Edubuntu: Remarkably easy to set up and use
My daughter has just turned three and is starting to learn her letters and numbers and how to spell a few words (e.g., her name). I decided it was time to get her her own computer but being cheap I didn't want to go so far as to actually buy one, especially not when I have a veritable scrapyard of old PCs and parts at home.
As it happens, we moved the Austin office of Innodata to new space last week and as a side effect I got to take home an ancient dual-proc PIII machine. So I decided yesterday, a cold rainy day, to try to build an Edubuntu machine. Edubuntu is a configuration of ubuntu Linux specially designed for kids and classroom use. It comes with a number of educational applications and games, including Tuxpaint, which is perfect for Dada as she learns to use the mouse and keyboard. There are some nice little learn-to-use-the-keyboard-and-mouse games as well.
I also had an LCD display that I wasn't using (in our new house there's really no need for a dedicated desktop and we don't really need or want docking stations for our laptops so the display was only being used as a console for the network firewall machine, which I needed maybe twice a year).
The machine (which had been named "Doublebot" back when it was a development support box) wouldn't come on so I pulled the power supply out of my old game machine desktop [an AMD box I built some years ago--it had gotten flaky but by that time I was in the process of becoming a parent and long hours of gaming in a room by myself were not really relevant to my now any more] and slapped it into Doublebot, along with a wireless PCI card and the not-quite-as-ancient video card from the old game machine. During this time I was also downloading the bootable CD image for Edubuntu. It did take me a while to figure out how to cable up the various drives but I did eventually get all the jumpers set right and the cables hooked up correctly. Finally the machine got to the point where it was correctly recognizing the drives and trying to boot from them (the hard drive in the machine didn't have a usable operating system on it).
By the time I got the hardware going the CD image had downloaded and I burned it to a disk. Popped the disk in the drive and it booted right up. The network connection worked, the screen resolution was correct, all the devices were recognized. It just worked. Then I just selected the "install" option and it put itself on the disk drive--I didn't have to do anything beyond select my language and keyboard layout. I let it set up the disk partition for me (I've spent so many hours over the last 10 years or so configuring disk partitions, hours that I'll never get back). I ran the software update, which updated everything to the latest versions, added a few more packages that I wanted, and verified that all the kid stuff worked.
I put the covers back on and set it up in the livingroom on Dada's little table. Booted it up and showed her how to log in (since she can spell her name she can log in herself, although she is still getting used to seeing dots instead of letters when she puts in her password). She easily spent three hours yesterday playing with Tuxpaint. She got the basic mouse skills remarkably quickly, given that she'd never really used a mouse before, although she still needs help with selecting stuff (and she can't read the message boxes that come up when she accidently clicks on things like "save" or "exit"). She can also use Tuxpaint to type words, which she likes to do.
I can't tell you how many times I've installed Linux or Windows over the years and this was by far and away the easiest it's ever been--I don't think it could have been any easier unless it had just magically appeared on the hard drive without any physical intervention from me. Of course I was using a very old computer with fairly old components (the newest part was probably the wireless PCI card and that was at least two years old), so it's no surprise that there were no driver problems or anything, but just the fit and finish was so much better than I've ever seen from a Linux distribution before. I also liked the window environment (I assume it's KDE but I really don't know what it is), partly because it's very close to Windows, which means it looks and behaves like I expect it to.
The only other thing I did was install secure shell so I could connect to the machine remotely (using Cygwin and Cygwin X11 under Windows) and that was as easy as could be using the Synaptics package manager (of course, I did know what I was doing at that point, having configured a few Linux boxes in my day).
I would like to see more games and applications for pre-literate children, but I know that that's a lot to ask of the open source community. But I would be willing to pay a fair price for applications that run under Linux (just as I would for Windows-based apps).
Coupled with the latest versions of Open Office, which seems to finally be able to really handle MS Office stuff completely enough, it might be time to take another look at going to Linux (something I did some years ago but finally got beaten down, in particular by the lack of a version of Arbortext Editor that would run on Linux, back when Arbortext Editor was central to a lot of my work as an integrator, as well as a change in the pricing for VMWare, which enabled running Windows in a virtual machine).