Forget Linux for Dummies: now it’s Linux for Grannies

Two separate projects in the United Kingdom aim to use Linux to make computing simpler for older users who are skeptical about technology. But in both cases the benefits come at a price.

The first machine, known as SimplicITy, comes with a welcome screen with just six buttons: Email, Web, Profile, Chat, Files, and Video Tutorials. The chat system only links up to other people across the country using the machine, while “Files” launches the relevant applications for word processing, picture viewing and so on. The tutorials feature Valerie Singleton, a television presenter who today’s retirees would remember from their youth. (She’s also fronted campaigns for the iPlayer, the British Broadcasting Corporation’s online streaming “catch-up” service.)

The welcome screen acts as a simplified interface, with the computer itself running Linux Mint. The main software which covers the web browser and document editing is adapted from Eldy, an Italian system also aimed at older users.

The machine costs £455 (US$700), though there’s a more expensive slimline version. Both come with keyboard, mouse, and monitor, though they can be bought for around £140 (US$215) cheaper without the peripherals. Full specs aren’t listed on the site, though from what information is provided, it looks as if there’s a clear mark-up on equivalent machines without the SimplicITy features, but not to an exploitative level.

The second system, Alex, is a variant of Linux specifically designed for elderly or novice users. It’s more of a traditional desktop operating system than the one used on SimplicITy, featuring a range of office and entertainment applications. The most significant aspect of the system is that it will only work when a user-specific USB stick is in the machine, acting effectively as a physical key.

At the moment, Alex is only available pre-loaded on a fairly low-spec laptop costing £400 (US$617). There’s also a mandatory £10 (US$16) fee which covers support, online back-ups and software updates. For an extra £15 ($23) a month, buyers can get broadband from the firm, though at just 2Mbps, this is very slow compared with market competitors. The firm does offer one particularly bizarre option for the less tech-savvy market: as well as phone and online support, customers can ask tech questions via physical mail.

In the case of SimplicITy, Linux seems to be a smart, if unlikely, choice. Once you decide a machine is only going to carry out a limited and specific range of functions, it doesn’t really matter what the underlying system is as long as it’s stable and doesn’t need much maintenance or protection against malware.

In the case of Alex, it’s not clear what role Linux is meant to play. The way the deal is set up appears to offer few of the benefits of open source, but has the high cost more commonly associated with Windows.

While it’s not specifically designed for elderly or novice users, it will be interesting to see if Google Chrome (the operating system) catches on with this market once it’s released. As long as the user has a reliable internet connection, Chrome looks like it will do a good job of offering an inexpensive, reliable, and simple solution for people who want to access the Internet and perform a few basic office computing tasks.