The Sugar UI

I've largely been ignoring Nicholas Negroponte's One Laptop Per Child initiative. I appreciate the nobility of the gesture, but how interesting can sub-$100 hardware running Linux really be? Well, that was before I read about the novel user interface they're building into those small green and white laptops.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original blog entry at:

Speaking as the parent of two young children (5 and 2 years old), I think the Sugar UI would work very well for them–both of them. To a large extent, it already matches many of the computer games they play on my PC and on their GameBoys. (Yes, the 2-year old has a GameBoy of her own.) The 5-year old can’t read the instructions for all his games yet, so all the games he plays have mystery meat UI. But he loves playing them anyway. He tries things out until he figures out what works, and then remembers what the symbols mean. From then on, he experiments and explores how those symbols can be used in different contexts.

The important thing that the OLPC will introduce to kids who have never used a computer before is the very concept of a UI that allows them to manipulate objects in an abstract space. Once they have that, picking up Windows or OS X is just a matter of extending concepts they already have, rather than introducing new ones.

I think the amount of “useful work” a 5-year old will be able to do on a Sugar-based OLPC is going to be substantially greater than the amount they would be able to do on a MacBook loaded with OS X. That’s “useful work” in a 5-year old sense, of course. I don’t think anyone’s suggesting that the Sugar UI should be adopted by web programmers or office workers around the world. (Hence the “One Laptop Per Child” name.)

Of course, then there’s stuff like this, which scares me:

According to [the article on Yahoo! news I already cited in my entry] the OLPC “Sugar” UI has had absolutely no user testing carried out on it yet. Shameful stuff! I’ve also heard rumours that the UI design has taken place predominantly behind closed doors at Redhat. In other words, apparently no prototypes, mock-ups or even sketches have been put in front of any of the target user groups to ascertain whether the proposed features are either useful or usable.

There’s a bit more followup on his concerns here:

‘I appreciate the nobility of the gesture, but how interesting can sub-$100 hardware running Linux really be?’

Wow… Is running Windows on sub-$100 hardware more interesting?

Is there any information wheter Sugar’s comming to a linux distribution besides of OPLC? I’d really like to try this on Ubuntu or something…

Transhumanist: recall that the population of the Earth is roughly 6 billion people. Social skills are useful, and are only going to become more useful as time goes on. Don’t make “hyperbolic generalized assertion[s]”, or at least implications, of your own.

My concern is that whilst the interface is innovative - Why should we teach and encourage children to interact by computer when they are NEAR each other? Surely children still have things to learn about collaboration at the sand-pit, sharing a painting project over a single large sheet of paper, and so on? Or whatever equivalents they might use around the world.

There is an amusing and poignant blog entitled “7 Reasons the 21st Century is making us Miserable” by David Wong. ( )

I for one can honestly say that a fascination with the silicon world hampered my human interactions, even though I only used computers from my teens. The internet has allowed far more interactions with real people, but it still does not compare to the real world. And I for one have decided never to touch WoW or Second Life because, well honestly, I think I (and a good few other people) should really try and concentrate on making the First Life a bit better :slight_smile:

Re: Luciano

While an avid user of ratpoison, I really wouldn’t call it new or innovative. It has really just taken the old UNIX utility screen and made it work in X not just text consoles.

Usable, great bit of software, but not really innovative.

“But when was the last time anyone tried a radically different UI on the desktop?”

When and Where you searched for !?

This is like Windows, OS X, Gnome, KDE ?

Of course ratpoison has a different use case that Sugar, but it’s innovative, don’t ?


Computers are an integral part of our society nowadays and I would disagree that it is likely to impair children’s social interactions. Why not let them learn about collaboration in the sand pit and with a painting project, while at the same time they can use their laptops as just another tool to learn. At some point they’re going to be forced to use a computer, why not make it something familiar?

I do wonder, though, about the logic of teaching children to use a computer using a completely unique user interface. Sure, current UIs have tended to be based on whatever was easiest to conjure up and what was not too different from what everyone was used to. The solutions we have now are far from the best or most intuitive, however they are the solutions we have. Surely the children are going to have to learn to use a real-world user interface sooner or later and as much as we might not like the current state of UIs, how likely is it that we will witness any significant change in the near future?

While I fall into the category who say, “teach kids to think well enough to see through The Shrub; not be really good at video games”; I’ve marveled for decades that the structure of GUIs, at least mainstream ones, are rehashes of physical devices. Radio buttons for pity’s sake. Sugar seems to have started from the two basic principles: a pointing device and a bunch of pixels.

“Largely ignoring” he says.

I’m largely ignoring 99.999% of everything that happens. If I wasn’t, I’d be autistic. I’m not singling OLPC out here; it goes in the same discretionary bucket as everything else.

Is running Windows on sub-$100 hardware more interesting?

Commodity sub-$100 hardware isn’t interesting, and using off-the-shelf commodity software of any type, open-source or otherwise, certainly isn’t interesting. At that point, it’s all a question of cutting and packaging.

But the Sugar UI is real innovation, real RD and thus quite interesting. I’m still quite concerned that they’re not doing usability testing of any kind on this experimental work-- round up some third-world (or even second-world) kids with no computer experience and give them a task, an OLPC prototype, and see what happens. Until they do this, they’re designing in an ivory tower, and they’re probably destined to fail.

The idea that a UI has to be “simple” for kids to use it was destroyed by that guy who put a computer in a slum in India. It was a Windows machine and they took to it pretty much immediately. He didn’t even hook up a keyboard and they figured out how to enter text on it! Kids figure out games like nobody’s business, too, even when the UI varies from game to game. They’re curious and love to explore, at least until they get that beaten out of them in high school, and they’ll figure out anything if they have a good enough reason to.

Which basically means that it almost wouldn’t matter what UI they put on the OLPC, and the lack of user testing is probably not a biggie, but it also means that the OLPC designers have the opportunity to try something new, and I salute them for grabbing the chance by the horns.

Is it just me, or does this UI remind anyone of the student tablets in “Ender’s Game”?

Greg, I did not mean to imply that children should be prevented from using computers, but rather that ‘we’ (developers) should be careful what we let the user to do - especially as they are children. I see the ‘Buddies’ feature of the Neighbourhood to be the first step on a slippery slope; I’ve just finished a blog on the topic here (with speculative pictures of potential software enhancements - ooh aah):

The whole subject of PC’s targeted to school children is not one I’d really though of before. The wireless aspect raises the bar even more, as does the physical location aspect I mention in my blog. Even though the network is wireless, in a school environment some sense of physical location is probably useful… not to mention security as presumably we do not want ‘undesirables’ sitting outside the school gates yet virtually ‘inside’ the school because they happen to have obtained an OLPC laptop?

On the other hand, it is very difficult for me / us(?) to understand how these machines will be used in different countries, especially ones that are not first-world - so perhaps I just muddy the waters by thinking about physical location and security and sand-pits?

Everytime I have seen an article about the OLPC I have said the same thing, and for some reason I usually get slammed for it.

Anyway, it’s all fun from our perspective to learn kids a weird interface that no professional computer will ever use but do they learn how to use computers ? Do they prepare for the real world ? Will they get jobs if they say “I have experience with OLPC” ?

The Windows / Mac / Linux user interface is standard, you shouldnt teach kids an awkward toy like user interface.

Just watched the video. It’s too bad that it’s just a UI and not something more ambitious. I can see a lot of non-intuitive features of the underlying OS shining through.

Why should there be a difference between starting a program and switching back to a program already running, for example? Why should they have to figure out how to close applications?

Why should a child have to figure out that they need to save in Abiword? Just always save the current document and let them switch documents when needed.

Congratulations on being so very Web 2.0.

If you have “largely been ignoring” Negroponte’s One Laptop Per Child initiative because you dismiss it as “noble but not interesting”, you are blinded by your specialization and your ego. How fortunate that OLPC has survived the crushing blow of being largely ignored by you.

Negroponte’s team is doing something real for the people of this world. You are writing an oh-so-vital blog. One may make mistakes but is yet both visionary and aiming to do practical good in a corpocratic world.

The other takes almost no effort or discipline, is without any qualitative measure other than total number of visits by Digg zombies, and achieves nothing. Very Web 2.0 indeed.

This project is very interestings, but I have to wonder if education will really improve just because the kids have a laptop computer. I love computers as much as anyone, but there is a difference between learning how to use a computer and learning through the use of a computer. The first situation is imperative today, the second is very often wishful thinking. Every few years I fall into the trap of thinking that if I buy a new PDA I’ll somehow become organized. It never works. PDAs are really just toys for me that always disappoint after the novelty has worn off. I’m curious, do we think laptops are helpful to education, or do we all just like toys?

I sincerely hope Sugar feels unintuitive:

ISurely children still have things to learn about collaboration at the sand-pit, sharing a painting project over a single large sheet of paper, and so on? Or whatever equivalents they might use around the world./I

Please refrain from writing “the” with the assumption that the noun being described is integral (in this case, a sand box/pit). Sand pits aren’t much less artificial than computers, it is only likely that you have become so accustomed to seeing them that you associate them as a necessary part of social interaction. The notion that children should be socializing and interacting with other children is only useful if one wants to produce children that are devoid of intelligence; any child who learns how to reason objectively will not need much social interaction, as social interaction only furthers one’s understanding of cultural subjectivities. I can only assume that parents want their children to interact with other children for the selfish cause of producing children that are more like they are.