A Brief Look at SugarUI by RedHat

[ Tuesday, 10 April 2007, riklaunim ]


A few days ago Red Hat shared with the world the first ISO images of the system that is planned to be installed on the OLPC laptops. I suddenly felt an irresistible urge … I downloaded the 291 MB ISO, burned it on a CD and started testing. Here is what I got.

If you are looking for the technical details of OLPC project, take a look at our previous article: One Laptop Per Child: XO Phase 2 Progress which explains the technological progress made recently in the project.

Author: Piotr Maliński

A journey to the unknown

After booting the CD everything looks quite normal. GRUB lets us choose “OLPC Operating system SDK”. Then we see a lot of boot messages, even a “Welcome to Fedora” message. The system booted in 1:30 minutes — not too bad and not too good either (Pardus 2007.1 needed 1:36, but DSL 3.3 only 0:55). When the kernel is loaded, we see something like a session manager screen on which we can only enter our name (login) which can be anything. After “logging in” the famous Sugar UI appears. This is the very original window manager used on the OLPC laptops.

OLPC LiveCD boot-up
Pic 1. System booting… aren’t the colors nice? :P

Login screen in OLPC
Pic 2. Login screen in OLPC

SugarUI
Pic 3. SugarUI — default desktop

The applications

OK, so what applications has the OLPC team chosen for the kids? Well… there is a program named “Paint” that is a simple image editor. There is a Tetris-like game, Mozilla Firefox with Flash plugin, Abiword, RSS reader, a calculator and a few more simple apps. The development version has an option to switch to GNOME, but it doesn’t seem to work well.

The Sugar interface
Pic 4. The Sugar interface elements

Returning to the OLPC interface; it has to be noticed that the look and feel is… different. Different from what you are used to, and very original. There are no windows. No icons either. When run, the applications take the whole screen (full-screen mode). In order to get to the lower or upper toolbar, we need to point the mouse cursor to the edge of the screen. Each application has its icon on the top toolbar after being launched and we can use these icons in to close the app or switch between programs. The idea is quite nice and functional. The only thing that worries me is that the kids may not “get it” without being instructed in detail by a tutor.

Firefox and (even more) Abiword do not use their traditional user interfaces. They have new ones, tightly integrated with the SugarUI. The new interfaces have been simplified a lot. Instead of tons of menus, toolbars and other bars, there are only basic functions. In Firefox the address bar is hidden (it appears when pointed to the title). In Abiword, the functionality has been crippled to allow only simple formatting (bold, italic, underline, insert image). What is quite astonishing is that the files are saved… in Microsoft .DOC format.

AbiWord w OLPC
Pic 5. This is what Abiword looks like. The GTK+ widgets are not impressive…

What could be done better?

The capabilities of the applications that come with OLPC aren’t much better than those of modern cell phones. In the not-so-poor countries like Mexico or Brazil, when the kids usually have some idea about computing and High Tech, OLPC may have problems with being usable enough. In certainly has a potential to work for elementary/primary school children who have never seen a computer before. But for older ones or those more technical, the functions offered by OLPC in Sugar may be too little to impress. The problem will be easily solvable by providing alternative distributions for the OLPC laptops. XFCE, or even KDE with KOffice running on the Kdrive X-server should not have problems running on these machines (433 MHz processors, 256 MB RAM), and they offer way better functionality.

The main issues I see with the current SugarUI are as follows:

  • No handy file navigation. Using Firefox we can save an image to a folder and then search for it and open with Abiword… but… what about file copying and deleting?
  • The system is interesting and may be a nice toy for the kids, but it currently lacks the features to be an effective tool in school. No decent calc program, a very poor document editor and no PDF support make it quite unusable for a 12-year old.
  • What about multimedia? The Flash plugin is not enough. What about handling the audio and video streams?
  • The interface is not clear to me. What are these circles and dots doing on top of the screen? It would be nice to see some KDE-like tool-tips for the not-too-intuitive icons, as well as a simple desktop personalizer.

The SugarUI performance

I cannot give exact figures for the performance of SugarUI since the GNOME terminal would not launch. Basing on my observations, the RAM usage is not lower and not even comparable with the lightweight GNU/Linux distributions like Damn Small Linux (which needs only 31 MB of RAM when booted from the CD). However the performance testing should be performed when the final product is available and the unneeded components like GNOME are removed from the ISO.

Conclusions

The first publicly available version of the OLPC system works. But doesn’t impress a lot. Will it work for the kids? This depends mostly on the goals OLPC has and the target audience. If the laptop is supposed to be used by kids and adolescents together then I believe that enhancements and additional options will be needed in order to satisfy the different requirements of different user groups. Hopefully unofficial distributions will not be hard to install on the OLPC machines or/and extra applications produced by governments or schools will not be hard to integrate with the SugarUI. Only if this is true, do I predict that the OLPC program will be a success.

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30 Comments

fold this thread Spider  Wednesday, 11 April 2007 o godz. 12:35 am #  Add karma Subtract karma  +0

As someone who has taught computers in third world countries, your analysis comes off as quite funny. Its just not your realm of expertise.

If the laptop is supposed to be used by kids and adolescents together then I believe that enhancements and additional options will be needed in order to satisfy the different requirements of different user groups.

Well, seeing as these are supposed to be distributed to children that don’t have any computers. Any computer will “satisfy the requirements”. I think way too much thought went into the sugar interface as it is. Kids are smart everywhere. It takes a kid thats never seen a computer before, maybe two hours to figure it out.

The OLPC program will be a success if it actually gets computers to kids that wouldn’t have them otherwise. End of story.

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fold this thread Paulo Estrela  Wednesday, 11 April 2007 o godz. 1:17 am #  Add karma Subtract karma  +0

Its ugly! Where is the colors? OLPC project is great, but software sucks! They must know HaikuOS (www.haiku-os.org). Its fast and have great apps (BeOS apps). It is not finished yet, but is a very good start.

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fold this thread michuk  Wednesday, 11 April 2007 o godz. 1:32 am #  Add karma Subtract karma  +0

Its ugly! Where is the colors?

Remember that it’s supposed to look fine also on black and white screen (one of the options OLPC laptops will have to minimize energy consumption).

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fold this thread Bruce Jones  Wednesday, 11 April 2007 o godz. 1:36 am #  Add karma Subtract karma  +0

I think for someone who has never used a computer before the window system is confusing (try teaching your grandmother how to use it) having an application open fullscreen just seems to make sense, you launch an application, it pops up and you can see the whole thing and can use the application straight away, If a window system were used you would have to learn to manipulate windows before you could use the application effectivley (after all how good is a one centimeter square window that you havent learned to expand)

Also on the issue of features etc, im sure if they can get a terminal window open they could make their OLPC laptop just as functional as a regular computer with a regular linux installation. Kids are very good at picking up new things and will go through trial and error relentlessly, they are used to it, therefore it seems only natural to me that once they become comfortable in the sugar environment, they will begin to explore. After all, i started on windows 3.1 but after a year or so began to learn dos anyway because some problems were solved more easily in the command line.(please excuse my grammer… its late)

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fold this thread emk  Wednesday, 11 April 2007 o godz. 2:29 am #  Add karma Subtract karma  +0

The OLPC program will be a success if it actually gets computers to kids that wouldn’t have them otherwise. End of story.

Actually, getting computers into the hands of the kids is just the beginning of the story. What will they do with them? Computers are tools not toys. So the functionality has to be there. Given the high cost of internet access in the developing world the OLPC computer will have to function as the learning/teaching instrument as opposed to just being an internet access device.

Some of what kids can learn and do on OLPC (I hope) would be programming. They could also use the machines as textbook readers if the texts are digitized on CDROM.

Do these laptops have wireless technology? Adhoc wireless networks could be a very useful aspect of OLPC.

THese need to be functional capable machines otherwise even “third world” kids will soon tire of them. I say that as someone who learnt his computing in the so called 3rd world.

emk

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fold this thread Moutaz Haq  Wednesday, 11 April 2007 o godz. 3:21 am #  Add karma Subtract karma  +0

I remember when I got my first computer back in 1994. I was 7 years old at the time. The computer had Win3.11 for workgroups installed. My mom and I tried to figure out how to use it. We had no prior experience with computers.

Guess what?

Not too hard. Almost immediately, we got the hang of clicking around with the mouse. Then we figured out what windows were, and how to minimize, maximize, and close. Within a couple years, I was configuring HIMEM in DOS and writing programs in QBASIC.

Those kids will have no problems figuring out how to use the computer. Especially if they can read the language on the screen (so it might help to make localized versions).

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fold this thread Finalzone  Wednesday, 11 April 2007 o godz. 5:44 am #  Add karma Subtract karma  +0

“Do these laptops have wireless technology? Adhoc wireless networks could be a very useful aspect of OLPC.”

OLPC XO-2 has built-in wireless connection. Check out http://wiki.laptop.org/go/Wireless

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fold this thread a thing  Wednesday, 11 April 2007 o godz. 6:52 am #  Add karma Subtract karma  +0

1. No URL bar in Firefox? Wtf?! Have they been hanging around those crazy GNOME developers too much?

2. Saving in .doc is ridiculous. The goal is to get these to places that don’t have computers, so why start them off bad?

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fold this thread riklaunim  Wednesday, 11 April 2007 o godz. 7:50 am #  Add karma Subtract karma  +0

1. Firefox has url bar

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fold this thread Aivar  Wednesday, 11 April 2007 o godz. 8:06 am #  Add karma Subtract karma  +0

For me the point of Sugar is being different, and i like it. If we don’t dare to let the windows and desktop go then we don’t have a chance to find a better alternative. Minimal interfaces seem to be good place to search.

If sugar fails eventually, then it’s still a good lesson. I think worst would be if sugar will be modified into a mediocre compromise between windows and this novel approach.

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fold this thread Odin / Velmont  Wednesday, 11 April 2007 o godz. 8:08 am #  Add karma Subtract karma  +0

Microsoft Word .doc: That’s so sad. Why didn’t they take the bold route and let Microsoft see how Office needs to support ODF instead? Surely they could’ve made a teacher portal / script for converting from ODF to doc in case someone at the school gets angry for not being able to read the documents in they’re «oh so nice [ugly] MS Office install».

Grr.

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fold this thread Megatux  Wednesday, 11 April 2007 o godz. 11:46 am #  Add karma Subtract karma  +0

Checking the extra screenshots, I notice one thing.
It use Squeak Smalltalk enviroment for some of its graphics programs!!!!?

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fold this thread Anon  Wednesday, 11 April 2007 o godz. 11:51 am #  Add karma Subtract karma  +0

Never underestimate the learning ability of children: http://www.pbs.org/frontlineworld/stories/india/thestory.html

The review isn’t very comprehensive, though you bring up some good points. A file manager and an address bar in the browser are essential, and they will have to fix the GTK theme. Let’s hope that these are just details to be worked out.

Yes, it’s really sad that they seem to be pushing the .doc format. Hopefully it’s only because AbiWord doesn’t support OpenDocument so well yet (or has this changed already?).

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fold this thread Finalzone  Wednesday, 11 April 2007 o godz. 11:58 am #  Add karma Subtract karma  +0

In Firefox there is not even an address bar! In Abiword, the functionality has been crippled to allow only simple formatting (bold, italic, underline, insert image). What is quite astonishing is that the files are saved… in Microsoft .DOC format.

- The browser has address bar integrated. Simply point to the title.
- Abiword can save files in ODF. The issue is mostly from Abiword developers themselves.

The interface is not clear to me. What are these circles and dots doing on top of the screen? It would be nice to see some KDE-like tool-tips for the not-too-intuitive icons, as well as a simple desktop personalizer.

I think the reporter did not do the homework by first reading the OLPC Human Interface Guideline which clearly explain the function of Sugar interface. For example, in OLPC world, applications are called activities. As for the circles:
- multiple dots = neighborhood
- three dots = group
- one dot = home
- one square = activity

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fold this thread michuk  Wednesday, 11 April 2007 o godz. 12:10 pm #  Add karma Subtract karma  +0

I think the reporter did not do the homework by first reading the OLPC Human Interface Guideline which clearly explain the function of Sugar interface.

Do you expect the kids to read those guidelines? Come on! The interface is supposed to be intuitive. Sugar isn’t. Or at least this is what the reviews says.

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fold this thread Finalzone  Wednesday, 11 April 2007 o godz. 7:18 pm #  Add karma Subtract karma  +0

Do you expect the kids to read those guidelines? Come on! The interface is supposed to be intuitive. Sugar isn’t. Or at least this is what the reviews says.

You missed the point. The reporter has enough knowledge to grab information, download the software and has access to the OLPC website. The real problem is you think about the interface in conventional way hence the existence of guideline. Kids will figure out about the interface themselves given their creativity.

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fold this thread Eddie  Wednesday, 11 April 2007 o godz. 8:06 pm #  Add karma Subtract karma  +0

The interface is supposed to be intuitive.

There is no such thing as an intuitive interface. Things are only “intuitive” when we recognize them as similar to what we already know. A light switch is “intuitive” because a light comes on when flipped up and the light goes off when flipped down. Note that the switch doesn’t know up from down and it works just as well when installed “upside down” or sideways but then it is no longer “intuitive.”

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fold this thread michuk  Wednesday, 11 April 2007 o godz. 10:07 pm #  Add karma Subtract karma  +0

Kids will figure out about the interface themselves given their creativity.

I know that kids are smart and will figure out. Heck! I figured out how to hack an ZX Spectrum game without knowing any Spectrum Basic (back in 80′s). Still, why make them fight with an interface which is not very intuitive if you can provide them something more complex and more intuitive?

BTW, I’m not convinced about my point (Sugar being unintuitive for kids — I never used it), I’m just arguing for the sake of interesting conversation :P

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fold this thread Mike Frager  Wednesday, 11 April 2007 o godz. 10:25 pm #  Add karma Subtract karma  +0

They should have taken Steve Jobs up on his offer of free OS X! Nothing they make in a year or two could be as good as Mac OS X.

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fold this thread Allen  Thursday, 12 April 2007 o godz. 6:10 am #  Add karma Subtract karma  +0

I appreciate your review in comparing it to other Linux distros and programs, but I think you’ve missed the point entirely.

These laptops are not designed for adults or even teenagers. They are designed for kids. They are not designed for kids in developed nations, they are designed for kids in third-world or undeveloped nations. they were designed to only provide a little more usability and functionality than the “laptops” V-tech makes for kids and to get those kids in developing nations using computers in as easy a way as possible. No one seriously expects them to do anything more than basic word processing, play a few games, chat with another friend who has the same system, etc. And no one expects High School students or above to be using these. You spoke about streaming music and video; exactly where are they going to stream it from in the African bush? Would they even know what it was?

You and I have probably been with computers since they really became integrated into Modern life. But do you remember the functionality or lack thereof of Windows 3.1 or its apps? This is how we learned computers to begin with. I was using the command line on a Tandy with no hard drive when I was nine. The OLPC system is light years ahead in comparison and will be far more useful to the target group than what they currently have, which is nothing.

Your review would be dead on if you were comparing it against Ubuntu running on a Dell or HP, but what you need to compare it to is the current “laptop” toys offered by V-Tech and other companies within the same price range ($100-$200). I’ve bought one or two of them. The OLPC blows them away in spades from what I’ve seen.

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fold this thread Scott  Monday, 16 April 2007 o godz. 6:17 pm #  Add karma Subtract karma  +0

interesting review, for file management simple enough for kids yet clever enough to do whatever you need on the computer, take a look @ emelfm

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fold this thread Tree Ardy  Monday, 16 April 2007 o godz. 6:29 pm #  Add karma Subtract karma  +0

Squeak: yes, they plan to put Squeak in OLPC. As Smalltalk was developed with children in mind back in seventies, maybe now it is the right time to use it as learning toy – the combination of OOP and Smalltalk grammar really IS intuitive…

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fold this thread Kiki Lavier  Monday, 16 April 2007 o godz. 11:53 pm #  Add karma Subtract karma  +0

I wonder if those who are particularly critical of the OLPC applications either lack the perspective or have forgotten what it was like to go through school without any sort of computers whatsoever.

I didn’t have access to a PC until my last year in college. Before then, all I could do was to have dreamed of such a device that could do the basics of the OLPC device!

None of my classrooms in grammar, high school, or college had PCs. The OLPC device would have been a godsend, even with its “limitations”.

If a teen in some country finds it too simplistic or childish, let him or her be spoiled, and let some truly appreciative child have that OLPC device!

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fold this thread qx  Tuesday, 17 April 2007 o godz. 11:45 am #  Add karma Subtract karma  +0

1. Why you did’nt write nothing about how child do play with it? Just borrow some (neighbours should have, if you don’t) :)
2. Lack of simple filemanager, multimedia apps and others you mentioned is a serious mistake.

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fold this thread raffy  Wednesday, 31 October 2007 o godz. 5:20 am #  Add karma Subtract karma  +0

Quote: ‘they were designed to only provide a little more usability and functionality than the “laptops” V-tech makes..’

LX700, the processor running the OLPC, can decently run mainstream Linuxes, so there is no excuse for OLPC’s software to provide only limited usability.

If the hardware is that capable, but the Sugar platform is not, then it’s quite clear what’s inhibiting the easy adoption of OLPC among the developing world (its supposed customers).

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About the Author

Piotr Maliński

Programmer, journalist. Creator of the CMS, Linux and PHP libraries. Arch Linux/Gentoo user. Creator of a GNU/Linux distribution based on Gentoo: Plusiaczek Live CD.

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