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…