THERE’S a sleek, fast train called technology, and it’s heading for the horizon at a rate of knots. From inside the carriage, it’s possible to gawp at the changing landscape, and wonder where it may take you next.
But how do you get on the damn thing in the first place?
No matter how popular something becomes, there will always be those who are still on the platform. This isn’t a question of intelligence.
There are plenty of people who don’t send email or check websites, just as there are millions who can’t truly enjoy the style of a Dickens novel because they don’t read English.
There are some who say they’re never going to get it.
Andy Hudson of the Broadband Computer Company is one of the folk trying to break down a different wall; the wall that keeps your 80-year-old grandmother from opening that email with pictures of Timmy’s first steps.
He said: “We’ve been focused on the disenfranchised, because there are an awful lot of them.”
Newcastle’s Broadband Computer Company was set up more than four years ago to develop an easy way of operating all the simple functions of a computer, without all the trouble of building or buying a new machine.
The Alex system can work with any computer, and enables a first-timer to send email, edit and collect photos, look on the web, play videos and communicate with friends and family.
Hudson said: “It used to be younger people asking for wisdom from older people, but that’s all been turned on its head when it comes to computers.
“I hear a lot of people say they’ve survived this long without a computer, and they don’t need one now. That’s not true, but if you’re a proud person you don’t want to be asking people for help on something all the time.
“I was late to computers myself as I was in my 50s, but I got into them in a big way. I’ve met some incredibly clever 65-year-olds who just don’t get it. We take so much of this for granted. People watch their kids tap away saying it’s easy, but it isn’t.”
Alex is designed as a home computer system, but has been used both on personal laptops and communal computers in places such as care homes.
Users receive their own “latchkey”, a USB stick which effectively contains their entire computer desktop, including their email addresses, their documents, their photos and their calendar. Once this is plugged in and the password is typed in, users see a simple layout of coloured buttons that enable them to complete simple tasks.
They pay for the system on a monthly basis as a subscription product.
Hudson said: “Your average disenfranchised user wants to go on this web thing and look things up.
“They want to do their shopping online when it’s cold and wet. They want to check and send email because their family are scattered to the four winds, and they want to look at pictures.
“They’re also keen to take advantage of things like iPlayer, so they’re more in charge of their life and can watch what they want, when they want.”
Programmes such as the email client and photo manipulation software were designed by the company itself, while the browser was created with Nokia and the office package with a German firm called SoftMaker.
Features such as back-up and anti-virus are handled by the company itself, and the system has pre-installed software to avoid viruses.
The company has done a lot of research on the best ways people can interact with technology.
The word processor focuses on a smaller list of popular editing commands, while a document can be automatically re-formatted as a letter or another form of communication.
The photos can be cropped, saved or sent using simple commands, and friends and family can fill out contact forms and send them to the Alex users to be copied into their address books with the touch of a “yes” button.
In order to make the process understandable, even the language associated with computing has sometimes had to be changed.
Hudson said: “Do you know the compression ratio of your car? You probably don’t, but do you need that to drive your car?
“We’ve been told all this information about gigabytes, but what does this mean to someone who just wants to send an email?
“When we did research, one word that meant nothing to anyone who didn’t use a computer was the word browse, so that’ll be replaced by find.
“It’s the same with import. People get it if you explain it to them, but if you have to explain it there’s something wrong.”
The Alex operating system is based on the Ubuntu Linux system with a layer of tweaks, and can operate on top of Microsoft Windows.
While later operating systems such as Windows 7 require a lot of memory just to start, the relatively low memory demands of Alex mean it can be used to bring discarded computers back from the dead.
Hudson said: “We like the idea of resurrecting computers because it’s environmentally friendly.
“If you’ve got a computer lying around that’s a little old, would you give that to your mum? Of course you would.
“Would you give that to your mum if you were going to spend the next six months coming round to sort issues out? Probably not.
“With this system, it’s much simpler, and I’ve seen people go from complete beginners to being fairly adept scarily quickly.”
Of course, there are a lot of people out there who aren’t yet engaged with technology, and we’re not just talking about Britain.
For example, while there are 70 computers per 100 people in Britain, in Russia there are just 11, making mass adoption of technology tricky without a way of making the system simple or sharing a single machine.
The company is hoping to list on the stock exchange in Germany next month to raise money necessary to spread the word across the world, although there is also interest for potential private investors in the venture.
Hudson said: “We were advised that the German stock exchange is actually much more entrepreneurial and into ideas and people. We were told our type of business might not succeed on the English market, but would be much more promising in Germany.
“We need to seriously raise money to reach the level of impact we want. It’s got huge potential, not just in the disenfranchised Western world, but other countries and in the Third World as well.” While the Broadband Computer Company is also looking at the potential of a business version which allows people such as contractors, dentists, hairdressers or shop owners to keep a record of finances without too much complication, it is currently focusing on getting as many people online as possible.
While Hudson says the helpline does not receive many calls about the Alex system itself, he says many do phone with queries about broadband connection, website issues, and often just for a little guidance.
He says: “We sometimes get letters from people thanking us for changing their lives. I think we must be one of the few call centres to get presents from customers at Christmas.”