Linux distribution for older folks.
Posted on Dec 5, 2006
So my grandfather is older. He isn't 1000, nor is he 150. But he is up there. Maybe around 75ish. But he is pretty spry and active. He is, in fact, the mayor of his town. So the other day when I was in Colorado - he mentioned how he was needing to get his emails up, how he needed to be able to get and receive his important mayoral emails. Right after talking with my grandfather about email, my parents both got Treo 700p phones from verizon. They are really nice, and have a really great embedded email client. So they were able to send email quickly and send text messages easily. This was much different than before when they were not able to do either without being in front of their email client. Now they were able to do both and with ease. It reminded me of when Hiromi explained how a lot of people who email each other in japan do it not on a computer but on their phones - and they may not know how to use a computer, but they can email anyone in the world just fine.
So with these experiences, I start to think about the accessibility issues with personal computers - especially in regards to how people use computers whose, as my father says, brains are full.
So I got to thinking a lot about how to get my grandfather email easily. I took a moment to play with the One Laptop Per Child Linux distribution. It was really nice. Pretty simple, although the border menu wasn't as intuitive for me as I had hoped - but it wasn't bad. I was able to get around quickly and easily. I image a kid or non-computer user would be rather adept at using it. But the simplicity of the distribution got me thinking.
The computer used to be easy and single tracked. It used to be that you inserted a disk of the program you wish to execute, started up the computer, the program was executed. Of course, this was a different time, most programs at this time were quite a bit less complicated. We didn't have a collective notion of a desktop. We didn't have spam or hackers or zombie PCs. We just had a computer that could print banners or dial a bbs or play lemonade stand. But the paradigm I am attempting to remind us of is the fact that you knew what was going to happen and what to expect when you booted the computer up. I could explain how to load print shop over the phone to my grandfather in just a couple steps with very little chance for improvisation. Whereas now, there is so much complication and "needed" bloat in the OS that explaining the steps to load firefox may be the same number but offers my grandfather the chance to make many more mistakes.
The OLPC distribution was more along this path. It simplifies the complicated things, but doesn't sacrifice the functionality. It isn't a WebTV box. The browser is legit. It has a feed reader. It can play multimedia. It seems to be really nice. But will it work for my grandfather. I don't know. I hope it would. But I almost think that something simpler would be better. Maybe remove all the other programs except for the browser and the feed reader. Make sure its secure. Put it into a small simple box. Add wifi and an access point. and BAM! You have an appliance that allows for people to browse the web without hurting themselves. They can use whatever web software they want. They don't need a word processor (docs.google.com), they don't need an email client (gmail.com) and they don't need an IM client(meebo.com). They can view family pictures(flickr.com) and they will be able to communicate without fear of hitting the wrong button.
In my research on this subject I came across a couple groups that seemed to be thinking along the same lines, either from a software or hardware standpoint. The first is a company in Singapore called Plastic Soldier Factory. They have a product called easyPC that is targeted towards non tech people and senior citizens. They have a good blog and were featured on cnetAsia. In the article on cnet, it is said that they have a Linux distro geared toward older folks that they will be releasing, however they explained to me in emails that the software isn't quite ready. It seems to me the best way to ensure it is never ready is to never release it. Especially Linux. It just seems that the way to do things is to release software for it to grow.
The second company I ran across was company called linutop. They are making an appliance which doubled with OLPC or easyPC Linux might solve this problem. It hooks to a monitor and keyboard/mouse and is basically a miniature PC. It isn't too expensive (€ 280 without VAT) and seems to be pretty decently powered. However, I wonder what would differentiate this box from any of the others discussed over at linuxdevices.com?
So where does this leave us. Not really anywhere. I think I need to play wish OLPC a bit more. Really get into the bones and guts of it. See what I can do with it. Also I need to look for other appliance type Linux boxes that may work to power a simple desktop appliance.
Maybe just give up and get him a Treo.
Really what I want is a more powerful 3com Audrey.
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