun.
Kidpix is not a replacement for "grown-up" Macintosh paint programs, like Pixelpaint, Superpaint or Canvas, which can be used to create sophisticated graphic arts images and business presentations.
It is, instead, a simple paint program that comes with dozens of wacky tools and special effects, including sounds.
The program is virtually guaranteed to keep the interest of any child, and even grown-ups are likely to be enchanted by it.
Children as young as three or four years can create simple drawings with Kidpix, delighting at the sounds the computer makes as it translates their mouse movements into colorful images.
(Kidpix is the most fun to use on a color Macintosh system, such as the Mac LC or any member of the Mac II family. It works quite nicely on black-and-white Macs, though, including the Mac Classic machines.)
Older children and young adults will find it to be an engine of creativity.
According to the manual, the idea for Kidpix arose when a programmer, Craig Hickman, watched his 3-year-old son grow frustrated by the complexity of "big" paint programs.
Hickman designed Kidpix for simplicity, eliminating the scroll bars, hidden tool palettes and other distractions.
The drawing area is fixed, just like a piece of paper, and all the tools are arrayed to the side.
Once Kidpix is loaded, most users can ignore the Macintosh command bar until it is time to save the picture or exit the program.
Of course, small children cannot ignore anything, especially if it has any potential to cause mischief.
One of the nice touches of the program is that parents or teachers can set it up to run in "Small Kids Mode," which disables any computer commands that might lead to trouble.
A parent can turn a toddler loose on the program without fear that the hard disk will be erased accidentally.
The tools arrayed to the left of the drawing area are deceptively simple and quite clever.
There is a pencil for free-form lines, a trio of tools for drawing straight lines, rectangles and circles, a paintbrush, an electric mixer like the kind found in many kitchens, a paint bucket, an eraser, a text tool, a rubber stamp, a moving van and a small, startled face that is called The Undo Guy.
Underneath the tools is a color palette.
The graphic tools may seem simple, but Broderbund has embellished them with dozens of delightful surprises. Each drawing and painting tool has many variations, and each variation makes a sound when it is used.
The computer makes a light scratching sound as the young person draws with the pencil tool. It makes a spraying sound if the airbrush tool is used.
The paintbrush makes a dripping sound and the paint bucket, used to fill large areas of the screen, makes a splashing sound.
The pencil and paintbrush are "wacky," in that they are sort of magic.
The paintbrush can paint bubbles or concentric circles, or draw perfect trees, or dots, or unleash a bunch of worms on the screen, depending on the inspiration of the young artist.
The rubber stamp is really a collection of nearly 100 small objects, including hearts, birds, happy faces, palm trees and other symbols.
If an artist wants to add a bluebird to a tree, he or she can select the rubber stamp, choose a bluebird from a menu and pop the bird into the tree.
The electric mixer mixes up the drawing, of course. It can reverse colors, splatter paint across the screen, slice the drawing into strips, turn it into a checkerboard, mimic broken glass or add patterns.
The effects can be interesting. But sometimes they can be pretty ugly, and that's where the Kidpix erasers come in.
To erase a false move but leave the rest of a drawing intact, the user can click on the Undo Guy, who mutters "Oh, no!" or "Oops!" and wipes out any changes made since the last mouse click.
It gets really fun when it comes time to erase a drawing completely. The erase command has at least 10 variations, including a firecracker that blows up the drawing, a black hole that sucks it up, a fade button that causes it to gradually disappear and a dropout button that causes chunks of the picture to fall away until a blank screen is left.
In other words, there is no pain involved in artistic exploration. If the picture doesn't turn out, it is almost as much fun to destroy it and start again as it is to create it. There is no wasted paper, no mess and no cause for embarrassment.
Another tool allows the user to add block text to the picture. As each letter or number is selected, a synthesized voice reads it in English or Spanish, depending on which language the user has selected.
Masterpieces, or perhaps mess-terpieces, can be saved to disk or sent to a printer. It is a shame most printers today are black and white, since a color printer would allow young Picassos and Pollocks to post their creations on the refrigerator.
At a suggested list price of $49.95, which translates to a discount price of about $30, Kidpix is one of the best software bargains we've seen. Broderbund, in San Rafael, Calif., can be reached at (415) 492-3200.