- 11 Nov 09, 08:55 GMT
What connects Italian vegans, Valerie Singleton, and Linux Mint? Well they're all involved in a firm whose business is bringing computing to older users.
Whether or not Simplicity Computing succeeds will be a big test of two things - the appetite of older people to get online and the attractiveness of open source software as a means of dealing with digital exclusion.
Yesterday we took 80-year-old Betty Parsons for her first encounter with a computer. She climbed the stairs at the home of Nigel Houghton, who's masterminding the Simplicity venture, and sat herself down in front of the machine. When it's switched on for the first time, up pops Valerie Singleton - co-founder of the business launching Simplicity - and starts explaining what to do next, much like Microsoft's talking paperclip.
It's very basic - how to use a mouse, how to navigate your way around the simple front page and so on - but it needs to be. It's instructive watching someone using a mouse for the first time. Betty found it a real struggle - and that must be a big hurdle which some people will not clear.
Simplicity runs on the Linux Mint free operating system, and Liam Proven, who's designed the whole set-up, tracked down a company called Vegan Solutions - yes those Italian vegans - which had already produced a software package aimed at older users. He's worked with the Italians to adapt their Eldy software for British use.
So the home page is deliberately stripped down to essentials: six buttons leading to e-mail, web browsing, chat, documents, your personal profile - and more video tutorials by Val Singleton. There are no long menus with bewildering choices and wherever you are in the system, there's another button marked Square One, which takes you back to... well, you can guess.
Liam Proven told me that he was "platform-agnostic" but had chosen a Linux operating system for three reasons:
"Firstly, it means a fairly big price saving because Linux is free, so £70 to £80 is saved on what is meant to be a low-priced computer. Secondly, it's extremely secure so there's no need for anti-virus, and thirdly it runs very much better and faster than Windows on a more limited machine."
But there's a couple of questions to be asked about Simplicity. It's not all that cheap - systems range from £299 without screen or keyboard to £525 for a complete system. Then there are some people who will undoubtedly feel patronised by the very idea of a computer for older users - one woman got in touch with me this morning to express her annoyance - and others will ask why they shouldn't be taught to use Windows like just about everybody else.
When I visited a UK Online centre the other day, a group of older users of varying degrees of computing skill were using the desktops to surf the web and send e-mails, occasionally asking for help from a volunteer. The computers were all running Windows XP and it set me wondering whether this is still the first operating system most novices see when they come to one of these places.
UK Online pointed out that every centre operates independently, obtaining its funding from various sources and choosing what hardware and software to buy. But yes, it appears they almost exclusively use Windows - and mostly XP. A spokesman said: "Many choose Microsoft as it is the leading system used in the workplace or on PCs bought in retail stores and therefore the one customers often wish to learn."
They are also almost all using Internet Explorer to browse the internet - 86% of the computers are on various versions of IE, with just 10% on Firefox - so if you're learning about computers in a UK Online centre, you'll almost certainly be plunged into a Windows world.
So Simplicity is swimming against the tide, and may find some resistance, not from older customers, but from sons and daughters who'd rather see their parents learn the same system as themselves. But Betty Parsons certainly liked the look of it - though getting to grips with that mouse will still be a challenge - and the company says its stand was besieged by eager customers when it showed off a pilot system at an exhibition recently.
There's no reason - except for inertia - why we should all have to start our computing journey using the same system. Indeed, if Simplicity proves a hit, it may encourage others to look at their software and ask why it is so difficult for a first-time user to grasp. Oh, and one more thing - Val Singleton or a talking paperclip? No contest.
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