Ken Starks of the HeliOS Project delivered the keynote talk at the second annual Texas Linux Fest (TXLF) in Austin on Saturday. HeliOS is a not-for-profit initiative that refurbishes computers and gives them to economically-disadvantaged schoolkids in the Austin area — computers running Linux. Starks had words for the audience on the value of putting technology into young hands, as well as a challenge to open source developers to re-think some of their assumptions about users — based on what HeliOS has learned giving away and supporting more than one thousand Linux systems.
How HeliOS works
Starks led off by giving the audience an overview of HeliOS, both its mission and how it operates in practice. It is under the federal non-profit umbrella of Software In the Public Interest (SPI), which supports Debian, Freedesktop.org, and many other projects. The program started in 2005, and since then has given away more than 1200 computers (some desktops, some laptops) to Austin-area children and their families.The families are important in discussing HeliOS's work, Starks said, because the 1200 number only counts the child "receiving" the computer. When siblings, parents, and other family members are included, he estimates that more than 4000 people are using HeliOS's machines.
The hardware itself is donated by area businesses and individuals. But the project does not accept just any old end-of-life machines. The goal is to provide the recipient with a working, useful system, so the project only accepts donations of recent technology. At present, that means desktops with Pentium 4 or Athlon XP processors and newer (at 2GHz and above), 1GB of RAM or more, with 40GB of storage. The full list of accepted hardware reveals some additional restrictions that the project must make (it no longer accepts CRT monitors for liability and transportation reasons) as well as predictable pain points, such as 3D-capable graphics cards. Starks has said in the past that roughly one third of all computers donated to HeliOS must have their graphics card replaced in order to be useful on a modern desktop.
Referrals come from a variety of sources, including teachers, social workers, police officers, and even hospitals. Starks and HeliOS volunteers make a visit to the home to get to know the family and scope out the child's situation before making a donation commitment. A family that can afford a high-priced monthly cable bill, he suggested, might get a call back in a few days recommending that they lower their cable package and purchase a reduced-price computer from HeliOS instead. But a computer is always in tow for the first visit, ready for immediate delivery.
Volunteers assemble and repair each PC, then install HeliOS's own custom Linux distribution — currently an Ubuntu remix tailored to include educational software, creative and music applications, and a few games. The team delivers and sets up the computer in the family's home, providing basic training for everyone in the household. They continue to stay involved with the families to provide support as needed. Support for the hardware and the Linux distribution, that is.
Periodically, HeliOS receives a call from a recipient's family member asking for help with a copy of Windows that they installed after erasing Linux from the machine. The child never removes Linux, Starks said, only a parent, and the support call almost always means trouble with viruses, malware, or driver incompatibility. At that point, HeliOS politely refuses to support the Windows OS, but will gladly reinstall Linux. This type of event is a rarity; Starks mentions on his blog that it happened just eight times in 2010, out of 296 Linux computers. It never matters to the kids what OS is on the computer, he said, the kids are simply "jacked" to be finally entering the world of computer ownership.
But Linux is not merely a cost-saving compromise HeliOS uses to make
ends meet (although Microsoft did offer the project licenses for Windows XP
at a reduced rate of US $50 apiece). The project includes virtual machine software in its distribution, and has a license donated by CodeWeavers to install Crossover Pro for those occasions when a specific Windows application is required, Starks said. The real reason Linux is the operating system of choice is that it allows the children to do more and learn more than they can with a closed, limited, and security-problem-riddled alternative. Our future scientists and engineers are the students learning about technology as children today, he said, and HeliOS wants them to know how Linux and free software can change that future.
What HeliOS can teach the developer community
Over six years of providing Linux computers to area schoolkids (the oldest of whom include five just entering graduate school), Starks said, the project has amassed lots of data on how children and new users use computers, which allows him to give feedback to the developer community that it won't hear otherwise. The open source community creates a lot of islands, he said — KDE island and GNOME island, for example. But the most troubling one is User island and Developer island, between which people only talk through slow and ineffective message-in-a-bottle means. Because open source lacks the inherent profit motivation that pushes proprietary software developers to keep working past the "works for me" point, too many projects reach the "good enough" stage and stop.
Starks explored several examples of the user/developer disconnect, starting with the humorous indecipherable-project-name problem. He listed around a half-dozen applications that HeliOS provides in its installs, but with names he said reinforce the impression that Linux is not only created by geeks, but for geeks: Guayadeque, Kazehakase, Gwibber, Choqok, Pidgin, Compiz, and ZynAddSubFX. The pool of available project names may be getting low, he admitted, but he challenged developers to remember that when they introduce a new user to the system, they are implicitly asking the user to learn a whole new language. When there is no "cognitive pathway" between the name of the application and what it does, learning the new environment is needlessly hard.
He then presented several usability problems that stem from poor defaults, lack of discoverability, and confusing built-in help. In OpenOffice.org Writer, for example, most users simply choose File -> Save, unaware that the default file format is incompatible with Microsoft Word, which starts a day-long firestorm for the user when they email the file to a friend and it is mysteriously unusable to the recipient. The lxBDPlayer media player — in addition to making the awkward-name list — confronts the user with a palette of Unix-heavy terminology such as "mount points" and "paths" even within its GUI.
Time ran short, so Starks skipped over a few slides, but he does blog about many of the same issues, further citing the experience of HeliOS computer families. The message for developers was essentially to rethink the assumptions that they make about the user. For example, it is common to hear the 3D graphics-card requirement of both Ubuntu's Unity and GNOME 3's Shell defended by developers because "most people" have new enough hardware. Starks touched on that issue briefly as well as in a February blog post, and might amend that defense to say "most middle-class people" have new enough hardware. Most users do not have any problem with the application name GIMP, but Starks asks the developers to consider what it is like when he has to introduce the application to a child wearing leg braces. Most developers think their interface is usable, but Starks asks them to try to remember what it was like when they used Linux — or any computer — for the very first time.
Starks concluded his talk by assuring the audience that the example projects he talked about were chosen just to stir up the pot, and not cause any real offense. He poked fun at the Ubuntu Customization Kit's acronym UCK, for example, but said HeliOS indebted to it for allowing the project to create all of its custom software builds. Indeed, Starks can dial up his "curmudgeonly" persona at will to make a humorous point (as he did many times), but also switch right back into diplomatic mode when he needs to. He ended the talk by thanking the open source community for all of its hard work. "Sure, we give away computers, but without what you do, we give away empty shells," he said.
Starks believes in the mission of the HeliOS project because the next generation will discover and innovate more than the past two generations combined — and they will be able to do it because they will learn about technology using the software created by the community. It is a humbling and exciting future to contemplate, he said, one that if the developer community stops to consider, makes for a far better incentive to innovate than the profit motivation that drives the proprietary competition.
I am part of the organizing team for TXLF, so I can tell you that among the reasons the team invited Starks to deliver the keynote this year were the opportunity to present a "Linux story" from outside the typical IT closet environment and the major distributions, and Starks's ability to present a challenge to the community. He certainly delivered on both counts. What remains an open question is whether that challenge gets taken seriously, or gets lost in the well-oiled machinery of the release cycle.
After all, most of us have heard the "project name" dilemma before, and yet it remains a persistent problem. Is the fact that HeliOS has hands-on, real-world examples of new users being put off by application names going to prompt any project to re-evaluate its name? Who knows. It is easy to dismiss Starks's stories as anecdotal (and he readily admits that his data is not controlled or scientific), but the project does install around 300 Linux computers per year, in the field.
In the meantime, it is good to know that the project will keep up that
work. Starks took time out of his allotment to present volunteer Ron West
with the "HeliOS volunteer of the year" award, and mention some of the
ongoing work the initiative is currently engaged in. It recently moved
into a new building, and has started The Austin Prometheus
Project to try and raise funds to provide Internet service to HeliOS
kids, 70 percent of whom have no Internet connection. Of course, that
statistic flies in the face of yet another assumption the development
community makes all the time about always-on connectivity. I suppose the
challenges never end.
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