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Friday, December 10, 2004

"So simple a child can use it..."

A new product from Norway recently hit the shelves and it has impressed a lot of people, including myself.

It focusses on the shortcomings that Microsoft's Windows is certainly not so simple that a child can use it (safely). I've caught my four year old sister attempting to delete the C:\Windows directory before...

From a child's point of view the average computer is far too complex for their needs. My sister only wants to play games, paint pictures, and send emails to me when I'm away at university. She gets baffled by having to load different programs to do different tasks, and having to remember which buttons to press to do something like write an email. She does, however, have a good grasp of the filing systems concept meaning she can reliably locate a file up to 3 or 4 directories deep as long as she remembers where she last put it.

She has no idea how to deal with things like spam or dodgy websites (not that I'm particularly worried about her trying to order a shipment of V!@gr@ from a dodgy Nigerian lawyer) and why should she? The concept of someone trying to sell her something in an email - a text-only medium, not a physical shop - is rather alien to her. But all the same it's best that these things are filtered out before she gets to read them.

Easybits' Magic Desktop is described as "a protective shell which sits on top of Microsoft Windows" and provides a very friendly interface for children to use to interact with the computer. All extraneous data is stripped away leaving a fun desktop with a very simple method of operation.

Programs (or 'tasks' as they appear to the user) are loaded with a single point and click. Double-clicking never made much sense to me anyway, but we've all learned to live with it! If a program is executed multiple times (ie. the user clicking repeatedly on the icon until the program appears) the system realises this and still only loads one copy of the program to save the user from being suddenly inundated with 33 email compose windows.

The email program (which doesn't appear as a separate program to the user, it's all integrated) works on a very visual premise. Click on the "Talking Parrot" to record a message (primarily aimed at under-5s I'd guess, unless my sister is unusual in being able to type, albeit slowly and patiently, at her age) and then click on a photo of the recipient to send it.

Administrators (ie. parents) have the ability to bypass the Magic Desktop shell and configure the environment from Microsoft Windows. Emails are only accepted on a whitelist basis (anything not from an allowed sender is rejected) and websites are similarly whitelisted.

Unnecessary features, such as the ability to blind-carbon-copy the mail to a distribution list whilst requesting return receipts, are stripped out completely as they're likely to be totally meaningless to a child, leaving only the core essential features of the system. Audio compression and attaching to the email are all handled in the background and the user has to make just two button clicks to successfully email grandma or big brother.

There's nothing more irritating to me than typing myprog --help in a terminal and having three pages of meaningless switches and commands scroll past. And don't get me started on Microsoft Word's forays into desktop publishing, web design, email composing, and line drawing (all areas it totally sucks at)... a word processor should surely be a word processor and nothing more.

If only programs for 'grown up' systems could be so well-focussed on a single task with a simple, no-clutter interface!


  • I've just read this article, and wonder whether you've come across the "Magic Desktop" software by easybits.

    This looks like a great tool, but I can't find any reviews about it, nor does the easybits web-site really have enough information.

    If you have taken a look at it, I'd be grateful if you could pass on your comments. I want to trust the company, but isn't this the whole problem?!

    By Blogger acaba, at 15 February 2008 at 14:09  

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