Gray haired computing

Recently I did an article for a seniors newsletter about phishing. Specifically the perennial “limited time to add your cell phone to the national do not call list before bad stuff happens” scam. While this particular instance is more hoax than phishing since the number to call was, in fact, the real number for the do not call list the opportunity for a phishing variation is definitely there. This got me to thinking again about why computing in general and social networking in particular are so senior-unfriendly. I’ve written this about this issue in the past here and here but it’s always seemed a little bizarre to me that no major personal computer manufacturer has thought about tapping this enormous and growing market. There are some minor players starting to get into this market according to this article on the BBC.

A new computer aimed at people aged over 60 who are unfamiliar with PCs and the internet has been unveiled.

The simplified desktop – called SimplicITy – has just six buttons directing users to basic tasks such as e-mail and chat.

The computer comes pre-loaded with 17 video tutorials from television presenter Valerie Singleton.

The SimplicITy computer has no log-in screen when started up, and contains no drop-down menus. It opens straight to a front page called “square one” containing separate clickable buttons for e-mail, browsing the web, files (for storing word documents and photos etc), online chat and a user profile.

The e-mail system is a modified version of an Italian design called Eldy. All SimplicITy users with an eldy.org address will be able to chat to each other via the “chat” button.

The computer is built using Linux operating system, a free operating system that can be customised by users.
If people decide they no longer need the SimplicITy desktop, they can replace it with a standard Linux desktop.

Unfortunately these are also a one-off kind of deal and therefore carry a relatively hefty price tag.

Each made-to-order computer takes two weeks from request to delivery and can be ordered by post.

It’s not all that cheap – systems range from £299 [~$500] without screen or keyboard to £525 [~$880] for a complete system.

From what I can tell reaction to this computer system has been lukewarm to negative and almost universally snarky. Of course those reactions have been from younger people like BBC Technology correspondent Rory Cellan-Jones who quips:

There are some people who will undoubtedly feel patronised by the very idea of a computer for older users  and others will ask why they shouldn’t be taught to use Windows like just about everybody else.

But he also points out a very valid issue when it comes to selecting computing equipment for elders in this entry on the BBC News dot.life blog.

Simplicity is swimming against the tide, and may find some resistance, not from older customers, but from sons and daughters who’d rather see their parents learn the same system as themselves.

Yep – nailed it in one. Being primary technical support for a truly frightening number of older folks I know this to be absolutely true. But exhaustive yet completely unscientific polling and anecdotal evidence have led me to believe that the following statements are common to all older computer users:

My computer sucks.

My [son|daughter|younger friend]‘s computer works great.

That’s why I got mine.

But my computer sucks.

Okay I’ll admit that I paraphrased a bit but I think it reliably captured the essence. So why does grandma want a computer? As opposed to why do the grandkids think grandma wants a computer. Here’s what I think based on that exhaustive yet unscientific research.

  1. Medicare, Social Security and insurers are increasingly moving online. If you want to interact with them you need a computer.
  2. Staying in contact with the family. All the grandkids are on FaceBook and use Twitter. Everybody puts photos on Flickr and sends invitations through email.
  3. Staying abreast of current news. Hey, the local newspaper is either going, gone or online and TV news is for losers.

While there are probably a few other reasons that drive grandma’s desire for a computer, please note that “making videos” or “digitizing music” are not among them. The biggie is the first reason which is why it was cleverly positioned at #1. Grandma has no choice. As much as you would like to believe that the others are more important, the bottom line is that it’s just not practical to be an analog senior any longer. So why exactly aren’t HP and Dell marketing the heck out of computers for seniors? Maybe they aren’t aware of the market [doubtful] or maybe they haven’t been talking to the right people and think they already have such a unit among their existing offerings [most likely].

So lets help them out, shall we? Feel free to chime in with comments here. What would be the attributes of the perfect computing device for seniors? Well how about we start with some physical basics:

  1. It’s got to have a full size keyboard and a decent size display. Small form factor keyboards and screens are a non-starters. Netbooks are out. Smart phones are out.
  2. It should be portable. In every respect, including WiFi. This thing will be traveling to every family get together from now on. And who wants to wire their house for ethernet?
  3. It has to have the right pointing device for the user. Some folks like trackballs, some like tablets, some even like joysticks. Not everyone likes, or can use, a mouse. And almost nobody can use a laptop touchpad without a great deal of angst. And who needs that aggravation?
  4. It doesn’t need a very powerful processor. An older low-power processor would be fine since [pay attention here younger helpers] nobody is going to do any video editing on this machine. Ever. But increased battery life would really be swell.
  5. It doesn’t need huge amounts of memory. Yeah, I know that most popular operating systems tend to expand to fill the available resources but that just proves that modern operating systems bite wind. And have [again pay attention here younger helpers] stupid amounts of cool features that nobody will ever use. Ever.
  6. It doesn’t need a killer 3-D video subsystem. As much as you might hope, grandma is not going to play Halo 3 or Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. Ever. If she really wants to play games she should get a Wii. Not a PC.
  7. It needs a fast internet connection. Essentially everything that grandma wants use her new computer for is online. Slow internet = bad user experience.

So that’s a reasonable start on hardware, how about software? What does grandma really need to do the stuff she wants? Well, first we should forget all that ancillary stuff to protect the system from bad engineering (err… malware. I meant malware. My bad) and select an operating environment that is fast, safe and easy to use. Yep, that pretty much leaves Windows out. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Here’s the critical software list.

  1. A web browser. Pretty much everything that grandma wants to do is online and accessible via a browser. Email, banking, insurance, FaceBook, and Twitter. There are web sites that mashup or aggregate multiple social networking sites. Even text editors and other applications. Pretty much everything out there in the cloud.
  2. A password safe. Anything that’s done in the cloud requires some kind of authentication, usually user name (or email) and a password. And lame authentication is useless. Just ask Sarah Palin. Everybody, not just grandma, but everybody should use a password safe. That way you only have to remember one password (the safe password) and let the password safe generate unique industrial strength passwords for everything else.
  3. A good bi-directional firewall. Don’t worry – grandma will never see this and any decent operating environment will ship with a good one installed and enabled by default.

Well this is interesting. It’s looking like Google Chrome OS might be just the ticket for seniors. When it comes out next year. Except that Google is targeting Netbooks as their initial platform and we’ve already determined that Netbooks are a non-starter for seniors. Actually a MacBook might be a good choice, except for the high price and wealth of useless (for grandma) software that that comes with a Mac. So maybe the SimplicITy folks have it right. Maybe a lightweight Linux distro is a good place to start. I mean that’s really what Chrome OS is under the covers, the covers being Google’s Chrome browser.

So how about it Dell or HP? How about building an inexpensive, full size, low power, portable PC with a choice of input devices [test drives available!], loaded with Google Chrome OS or maybe a minimal version of Ubuntu or OpenSUSE with Firefox or Chromium [Chrome for Linux]. Or maybe Apple could release a senior-friendly MacBook without all the spiffy iLife stuff and make it affordable. But whoever steps up be sure and forget the crapware from your partners and instead throw in some slick training demos on things like “how to get online” and decent [non-advertising] setup wizards for networking. Or maybe you could just partner with SimplicITy and use those video tutorials with Valerie Singleton. It would be wise to ask yourselves if in this economy you can afford to alienate a growing market by ignoring their needs.