Balsa Prototype

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Balsa is a hardware+software computer solution for use by language workers in remote areas, where infrastructure for computer use is a major problem. More about the goals see Balsa: Basic Language Software Appliance

So far, SIL has produced two prototypes of Balsa.

  1. Based on Xubuntu Intrepid, created by installing Xubuntu to a real system.
  2. Based on Xubuntu Jaunty, created using an automated builder process.
  3. Based on Xubuntu Lucid, also includes better installation including from Windows.

Other possible base systems for Balsa include Ubuntu Netbook Edition and MeeGo.


Balsa Beta-1 (Lucid)

A quick set of instructions for setting up a computer with the Balsa are available: A Quick Start for Balsa

The Lucid prototype has the same automated builder as Jaunty, but has significantly changed the distribution and installation, particularly for installation on a Windows machine.

Prototype 2 (Jaunty)

This prototype can also use the tarball distribution mechanism. However, due to the use of an automated builder that is driven by a description called a "buildfile", it is open to customization through editing of the buildfile before running the builder process.

The Jaunty prototype will run on OLPC XO hardware.

Prototype 1 (Intrepid)

This is available by downloading a tarball from the main Balsa site. This tarball is installed onto a newly-formatted SD card. It can be done on the OLPC XO itself by putting the tarball onto a USB flash drive and following the instructions.

The tarball was produced by a manual process which involved installing Xubuntu to a real system, adding users and installing packages, and then saving the result.

This prototype is described on the main site, so isn't described any further here.

Balsa Hardware Requirements

Some notes on the hardware required to run Balsa are available: Balsa Hardware Requirements

The Balsa User Environment

The Balsa user environment uses the launcher-based UI with a tabbed taskbar. There are six tabs:

  1. Work (screen shot)
  2. Write & Draw (screen shot)
  3. Learning & Fun (screen shot)
  4. Record & Play (screen shot)
  5. Internet (screen shot)
  6. Settings (screen shot)

The screen shots are from the Beta-1 (Lucid) prototype.

Obtaining A Balsa SD Card Image

You can download a Balsa image for either 4 gigabyte or 8 gigabyte SD cards.

Alternatively, the instructions for Running the Balsa Builder tell you how to build a Balsa SD card image from scratch.

Preparing and Using a Balsa Card

After creating and copying the BalsaRoot SD card, you may insert the card into an unlocked OLPC XO computer. Turn the computer on and it will recognize and boot from the card.

For Jaunty A non-XO system will need some separate preparation. There are separate pages for:


Bugs may be reported using the Balsa Bugzilla database. Please check to see if the same or a similar bug exists in the database before adding a new one.

The pages Overview of Balsa on a Windows Host and Overview of Balsa on a Linux Host give a technical overview of the Balsa installation. More information is available on the page Other Advanced Balsa Configurations.

Contacting the developers

If you have any difficulty following these instructions, or have questions that are not covered here, you can contact the team in these ways:

  • Leave comments on the discussion tab associated with this page (requires registration). Please sign your comments using the "add signature" button in the editing toolbar
  • Use our IRC channel
  • Send a message to balsa-dev at

Running the builder creates a sibling directory to balsa-builder named balsa-results. In that directory it creates a file named latest_log. Including this in queries will help us to address any difficulties. When using IRC or the discussion tab, we recommend uploading the file to a service like and pasting the resulting URL.

Known bugs

Undetectable errors are infinite in variety, in contrast to detectable errors, which by definition are limited — Gilb's 3rd Law of Unreliability

Some of the applications included with Balsa have dialog boxes that are too large for netbook screens. If you hold down the <ALT> key while dragging the dialogue box, you can move the portions of the box that are off the screen onto the screen. Use this work-around to get access to buttons that are off the screen.

Consult the Balsa Bugzilla database for an up-to-date list of outstanding bugs.

Notes for Specific Applications Running Under Balsa

Re-Initializing Balsa

This section is for advisors only. If you need to completely re-initialize Balsa, you can do it this way:

  1. Backup all your files both for the advisor account and the Balsa user account
  2. Restart the machine
  3. At the Balsa login Screen type <Ctrl-ALT>F1. You will have a text screen login with a terminal session.
  4. Log in as advisor. The password is the same as for the graphical login.
  5. Type the following commands:
cd /
sudo umount /home
sudo rm -rf /media/nand/balsafiles
sudo reboot

This will remove all the files from the Balsa system. You can restore what you need from the backup you made.