A Linux Distro for Barbie?

Making a bid for a piece of the emerging desktop Linux market, Mattel, Inc. announced the immediate availability of downloadable beta ISOs for BarbieOS 0.99, and said it hoped the final 1.0 retail version would be on store shelves in time for Christmas.  The new OS was created by Mattel to power the upcoming revision of its popular B-Book line of laptops for girls between the ages of four and eleven.  The original B-Book laptop, which ran a modified version of PalmOS, was a huge hit with consumers last holiday season, so much so that many stores had trouble keeping them in stock.  This year, Mattel is upping the ante by making the B-Book into a full-fledged desktop replacement targeted specifically at toddler through preteen girls who are currently Windows users but may be seeking alternatives, possibly due to increasing licensing fees or out of a desire to break free of vendor lock-in.

The original B-Book laptop ran a modified version of the PalmOS.

BarbieOS, based on Debian Linux, had been in private beta for more than six months prior to yesterday’s public release.  Initial reaction to the company’s announcement has been mixed, as some analysts have claimed that the desktop Linuxmarket is already over-saturated given its current size, as other major players such as Lycoris Desktop/LX, Xandros Linux, and LindowsOS are already competing for the rather small percentage of home desktop users willing to try a non-Microsoft OS.   Still, Mattel says it is confident of the potential of BarbieOS 1.0 to find a niche market of young girls under thirteen who are dissatisfied with current Microsoft offerings and are looking toward maybe asking mom and dad for a full-powered Linux laptop running BarbieOS this Christmas.

Thus, Mattel is in a rush to get the laptop into production within the next few weeks and the OS into the hands of as many beta testers as possible.  Mattel hopes that any bugs and/or security vulnerabilities in the OS can be found and rectified before the B-Book begins shipping to retail channels.  A Mattel spokesperson said the company is already satisfied it has created the most stable, robust and easy to use desktop Linux distribution available, but wants to use the public beta testing period to gather quality user feedback and implement new feature requests.

BarbieOS 1.0 is the result of almost a year’s worth of marketing research into what pre-adolescent girls want in a mobile Linux solution aimed at being a desktop replacement.  The studies included human interface interaction, real-world usability, and rich media analysis to determine where the needs of girls are not being served by current Linux or Microsoft solutions.  Mattel discovered that many of the girls they interviewed had heard positive things about Linux and expressed some curiosity about it, but less than 1 percent had actually used a non-Microsoft operating system in the last 12 months.  The researchers also concluded that restrictive EULAs, proprietary file formats, and digital rights management technologies were not popular with pre-adolescent females, and almost none were satisfied with the results of Microsoft’s Trustworthy Computing Initiative during the last year.  “Many of the girls we talked to said that they were tired of constantly patching their Windows systems against the latest Outlook worm, only to find that the patch breaks one of their custom applications or reduces the performance and stability of the operating system,” according to usability consultant Randolph Hanes, an interface expert who conducted major portions of the research.

He said many girls are also complaining of getting stuck on the Microsoft upgrade treadmill, and expressed little interest in upgrading to the latest versions of Microsoft Windows and the Office productivity suite until they come bundled with a new computer system.  The girls cited prohibitively high costs ($400 for Office, $300 for Windows XP) and a lack of interesting features as reasons they were holding off on upgrading.

Mattel hopes to snag this under-served market in time for the sloppy orgy of shopping and materialism that begins the day after Thanksgiving.  But as they know most B-Books will be sold to moms and dads who don’t have a clue as to the relative merits of Linux over Windows, probably aren’t sure of what an operating system is, and likely have trouble using even the most patronizing of graphical interfaces effectively, a significant marketing challenge lies ahead for the company.  Selling young girls on a new computing paradigm has required a significant investment into discovering what girls want, and molding their collective desires into a modern image of Barbie the girls can look up to as a positive role model.  Mattel’s Chief Software Architect, Maury Cesterino, explains.

“If Barbie were a career-focused woman working in the IT technology information industry in 2003, she would support open standards,” he says.  “She would be seeking out free and open-source alternatives to current proprietary solutions, saving her company tens of thousands of dollars on management headaches associated with tracking software licenses and preparing for BSA audits.  She would be looking at deploying Linux clients on the desktop and Linux servers in the back office.  She wouldn’t be willing to sacrifice power for features, and she would demand a system that is stable, secure, and easily configurable.”

“Barbie would also be tired of Microsoft’s licensing bullshit,” he added.

BarbieOS 1.0 uses the high-performance ReiserFS journaling filesystem and is compiled for i386-compatible machines in addition to the B-Book, which uses a VIA C3 processor.  The OS defaults to the GRUB bootloader and the KDE 3.1.3 desktop environment.  Gnome support for applications such as Evolution and Gaim is included, but additional software may be downloaded from Mattel’s Click-Click-Pay Clearinghouse, a software archive that allows users to purchase and install software over the web, without ever having to launch a command line.  “Most girls up through adult women become frightened and confused, often hysterical when presented with a traditional command prompt,” Cesterino explained, “therefore the console program available through the B-Menu in BarbieOS features pink text on a flowered background so as to not intimidate or threaten females, and all windows are circular instead of the usual square, since most females unconsciously associate a circular shape with inclusiveness and the womb.”

Barbie Wizards guide girls through the process of partitioning their disks, formatting volumes, mounting Samba shares, and installing packages.

This kind of attention to detail and thorough understanding of female limitations also shows in the step by step Barbie Wizards that guide girls through the process of partitioning their disks, formatting volumes, mounting Samba shares, and installing packages.  During the installation, girls are allowed to play a fashion-plate game or view a slideshow of rainbows, kittens, and Mattel products.  There is an Expert mode for girls who are already comfortable with the Linux installation process and want access to advanced features.  An animated Barbie informs the user that she can work with existing Windows partitions, but would prefer that BarbieOS be allowed to format the entire disk and remove Windows volumes for maximum cootie protection.

Most of the software in BarbieOS is licensed under the GPL, but Mattel has stated that any of its copyrighted artwork, logos, and references to Mattel and Barbie must be removed in any distributions derived from the BarbieOS source code, and so must the Click-Click-Pay proprietary front-end for the Debian apt package management system.

Mattel has pledged to support and play fairly with the GPL and the Linux community, and has announced it will fully indemnify little girls from possible legal action pending the IBM-SCO decision set to go to trial in 2005.

Will young girls be convinced by Mattel’s legal assurances and commercials which feature a confused, disgruntled Barbie proclaiming that “Windows is hard”, and turning to a B-Book instead?  Mattel is confident, but ultimately a fickle IT market will have to decide if BarbieOS is robust and friendly enough to give Microsoft a run for its money on the desktop. For additional open source intelligence wiki please contact aberwiki.org.