7 posts about linux

Wanted: An open-source, user-centered touchscreen platform

May 13 2007

There has been a lot of excitement recently around a couple of developments in touch screen interfaces: First there was the insane presentation at TED 2006. Secondly, of course, the iPhone made everyone all hot in the pants for it's touchable goodness.

In Malawi, the NGO Baobab Health Partnership ... adapted Linux to $100 touchscreen Internet appliances, then wrote a program for Opera to run in full-screen kiosk mode. The resulting terminal can easily manage the nation's health data and is scalable wherever a web connection can be made. J. Goodman at Vestal

Fundamentally I think that touch is intimate and intuitive, and clearly touchable interfaces have incredible potential, especially for the folks that haven't been brow-beaten into adapting to 20th-century conventions of computer interfaces like the QWERTY keyboard.

(i.e., the billions of people that will be introduced to "desktop" computing the next decade. See the OLPC, just launched for reals in Uruguay.)

So I'm excited about a new project at work that involves designing a web application for use with a touch screen interface. When I first heard about it from the client I was coffee-though-the-nose excited because I have been infatuated by a recent project I read about on Vestal: Malawi, Linux, & The Fight Against HIV. I knew immediately that I was going to rip off the idea. (In the best open source sense, of course.)

Baobab clinic.Unfortunately the iOpener touchscreen used in the project is no longer for sale (it had a lovely $100-$200 price tag b/c it came with some money-making software — there's a funny story about the linux hack), so I was hoping someone might have some idea about how to implement this as cheaply as possible.

A few criteria:

  • As open-source as possible
  • Durable
  • Replicable
  • Low Power
  • Low CPU resources (The machine will be cheap, with flash memory, prob.)
  • Beautiful (in a Platonic way )

Basically I want to avoid wire splicing and flaky homegrown drivers in favor of something that is replicable and extremely flexible. I want to be able to develop a web application with an appropriate UI and let it rip. (Which will be greatly facilitated by the work of the Baobab programmers' "touchscreen toolkit"). This might not be easy given the limitations of cheap machines.

So far I've got an EboxPC in the office (a nice, fanless machine with CF and VESA mounts for the back of the monitor) with some form of embedded Linux (we've built a tiny Linux distro for our rural wireless network that might be usable if we can get the drivers to work with the touch screen). Looks like we can get screens for about $100 and then we'll have to put a touch screen on top. Regardless, this is still in the brainstorming phase, so that's all likely to go out the window.

Anyway, what good is a touch screen like this?

Well, combined with the right software, I think you can really leverage usability to do a hell of a lot:

  • Make a huge impact in developing world healthcare like Baobab has done.
  • Collect data easily from a kiosk at a disaster area.
  • Setup a database-driven check-in desk at your next nonprofit conference.
  • Collect survey data remotely (anywhere in reach of the net).
  • Setup a small store without an incredibly expensive, proprietary POS system.

I think there are lots of possibilities given that the interface could just be so much more usable. Just looking into it briefly I found an open source POS system for use in cooperative markets. Brilliant. This is software that could really benefit from an inexpensive stable touchscreen implementation.

Does anyone have any experience or ideas?

I'll be posting my findings here, along with the software design considerations that I run into.

The Linux Desktop in 2007

Jan 7 2007

Linux and open source computing is going to have a great 2007. In spite of a few hiccups in some communities, and the astonishing lack of penetration into the mainstream brain, it is obvious that we are seeing more and more people getting it.

Just check out IBM's Linux praise page if you want an overview. And governments are getting it too, in Korea, Venuzela, and India. And then there is Chicago.

When you think of Windows server, you think of rebooting the server, of always having to apply security patches. You think of viruses ... Linux and Solaris prove to be a lot less headaches than any other platform. Amy Niersbach, Chicago geek-honcho

Of course, it is a bunch of elitist BS to pretend that the only reason people don't "get" desktop Linux is because they are just ignorant — Linux is hard. Switching is hard-ish.

These governments are not doing something that is totally obvious — they are, but contrast, pioneers, and they are taking no small risk in putting Linux desktops in front of their municipal employees. I mean, really, I just can't see my Dad using ifconfig to fiddle with his network settings. Only recently has Linux distributions emerged that I would consider suggesting to my family, much less my family's coworkers.

(By contrast, of course, Linux as a server platform has had success for so long, and open source software is clearly dominant on the server.)

Ever since the Ubuntu Linux campaign began a couple years ago, we have all seen how much it makes sense (in terms of attracting an audience) to focus on getting things to Just Work on a personal computer. Ubuntu has ridden the hype skyrocket right past Debian and Suse etc ... well, because they have a millionaire at the wheel ... but also because they have taken on the closed-source OS's head-on with regard to usability. They put a lot of time into making a Linux distribution that would recognize your iPod (and monitor and printer and keyboard ...) the first time you plugged it in. They even have a branch devoted to a kid-friendly version, edubuntu. And they have done a lot of steady work to make a more useable experience generally (even if they aren't rewriting the Gnome desktop). I think their whole approach deserves applause, despite all the remaining gotchas of linux. (Certainly there is not a Linux desktop the tops the Mac OS usability experience, in my opinion.)

Related reading on usability:

Check out the recent preview of the KDE desktop, which has been designed by a wonderfully talented, small team.

And then there is the fascinating approach to the UI taken by the $100 Laptop folks.

Tux is dead-ish

Jan 5 2007

I think that Tux Magazine started a couple of years ago.

For a number of reasons--not all financial--the model we had built for TUX was not sustainable. At this point, a group of us who were involved in TUX are tossing some ideas around. Where it will go we are not sure but let me assure you that enough of us feel TUX needs to exist that we will try our best to come up with, as they say, "Plan B".
Their goal was to server the "new Linux user," with glossy color articles about installing the latest KDE, understanding the differences between the various distros, and getting your new printer to work with Ubuntu.

It was an interesting niche that seemed really promising. (Several other Liunx magazines exist, but are written more for the hardcore geeks.)

Alas, just before their 21st issue, they have just announced that they are closing down.

I wonder what this means for the state of the Open Source OS in 2007?

An Open Source Strike?

Dec 18 2006

Debian

Many Debian developers denounced the Dunc-Tank proposal. Some even demanded that Towns be removed as leader because he supported Dunc-Tank. Their objection was that by financially supporting developers, Debian would become a two-class system and that, in turn, would be destructive to the Debian community.
Linux-watch.com just posted this article commenting on recent delays in the much-loved Debian distribution of Linux. Interesting to note some of the internal politics on an open source project. I have to respect the developer's (reported) concern that the new pay structure at Debian might create a kind of class system on the project. So to me it makes sense the developers might stop contributing their time if something starts to smell bad in the project, but I haven't ever seen a "strike" called quite like this as the article suggests. I might be inclined to chalk this one up to something other than pure politics, anyway. (Gasp, a behind-schedule software project?)

Ubuntu in Kurdish!

Dec 7 2006

Ubuntu Linux has been translated into Kurdish!

Ubuntu ku

Controversy followed the release of a Kurdish translation of Ubuntu in Turkey last week. The release was originally reported in Millyet, a Turkish national newspaper, on November 21. This first release of a Kurdish language operating system and software has caused a stir in Turkey, where, up until 1991, it was illegal even to speak Kurdish in public.

Linux Overview

Jun 24 2006

Just found this nice, basic, summary of the various Linux distributions.

Linux is an operating system that was initially created as a hobby by a young student, Linus Torvalds, at the University of Helsinki in Finland. Linus had an interest in Minix, a small UNIX system, and decided to develop a system that exceeded the Minix standards. He began his work in 1991 when he released version 0.02 and worked steadily until 1994 when version 1.0 of the Linux Kernel was released. The kernel, at the heart of all Linux systems, is developed and released under the GNU General Public License and its source code is freely available to everyone. It is this kernel that forms the base around which a Linux operating system is developed. There are now literally hundreds of companies and organisations and an equal number of individuals that have released their own versions of operating systems based on the Linux kernel.

If you are new to Linux, this may help to explain a lot of the confusion in your head about the numerous versions of the platform.

http://linux.wordpress.com/2006/06/24/linux-the-choice-is-there/

Brief Clip from a Great WorldChanging.com Post

Feb 16 2006

LinuxChix logo WorldChanging: Another World Is Here: LinuxChix Africa "LinuxChix Africa manages to shatter two stereotypes at the same time: the idea that women aren't interested in free/open source software development; and the idea that women in Africa are bound to traditional cultural roles. Founded in late 2004 by Anna Badimo, a computer science graduate student in South Africa, and Dorcas Muthoni of the Kenya Education Network, LinuxChix Africa seeks to build Linux skills among African women, as well as to support more generally the use of free/open source applications and systems across Africa. Like most Linux and F/OSS communities, much of their work entails professional software development and public advocacy of open source, but LinuxChix Africa adds a unique twist: they focus their outreach on encouraging young women to pursue careers in computing."