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Sugar: $100 laptop's bittersweet interface

Educational hardware pioneer One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) has its hands full juggling priorities--developing nations, pricing and user interface (UI) among them. Nick Negroponte's nonprofit recently published screenshots and test downloads of its freshly-designed UI, called Sugar. Built from scratch at Red Hat, it features a plump little stick figure in the center--representing the user--other stick figures to indicate nearby users in the wireless network, and tasks or programs arrayed in a circle around the central figure.

Sugar screen shot

Bloggers and open-source aficionados, international do-gooders and operating system junkies are having a field day. Besides the usual raft of questions of implementation, distribution and real need in developing nations, Sugar is provoking a bevy of discussions about beta testing and the merits (or demerits) of an exclusively-iconic symbol system. That means there's no text associated with an icon: OLPC wants to serve any country's users without creating native-language versions for each shipment. Early recipients are complaining that experienced techies can't figure it out. Guess what, though: It's not for grown-ups, remember?

Blog community response:

"Creativity is of course very important, but it has to be tempered within the requirements of the target audience. You gather requirements by speaking to the target audience, testing your designs on them and generally involving them in the design process. I wonder exactly how much of this is going on."
--90 percent of everything

"They've already developed it and they haven't tested it with kids yet? Wow. No wonder our field has so much work. It's dumb decisions like this one that keep us all gainfully employed, cleaning up after the technologists' mistakes. "
--Usability blog

"The OLPC is a fantastic project that if successful could play a major role in changing the lives of many children. With such an ambitious goal, it is easy to go with the flow and try to cause an impact by making more changes than necessary to the UI in order to try and be revolutionary. "