Grandmothers and computers

by hobbitalastair

Not so long ago, I went to help my grandmother with her computer, an 8 year old Sempron based machine, with 512MB of RAM. It’s now a Pentium based machine, with 2GB of RAM, running Debian (Gnome desktop…), instead of XP. Somewhat surprisingly, it is blazingly fast – especially compared to the same hardware with XP!

My grandmother is fairly with it, but computers are not her speciality – not by a long shot. On the other hand, she appears to have adjusted pretty quickly.

Overall impressions:

  • Simple is better, even if that just means less visible buttons
  • Pop down menus are evil
  • XP is a load of junk – or I’m not experienced enough to go poking around to find out exactly why it is so slow…
  • Debian’s package management is stupid, at least compared to pacman
  • Arch is great, even if things don’t magically work out of the box
  • I prefer to set things up, then know why they break. As opposed to have them break, and have no idea why. Deferring pain is not a good strategy…
  • Email is not simple…
  • Router firmware is made by a bunch of aliens from a small planet green-blue near Jupiter
  • My system at home is no where near complete, although it’s getting there
  • An 8 year old system should be more than capable, provided it is running (simple) Linux. A 3 year old system is old if it is running Mac OSX or Windows… even XP
  • Make sure that I dispose of my junk intelligently, i.e. destroy all data myself rather than rely on someone else…
  • New stuff is great, when it works the way it should
  • Hardware acceleration is great, but tends to need shader capable hardware

The only cost of the exercise was 4 days, one of which was spent fluffing around with XP, and some tech support calls after. Oh, yes, and a new HDD which was probably defunct. Never mind… it reduced the risk, and I may eventually set the old disk up as a backup drive.

My (updated) list of passions:

  • Computers are not old when they are 8; 16, maybe, but not 8! Especially not high end machines… and even 16 year old computers are quite capable
  • A simple UI for an application is essential. The world needs more applications with simple user interfaces!
  • Building systems is fun
  • Coding is enjoyable 🙂

The problems the trip revealed in my system:

  • It’s not beautiful – my desktop, I mean. I’m trying to fix that with Weston, with some success
  • Some things don’t work
  • I need a way of being notified when things don’t work (!)
  • The command line is defunct – although I have yet to see a really valid replacement

It seems kind of weird noting that the command line is defunct, but it really is. It is a rubbish scripting language – even missing a pair of quotation marks can cause major problems. However, it is standard, and most things are managed via it’s standard interface. So perhaps, what is really needed is a better shell… with some kind of framebuffer terminal support for inline images and generally prettier text.

A built in scripting language is powerful – it really is. However, as a user interface, it’s not so good. I’d expect some kind of WM functionality – often provided by screen, tmux, or similar – but each new application requires learning a whole new set of key bindings. Standardised it’s not – although having a choice about what standard would be nice, too.

Also, the terminal is inherently ugly. I’m not sure what to propose, but I guess support for inline images and prettier text would be a start. Though part of me wants backwards compatibility, most computers capable of running Linux will have at least framebuffer graphics support, so it’s not impossible.

Probably the best bet would be a Wayland compositor (lightweight!) of some sort, for window management, coupled with a smarter terminal – better shell and prettier images.