The Linux for Kids Experiment
When pressed to answer truthfully, most parents agree that raising kids is a big experiment. In the December 2004 issue of LJ, Diego Betancor's letter motivated me to experiment with something I've been meaning to do for some time. Diego wanted to see more content in LJ aimed at kids, and his suggestion was the inspiration for the next phase of my child-rearing experiment: moving the kids to Linux.
My wife Deirdre and I have three young children: Joseph, age nine; Aaron, age seven; and and Aideen, age five—see Figure 1. As shown in the photo, indoctrination starts early in the Barry household: there's a fluffy Tux in the foreground and an electronic Tux on the screen.
With his dad being a longtime computer geek, it came as no surprise when Joseph took to the computer at a young age. For years, our home computer was a first-generation iMac, running Mac OS. A great 3-D shoot'em-up game came with the iMac, Nanosaur, that Joseph just loves. Despite this, our household software policy always has been to try to ensure that any software brought into the house is classified as educational. Therefore, Joseph also has a bunch of Land Before Time and Zoombini titles, as well as kiddie-strategy games, such as Darby the Dragon. Other software includes the usual encyclopedia, dinosaur and space-exploration titles.
Aaron is the sporty child in the house as well as the artist, and he has been happy to sit and play with the paint application integrated into ClarisWorks, the simple office suite that came with the iMac. Aaron also likes to play with Joseph's software, as well as some of Aideen's titles, which include Green Eggs and Ham, Sammy's Science House and Thinking Things.
As long as there's a lot of bright colors and funny sound effects, Aideen's happy, even though this five-year-old's attention span is not at all lengthy.
As great as it is, the iMac had been showing its age for some time. It also has become increasingly difficult to find original software titles for its effectively discontinued OS version. Trying to upgrade to Mac OS X or any modern version of Linux was not an option for the iMac; it's simply too underpowered. Without new titles, the kids were getting bored with the iMac and had been asking for a new computer. They also constantly bugged both me and their Mum to install various Windows titles on our laptops—especially the demo software that comes free inside various cereal packets. As Deirdre has to run Windows 2000 for work, her laptop was the one infected with a growing collection of these types of titles.
A few months back, a new computer arrived in the form of a Dell Optiplex GX270, with 512MB of RAM, a 40GB hard disk and a flat-panel monitor. As I'd rather eat the new PC than allow the kids to use the factory-installed Windows XP, I looked for a family-friendly Linux distribution to install instead. Having recently experimented with Ubuntu Linux as my office desktop, I downloaded and burned a copy of the Warty Warthog release for use at home.
Like most big kids, I love experiments, and now my experiment had a plan: replace the Dell's factory-installed OS with Ubuntu, pack it full of kid-friendly software, let the kids at it and see how they got on.
I deliberately decided against installing any type of emulation that would have allowed the kids to run any of their existing software titles, even though such technology is well established within the Linux community. My main reason for doing this was to see if the kids would identify any titles that they missed. If they did, I'd try to find native alternatives, install them and see if the yearning subsided.
Ubuntu installed easily on the Dell, taking about one hour from start to finish. Once the base OS was up and running, I installed a bunch of stuff for the kids to use. I created a user ID called kids with a password of dinosaur and then set up a window in Nautilus to mimic the look and feel of the Mac OS Launcher program, as shown in Figure 1. Nautilus hopefully would provide a familiar look and feel for my pint-sized, Mac-loving user community.