Is Linux Grandma Ready?

Linux is more than grandma-ready. Linux is by far the preferred operating system for most grandmas.

The other day graduates of my UMN degree program presentations of their work. One of the students had borrowed a laptop from the UMN unit she worked for to give an on screen presentation. She had borrowed a Windows XP computer the week before for the practice session, and everything went fine. But this time, with the same computer, same software, same presentation, etc. she could not get it working.

At the last second, I whipped out my laptop, booted it up, we threw her presentation on it and she was good to go. At the end of her presentation she gave acknowledgments, and added “… and I thank Greg Laden for coming to the rescue with his computer…” I added “Actually, we should thank Linus Torvalds for inventing the Linux Operating System.”

That happens to me all the time at the University. It is one of the ways I contribute to OpenSource: I keep my Linux Laptop handy and come to the rescue when someone’s PC won’t perform, or when they can’t get their Mac hooked up right, for a presentation. Then, of course, I briefly gloat about it.

My wife’s grandma lives not too far away, and there are family gatherings at her house every several weeks. The most recent was for a couple of birthdays, last Sunday. Grandma’s son, my father in law, had the task on this trip of carting away Grandma’s old computer, which needed to be replaced in order to run a more current Windows operating system. Grandma uses her computer for exactly two things: Writing memoirs and using email.

Every single time there is a family gathering at Grandma’s her son has some important task regarding the computer, something he has to do to make it work. One day the “send/receive email” button disappeared and he had to find it and put it back. There have been problems with hooking to the internet, and there have been other software problems. The Windows operating system and the Microsoft software have never really worked properly for more than a few weeks, apparently, or when it does work, there is some kind of hardware incompatibility. But between tweeks and repairs, Grandma does get some of her writing and emailing done.

As you may imagine, every time my father in law is busy messing with Grandma’s computer I’m always there to assist with helpful advice like “Hey, if that was a Linux computer, you wouldn’t be doing this right now. You’d be in the living room with me sipping some 35 year old Scotch….” and similar wise cracks. Indeed, almost exactly two years ago (in preparation for his daughter’s wedding … to me … ) he had been so frustrated by Microsoft PCs that he went out and bought a Mac (so he could make the obligatory Ken Burns style retrospective slide show for the wedding reception). It turns out that the Mac did not work well for him. As is the case with many long time PC users, the Mac does not really feel right. The Apple Mackintosh motto is “It just works.” If you are a long time PC user, that is not true. The reality for many is “It just doesn’t do anything like I expect it to… I can never get it to work, and it looks funny.” His Mac now serves as a pretty good quality small TV, and of course my daughter uses it because, as a 12 year old, she’s pretty competent in all operating systems.

(That is not meant to be a disparaging remark about Macs. They do work, and they are great, but they are not, in fact, for everyone.)

So, would grandma be better off with a Linux computer? Let’s break it down.

Installation. Grandma does not install her own system, so this variable does not matter. Installing any operating system on any computer can be a pain. The easiest installation method is to buy a new computer with the system already installed. If you buy a “consumer” or “home and business” computer running windows, the next step is to remove all the crap software that is bundled with the system and install real software. That will never really work properly, and you will be haunted by nag screens and half-functioning scanner software forever. Even if you don’t have a scanner.

Keep your credit card handy for the installtion, because you will have to buy productivity software that actually works, and possibly a codex or two if you are going to play any games on this box while Grandma is at church.

If you buy a “business” computer that stuff won’t come installed (hey, go look at the Dell site … not having the crap software is listed as a feature for their business computers!). If you buy a pretty typical computer and don’t care about the stupid extra buttons on the “multimedia keyboard” (which will require a Windows driver), then installing Ubuntu Linux will take less time than a fresh install of Windows. After you enter the basic data (name, password, time zone, etc.) the installation will probably run unattended until it is finished. Since Linux runs with more hardware than Windows, you are less likely to have a hardware conflict. But remember, we’re talking bout Grandma’s computer here. From Grandma’s perspective, the system is installed. So none of this matters. It just works.

Email. For years, I used a variety of Windows based email systems, always switching back and forth from Outlook, which promised so much but has never ever worked properly, to Eudora or some other client. Now, I use Evolution at home and Outlook at work. When I open Evolution at home, it is instantly available. The search function works well, it is overall very crisp and full featured. When I turn Outlook on at work, on a managed Windows computer, I press the outlook icon and go get a cup of coffee, because I have 25 minutes before the software will settle down and be available for me to use. (Full disclosure: This is on startup, so 15 of those minutes is the virus checker hogging memory from Outlook.) Then it kinda works but is very annoying, and the search function sucks.

I know that Evolution or any of a number of other Linux based OpenSource email clients would work better than Outlook Express or Outlook, from grandma’s perspective.

Writing the Memoirs. There is a good chance that Microsoft Word works fine for Grandma’s memoirs, but so would OpenOffice writer. They would be about the same. But what about the transition between the two for finding some of the more obscure features on the menus, you ask? Well, this is Grandma’s memoir writing computer. She needs to make new files, open old files, and save files. She needs the back space and the ability to type in letters and digits and spaces. Quite possibly, she doesn’t even use cut and paste.

Backups. Here is where Linux beats Windows hands down, for two reasons. First of all, system related information (like the list of installed software, etc. and details needed to run the software and manage hardware) in Windows is stored in the registry or equivalent (I think Vista calls it something else). In Linux it is all in text files. “So what,” you say, “It is not like Grandma is going to read these text files or mess with the registry.” Well, the total amount of data (to do the same thing) in the two operating systems is vastly different, with Windows being bloated and Linux being lean and mean. In Windows, important data, such as your emails, are stored in secret places that change from version to version of the operating system, often in binary files that are hard to manage. There is a very clumsily separation, and often lack of separation, between user files and system related files, and there is not a simple storage method that allows users … or backup programs … to find the files.

In Linux, there is a somewhat esoteric looking directory structure that has the following feature: There is a single directory for each user (in this case, Grandma) within which are all of the data needed to specify Grandma’s system configuration, and within which are all of Grandma’s files. Indeed, the best way to configure a Linux system is this: Create a small virtual hard drive for the system and all the software (Linux and Linux-running software does not take up much room) and another virtual hard drive for all your stuff. You put this special directory I mention (home) on the second drive.

In order to back up the system, all you do is to compress the contents of this second drive (if you want) and dump it on the backup medium. End of process. You can do incremental backups if you want, of course. The point is, if in Windows you back up your “my documents” then you have not backed up your email or your system configuration and who knows what else.

Then you can do this: When it comes time to upgrade the operating system all you do is replace the contents of the first hard drive with the new system. The data on the second hard drive is untouched. The data on the second hard drive tells your computer how your system is configured, including what software you have installed. All the old software will be replaced with new software. Indeed, you can do this in the background while you work on your memoirs, and next time you reboot, you’ll be using the new system.

Either way, Grandma is not going to be doing the backups. This will be either automated or it will be done by someone else, like the installation was.

When it comes down to it, Linux is fully grandma ready, and if Grandma uses Linux she gets more time on the box and everybody else gets more free time for sipping the Scotch…

Comments

  1. #1 Mike Haubrich, FCD
    April 24, 2008

    I have been playing around with OpenOffice Presentation and Writer and find them very easy to manipulate and work with. No manuals necessary.

    The only thing I need to do when I write something in OpenOffice is to save it in a format that “luddites” who stick with Windows can read.

    I have never liked Outlook. It’s all-in-one e-mail, scheduler, task manager, etc etc etc make it so slow and as you say bloated. Thanks for this article.

  2. #2 Larry Ayers
    April 24, 2008

    I’ve been using Linux exclusively since 1995 and I don’t have much luck weaning friends from Windows. Several times I’ve been approached by such a friend — “My computer’s all messed up!” “It won’t let me get on the internet!” and such-like pleas.

    I’ll install Linux for them but there is always something which just won’t work the way they want, or the interface is just too unfamiliar… they have all gone back to Windows in the end. These friends have all been women, by the way.

    Perhaps Linux works best for male geeks? I think women in general don’t really care about the OS — they just want something that works without a lot of tweaking.

    I realize that there are lots of women using Linux out there, but I’ll wager that most of them are highly-educated academic types.

  3. #3 HP
    April 24, 2008

    Greg, my grandma* has about 70GB of Lawrence Welk** .mp3s stored on an NTFS external hard drive, which she manages in XP-SP2 using iTunes. About 50 GB are on her iPod, and iTunes has been extensively configured to handle all her music-management tasks automatically. She also does a fair amount of audio file conversion and editing.

    Grandma’s all into switching to a leaner, more robust OS (in fact, she grew up on Solaris and HP-UX with X-Windows, so Linux should be a piece of cake), but she’s worried that transferring her audio collection will be less than seamless, and any Linux-based iTunes clone is not going to handle automatic updates as well, or know what her current settings are. Given the amount of time she’s put into creating playlists and managing file metadata, drag-and-drop updating would be a huge regression. And she’s in no mood to convert her collection to Ogg Vorbis and throw away a perfectly good 60GB video iPod in favor of some Korean Ogg file player with like 4GB solid-state memory and a crappy push-button UI.

    Is Linux still right for me, I mean, her? Does Linux yet have media management software comparable to what you’ll find on Windows or Mac OS?

    * Okay, me.
    ** Close, actually.

  4. #4 clinteas
    April 24, 2008

    Preaching to the choir here mate…
    Got wifey that shiny new Dell Vista laptop,plugged our 5 yo digital cam in,and no sirriee,we aint got a driver for that lil baby since it is too old !
    Installed Ubuntu Gutsy as a dual-boot,which recognizes that cam without a glitch,and now shes shifting all her Ebay pics back and forth no worries….
    Been a linuxer for 10 years and currently cruising on the new Hardy Heron,very nice indeed,no Windoze required !

  5. #5 Greg Laden
    April 24, 2008

    HP:

    I don’t know. Our one windows macnine, which exists to run Harry Potter video games, is also used for iTunes because that was the easy way to handle that. However a couple of weeks ago I played around with setting up one of the Linux audio apps (and there are many) to read my iTunes stuff off the ipod. It does not play the Mp4′s that are copy protected (the things I bought from iTunes. I did not try to get that to work

    BUt otherwise it worked fine. There is a Linux iTunes software that is said to be good, but I personally have not played around with it.

  6. #6 jeffk
    April 24, 2008

    I’m a graduate physics student who had a computer science minor as an undergrad and have generally built and experimented with computers since I was in seventh grade. And to this day I don’t know that I’ve successfully installed an application on a Linux computer. I always get to the point where I need to recompile the kernel and update my /bin/usr dash file, right before I’m supposed to telnet into xserver and rewrite the sound card driver after starting up the deamon, and end up having problems with the permissions on my libs.

    I’ll get it someday!

  7. #7 clinteas
    April 24, 2008

    You sound like one very useless grad physics student to me mate !
    My completely computer illiterate wife has been using Ebay and installing and playing games and music apps on a Kubuntu Linux machine for years without any problems,hangups,viruses etc…

  8. #8 jeffk
    April 24, 2008

    Yeah, that’s what my adviser tells me too.

  9. #9 Winawer
    April 24, 2008

    I tried to get my wife to use Ubuntu once. The experiment was a failure because “it doesn’t do things like Windows does. Stupid linux.” That’s not a dig at my wife; it’s just an anecdotal report of someone failing to like Linux because they’ve used Windows for so very long that anything else looks like it’s broken by default.

    As for myself, I use both OS X and Ubuntu (I use Ubuntu as a desktop OS for doing simulation work on). All told, I prefer OS X to Ubuntu for day to day work, for a whole list of reasons which I won’t clutter up your blog with. Mostly, I’m just tired of GNOME and/or X barfing every time I so much as sneeze in the direction of the machine. Having to reinstall your graphics drivers every month or so can be a real pain sometimes. But I do enjoy Ubuntu and Linux in general, and I hope that desktop Linux makes greater inroads into the market.

    Coincidentally, I hear that Hardy Heron (Ubuntu 8.04) is out today…

  10. #10 Elizabeth
    April 24, 2008

    One could easily turn the question around and ask: Is Grandma Linux Ready?

  11. #11 Clark
    April 24, 2008

    Every few years after each massive “Linux for the desktop is here” campaign I go and give it a whirl. Each time it’s improved but also each time it ends in frustration. I gave up on Windows and switched to a Mac for home a few years ago. I’ve switched most everything over this year with a few exceptions.

    Linux is great for servers (even though Vista Server 2008 has made massive improvements) but for home use I can’t imagine wanting anything but a Mac.

    I will say this that Linux is often much more Windows-like than the Mac and can be less traumatic for folks use to Windows. So your point there is apt except for Nautilus which inexplicably tries to be the Sys9 Finder. (Yes, I know you can run KDE – and I often do. But most folks run Gnome.)

  12. #12 Emily
    April 24, 2008

    I’m a generally competant computer user, able to do first pass trouble-shooting, though nothing beyond that. In college, I had an account on the campus unix network and did all my computing on that. I even still remember something from that experience. But I wouldn’t say that installing Ubuntu and then subsequent applications was exactly easy or headache-free. I’m still totally happy with the switch and have been having fun dabbling with some of the more interesting capabilities, but that’s because I don’t mind searching through forums for the various advice permutations that other people with my problem solicited. I also don’t mind things not working for a while until I figure it out.

    For what I want to do with this computer, the XP professional it came pre-loaded with has been trouble-free. Should something go wrong, I’ll be screwed, but all the XP computers I’ve used at work have been stable and problem-free for the past four years.

  13. #13 Greg Laden
    April 24, 2008

    Clark: Nautilus does what? Please explain. Sounds interesting.

  14. #14 Steve
    April 24, 2008

    “or when they can’t get their Mac hooked up right, for a presentation.” – of course, if that’s the only problem, you could help them faster by showing them how to hook up.

    I’ve been an avid user of Linux since ’95, myself – mostly as a server platform. During my days as a Windows geek, I used to “switch” to linux every six months or so after getting fed up with Windows XXX ( This from an NT enterprise admin with an MCSE ). I always went back because of applications that don’t exist. (Mostly music and art programs of various types). Of course, OSX cured that cycle, and now the only Windows machines I own are virtual ones to satisfy the odd requirement of my job (like Visio – ick), even though I’ve been a Unix-only systems engineer for nine years now. (Most of the CCNxxx guys use Windows, I’ve discovered; that’s probably why I get so many Visio diagrams from them).

    Still, I’d wager than anyone who can’t tolerate OSX because it’s too unlike Windows will have exactly the same problem when it comes to Ubuntu or any other Linux distro. If you gotta have windows, you just gotta bite the bullet and suffer. IF you can learn new tricks, pick the OS that does what you need to do, whether it be Ubuntu, SUSE, Fedora, or even OSX. Even though Ubuntu does run very nicely on the new iMacs, it seems rather pointless once you become comfortable with MacPorts – all the cool Linux software usually builds under MP.

  15. #15 HP
    April 24, 2008

    Well, I was inspired by this thread to spend some time today looking at Linux open source media management and editing software. And then I went out to buy a cordless mouse because the trackpad on my laptop crapped out. And I bought a dual processor iMac.

    The good news is that once I get all my media files transferred to the Mac, I’m going to convert my laptop to Linux, and be Windows-free. But I’ll be using the Mac for music and video until I’m convinced that it’s a valid multimedia tool.

  16. #16 Greg Laden
    April 25, 2008

    you could help them faster by showing them how to hook up.

    One thing you need to do that is to have a part. Why would I carry around the part they need?

    HP:

    Professional high-end media in certain areas requires the Unix/Linux system, but for most regular people’s needs Mac is probably the way to go because the baseline software and the first tier of professinal stuff is very hard to beat. However, there are things you may find yourself doing, or wanting to do, on your laptop along these lines!

    I love my cordless mouse.