History

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To fully understand the problem that WatermelonPC aims to solve, it’s important to understand the journey that helped shape it. Many of the issues and lessons learned along with way contributed to the final design.

The idea for WatermelonPC started many years ago from my personal frustration with providing technical support for friends and loved ones, especially my father. I noticed what a hopeless task this was and knew that so many of my friends faced the same challenges.

My dad attended a science/engineering magnet high school and worked for many years as an electronics technician. Despite not attending college or university due to family obligations, he was and still is a very smart man.

My Dad’s computers

In the past 25 years, my Dad has gone through a few computers and operating systems.

CompuServe

In 1993, I gave my parents their very first computer, an IBM PS/2 that reached EOL at IBM where I was working. This computer ran DOS and I had installed CompuServe on it so that they could communicate with me over email. This was the primary (and probably only) use that this computer had. Both of my parents used this computer to send and receive email and they had little trouble doing so. CompuServe provided a very simple interface that they quickly mastered.

Sometime in the late 1990’s or early 2000’s CompuServe discontinued the service that they were using, and we needed to find an alternative for them.

Windows

The CompuServe computer was eventually replaced by a parade of Windows computers running either Windows 95 or Windows 8. These computers were generally purchased at used computer stores at a low price because my father didn’t think he needed anything that was fancy and powerful.

The jump from CompuServe’s easy to use interface to the organized chaos of Windows was difficult for my father to make and was in fact the point where my mother completely abandoned using the computer for anything. I spent considerable time slowly going through all of the elements of the interface and while he became proficient at email and casual web browsing, he never fully grasped many simple computer concepts.

I was unable to look at the computer for months at a time, but when I did, I typically found the following situation:

  • A multitude of installed browser toolbars
  • Several malware infections
  • Browser hijacking – what he thought was Google was not Google
  • A bizarre browser history (e.g. using Google to search for Google)

Additionally, there were still some simple concepts that were misunderstood. For instance, if the browser window that he was working in was obscured by a popup or he accidently clicked on another window, he’d view this a “the computer is broken again” situation which would require a hard reboot.

When I had access to this computer, I’d spend a large amount of time trying to remove viruses and restore order. I tried not to reinstall the operating system for fear of deleting some important files. Eventually, I realized that there were never any files worth keeping and so I’d simply wipe the system and reinstall from scratch. Despite installing an anti-virus system and trying to lock things down, I’d find a similar state the next time I had a look.

Linux

At some point I realized that:

  1. Microsoft Windows was far too easy a target for malware distributors to maintain system integrity.
  2. My Dad did not take advantage of any of the Windows features other than the ability to use a browser.

If this was true, perhaps he could be migrated to a system that was less problematic like Linux. The next time I had access to that computer I installed a version of Ubuntu. I showed him how to start a browser and he came up to speed quite quickly. Because he used a familiar browser, the shift from Windows to Ubuntu was much easier than I had anticipated.

Ubuntu proved to be a better solution, although many of the simple confusions from Windows still exists. Additionally, despite being a more robust and secure operating system. I still see that issues such as browser hijacking remain a problem. When I get access to that computer, I do a complete reinstall of Ubuntu.

What I learned

  • My Dad’s life is enhanced by having access to a computer. He uses it for communications (i.e. email, Facebook) and for accessing information on the internet.
  • My Mom has no interest in the computer and is intimidated by it. She views it as a source of perpetual maintenance and always in a state of disrepair. Furthermore, she sees no value in the benefits it delivers. I believe that there is a large population of people who are in this category.
  • My Dad does not need a computer. He needs a browser. All of the services that he uses and needs are best delivered through a browser.
  • My Dad needs a computer that is completely locked down. He cannot be relied upon to recognize when something is not right.
  • My Dad does not need to store any files locally.
  • The physical computer that my Dad uses is easily replaced by another computer that’s been configured the same way. No migration of any data needs to take place.
  • My Dad is very fortunate to have someone he can call when he has computer trouble. If not for me, he’d likely pack things up and never use them again.
  • It’s often very difficult to provide support for his minor problems because he does not have sufficient understanding nor the vocabulary to properly describe an issue (e.g. “There used to be a red button on the right. Where did it go?”). My inability to see his screen makes support far more difficult.

Requirements for WatermelonPC

  • A browser-centric operating environment.
  • A limited number of choices for things to do in the interface. Things should be clearly marked and available at a consistent place.
  • A completely locked down computer that is immune to any sorts of malware. If the computer were to run on a read-only operating system, this would be ideal.
  • Tools provided to the user’s support system to provide help when necessary.
  • When a catastrophic error occurs (e.g. a hardware failure), the end user should be able to recover from this by himself. This suggests that the computer should be
    • Small and easily moved
    • Completely identical to the other computers of the same model. A computer that’s been used for 2 years should be able to be swapped out with a new computer of the same model with no other changes necessary.

My father is not unique

My dad is special, but he’s not that different from your dad: In talking with family and friends and reading things on the internet it’s obvious that my Dad’s issues with computers are felt by a large population of people.

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