The more Linux distributions that pop up, the more skeptical one can
become of those that seek to "tailor" the
platform for a specific subset of users because, too often, that
tailoring process amounts to little more than applying the project leader's
personal set of cosmetic preferences and default application choices. That
is not the case for projects that attempt to craft a distribution for an
entirely different demographic, though, such as children. Most "Linux for
kids" distributions seem to target more or less the same space, but one, DoudouLinux, is taking a markedly different approach.
For starters, the distribution's name is derived from doudou, a
French idiomatic word that seems to roughly mean "child's security
blanket." But it may still elicit giggles from English speakers, particularly the extremely young users it sets out to serve. If you can get past that, however, DoudouLinux does offer a different take on the children's distribution niche.
There are several active kid's Linux projects today — Edubuntu, Qimo, OLPC Sugar, Foresight Kids, etc. — but most of them focus either on classroom usage or on school-age children, meaning those old enough to be comfortable using the computer to write or do general-computing tasks. There is a gray area of course, but think mid-to-late primary school at the youngest. DoudouLinux, on the other hand, is tailored towards children in the two to seven year old age range, for use at home. The project's site explains its purpose as being a home-friendly, more educational alternative to a game console plugged in to the television.
One can feel the difference in at least three ways. First,
classroom-oriented distributions usually have to cope with remote
management and administration issues, often using remote desktop software, and they expect the computer to be directly connected to a LAN, perhaps with access to a storage-area network. Some are even traditional "thin-client" designs. DoudouLinux dispenses with all of that. It is designed to run from live CD or live USB storage, offers minimal system configuration or management options, and the majority of its software will run without a live Internet connection.
The second difference is that "school age" kids have different application requirements. As they get older, the office suite becomes more important, and what qualifies as "educational" applications becomes more specialized, such as focusing on math or science and less on games. DoudouLinux's application offerings do not include a word processor or spreadsheet at all, but incorporate plenty of interactive and tactile-experience learning tools.
Third, extremely young children like those on the early end of
DoudouLinux's audience simply do not have the fine motor skills to use a
mouse or keyboard with standard-size icons, and those who are not reading
yet might be lost entirely. Those requirements affect the choice of
applications, but also require changes to the window system as well as the keyboard and mouse settings. DoudouLinux provides parents with a set of tools to configure the system settings to support a range of ages and mouse-finesse levels.
DoudouLinux's latest stable release is code-named Gondwana, from June of 2011,
which you can download
in CD or USB-oriented images from the project's web site. There are images
in 16 languages (including two in Serbian, for both the Latin and the Cyrillic alphabets) from the stable series, and six additional languages in the "awaiting" section, which may have outstanding translation issues. There is also a PDF "Quickstart" manual in each of the stable languages. Downloading can take a while, even on a fast network connection, because the project does not have mirrors set up.
The images are built for 32-bit Intel-compatible processors only; to its
credit the project does an admirable job of explaining what generations of
Apple hardware this includes, as well as giving a rough overview of Linux
and free software concepts in general. The principle difference between
the CD and USB images are that the USB images are pre-configured to use
part of the flash drive as persistent storage. DoudouLinux allows a small
amount of system customization that is helpful to be persistent between sessions.
At the moment, DoudouLinux is intended primarily to run from such removable storage devices, although there is documentation for installing it to a hard drive as well. The roadmap indicates that future releases hope to add support for booting within Windows, a la Ubuntu's Wubi.
DoudouLinux is based on a minimal Debian "Lenny" (5.x) system, with a custom, tab-based user interface. At boot time, there is an "Activities Menu" displayed that offers seven session options: the full DoudouLinux system, a "Mini DoudouLinux" session with a reduced set of applications offered, and single-application sessions for several of the applications: Gamine, Pysycache, Childsplay, TuxPaint, and GCompris.
Gamine and Pysycache are both mouse-training games, aimed at different levels of experience. They hail from DoudouLinux's educational games section, which also includes language and geography titles, plus the general-purpose educational suites Childsplay and GCompris, each of which offers a variety of activities.
The other application
categories include "Work" tools (a category that includes the web browser,
IM software, dictionary, and calculator), "Multimedia" (which includes
several music-creation applications and the Stopmotion animation tool), and
general games (under "Enjoy"). The general games category includes standard puzzle and non-violent arcade fare, plus common card and board games. Each of the categories has its own tab in the DoudouLinux application launcher, which responds to single-clicks for better ease-of-use. Likewise, every application or game runs in full-screen mode, as the developers felt that window management was asking for trouble with children.
Few if any of the application offerings in DoudouLinux Gondwana are not
available in other Debian-derived distributions. The real customization
work involved building the activities chooser and the various configuration
tools, all of which are available under the GPLv3. The configuration tools are found under the "Tune" tab in the full DoudouLinux session. They allow sound, monitor, printer, and data persistence control, as well as the separate administration tools for GCompris and Pysycache, configuration of the Activity chooser, and a bug reporting tool.
Although the configuration tools are intended for use by parents, they are simple to use — offering access to presets with one click. Mouse and monitor settings are usually foolproof on a modern Linux system, but there is documentation online for dealing with troublesome printers.
While it is not configurable from the live system, DoudouLinux runs
the DansGuardian web-filtering
system in the background. DansGuardian is a keyword-based content filter,
not a site blacklist, so it is advertised as doing a better job of
insulating children from accidental adult content delivered through search
results and other side-bands. The filter is certainly restrictive in the form
offered by DoudouLinux, even blocking Google Image Search results for
many innocent common words to a baffling extent (for example, "cow" is
permissible, but "puppy" is not). In theory, young children will
probably not spend too much time in web searches, but without
parent-accessible configuration tools, DansGuardian is a distinctly
"when in doubt, block it" tool.
Report card time
Overall, DoudouLinux "Gondwana" is a worthy choice for families with very young children. The content that it offers is not much different than you would find in another "educational" distribution, but there is far less configuration to do, and because the system is limited in scope, it runs fast. The choice to offer it as a live-CD image only also strikes me as wise, given the inherent risks that sitting a toddler in front of a keyboard can entail. DoudouLinux cannot protect your hardware from spilled milk or the sudden disconnection of the flash drive, but then again no piece of software can.
As for the applications themselves, I am probably not a good judge of young children's learning tools, since I do not have kids myself. I am a bit skeptical that the "bright colors, cartoon characters everywhere" motif is really necessary, because I see all too many kids who are capable users of their parents' smartphones. But I do think it is commendable that the DoudouLinux team included some less-common choices in its application suite, such as the music creation tools. Too many distributions' "music" category includes only an audio player; DoudouLinux gives the kids a piano keyboard and the Hydrogen drum machine. Which probably makes the volume control tool all the more critical.
That said, I was a bit surprised not to find a typing tutor like Tux Typing in the menu, nor to find any webcam tools like GNOME's Cheese. The Empathy instant messenger client is included, which presumably would need to be configured by a parent. Video chat with grandparents is probably the intended usage, but it does stand out as needing a distinctly more complicated setup process.
The DoudouLinux project is not resting on its laurels. The roadmap
includes several technical challenges: unifying the CD and USB images into
a single file with user-selectable persistence, a more flexible activity
chooser, and an online tool to customize the CD image. The project's issue tracker also indicates that
it plans to migrate to Debian "Squeeze" (6.x), as well as the ever-present need to add more languages and more complete translations. At least one new feature is being discussed: a parental control to limit use of the computer to specific times of day. Given the project's goal to supplant game console and television vegetative-behavior, this sounds like an even more useful control than DansGuardian.
DoudouLinux's origins page says that much of the user experience design is the fruit of lead developer Jean-Michel Philippe's iterative attempts to build an interface that his own children could understand and enjoy. In that sense, it does reflect one developer's personal touch, but one based on testing and user-centric design. Better still, since the project's founding, the list of contributors has grown considerably, including two teams of university-based developers from Russia. Ultimately, the only important test of a "Linux for kids" distribution is whether or not the kids in your own house will use it, but DoudouLinux is worth a close examination for those whose children are too young to take advantage of the school-oriented builds offered by most of the competition.
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