There’s an awful lot of patronising twaddle talked about 'computing for seniors' (or even worse, 'silver surfers'), which almost always misses the serious point that there are many people for whom ordinary Windows-based computing is firmly stuck in the 'too difficult' folder for a variety of reasons, many of which are not necessarily related to age.
Simplicity Computers is a UK company that has developed a custom user interface called Envelope aimed specifically at such folk. It runs on top of the Mint Linux operating system, and is available as the Homekey, a USB stick that can be used to turn almost any PC into a beginner-friendly device. It can also be bought pre-installed on a small range of new PCs and laptops. Readers may recall Simplicity Computers from a few years back, when it launched PCs using a custom version of the free Eldy software, another Linux Mint-powered initiative aimed at older users.
The Homekey is a 16GB USB key with a rotating metal cover, and it arrives in an easy-to-open blister pack along with a 16-page A4 Getting Started booklet and a 68-page A4 Tutorials book. These are printed on glossy heavyweight paper in full colour and are commendably clear and easy to follow. There is also a CD labelled 'Boot CD', the purpose of which is described below.
In the Getting Started booklet, three ways of installing the Homekey are detailed. The first is for disk-less PCs supplied by an 'authorised Simplicity refurbisher'; the second for a 'permanent' installation on a PC supporting USB boot; and the third is for PCs that have a CD/DVD drive but don’t support booting from USB keys. This latter scenario is where the clever Boot CD comes in - users insert the CD and the Homekey and the system then boots initially from the CD but immediately hands over to the Homekey.
We can’t help feeling that by this stage most prospective users will be looking around for a friendly expert to help them get started, especially as the recommended 'permanent'm method involves making changes in the PC’s BIOS in order to set USB as the top-priority boot device. To be fair, Simplicity does recommend having someone knowledgeable around in the welcome letter that accompanies the device.
The basic £69.95 version of the Homekey comes with only email support, but for £20 more buyers can get seven days of phone support to help them get up and running. A year of unlimited phone and remote access support costs £85 at the time of purchase, or it can be bought on a pay-as-you-go basis costing £30 for 60 minutes of support time. For remote support, the system includes a copy of the Team Viewer remote access application.
No installation to a hard disk is needed (or even possible), but the operating system is persistent, meaning that user files and settings are stored on the USB key and maintained between reboots (the 'permanent' installation option mentioned above just means that the PC doesn’t need to be configured each time the Homekey is used). It can even be moved between PCs with no problem, although the license terms specifically prohibit this.
We tried the Homekey on an assortment of old and new PCs and laptops, and it had no problem starting on any of them. Booting the Homekey took us around 1.5 minutes from cold, and after briefly showing the standard Linux desktop, the Envelope home screen appears. This is divided into four active segments (yes, they look like an envelope) labelled Email, Web, Tutorials and Documents/Photos. The Web icon shows whether the Internet is connected or not, and Email shows a message when new emails are received. At top left is a transparent My Settings button and at top right an Exit button that safely shuts down the system. At bottom right is a shortcut to the standard Skype for Linux application.
Designing a new user interface that does away with most of the standard conventions we’re used to is not a trivial task, but in general Envelope does pretty well. It doesn’t look particularly fancy, but it achieves the main objective of being clear and uncomplicated. Clicking one of the application categories either launches the application immediately, as with the Web app, or shows a further choice of four tasks, as with Email and Documents/Photos, plus links for Back and Exit. At the bottom of each application screen is a navigation bar to take users back or to the home page, plus a link to related tutorial videos.
The Tutorials section is probably one that users will spend most time with in the early stages, so it is a critical component. The printed book has transcripts of all of these, plus six extra tutorials that lack accompanying videos. The video tutorials are presented by none other than Valerie Singleton, and successfully manage to be simple without being too patronising. Our only moan is that the audio in voiceovers had an annoying reverberation that is missing from the talking-head sections.
All the major topics are covered, from basic mouse and keyboard control, through to the basics of word processing, web browsing and how to set up and use Skype. Although the materials are generally well produced, there are a couple of proofing errors that have slipped through the net, such as several references to 'clicking on' keys on the keyboard. As well as the printed and video material, there are also several bundled games and exercises, plus a typing tutor.
The applications themselves are a mixed bag. The browser, email, word processor and file organiser apps all have a matching look and feel, but the photo editing application is Shotwell, which uses standard Linux window and menu conventions. Annoyingly, there is no tutorial for this application, apart from one showing how to sort photos in the file organiser. If it was thought that few users would need to use it, perhaps it shouldn’t have been included.
There is no multitasking within Envelope - returning to the Home screen closes the current application, which is probably a sensible approach given the target audience, although it will become tedious as users gain experience.
Launching Email for the first time walks the user through setting up a free POP3 email account with Simplicity’s own mail service. In our case, a security certificate error prompted us to try out the telephone support, which proved to be friendly and clear.
Printer and Wi-Fi support are other potential problem areas. Simplicity includes drivers for HP printers, and even sells these as an option, but installing other printers (or other hardware such as a webcam) may need the services of an expert. We connected a Samsung CLP-315 colour laser and it worked fine with no need for driver installation, but it is worth checking with Simplicity for compatibility first.
We had no problems with wireless or wired connectivity (there are tutorials for setting up an Internet connection, including a primer on connecting a broadband router), but the procedure for connecting to a wireless network involves dropping out to the Linux Mint desktop by minimising the Envelope application, so again expert help is recommended.
One or two other little details seem to have been overlooked, such as disabling the Windows key - pressing this opens the Linux Mint applications menu, which could catch a few users out. As users grow more confident, there is the possibility to move to more advanced settings, using OpenOffice.org Writer, Thunderbird and Firefox instead of the standard applications. Indeed, the entire Linux Mint OS is available for those who want to move onwards and upwards. However, even if email has been setup in Envelope, the settings are not transferred to Thunderbird, which is annoying. It’s also a shame there are no basic tutorials showing the user what to expect when the advanced settings are enabled.
As an attempt to address the needs of a niche audience of users, it is commendable and mostly works well, apart from the one or two issues we encountered. It is also an economical way to re-use an older PC or laptop and give users who struggle with standard operating systems the chance to make their first steps in getting to know and use computers.
Definitely not for everyone, but for those who can’t even get to grips with the basics of Windows for whatever reason, it’s an alternative worth exploring.