During my visit to India last month, I promised myself that I would accomplish one important task. I would do everything in my power to eliminate the tech support role that I was playing to my parents. You see, my parents had inherited (ah, sweet pun) a desktop computer from me and in my absence had taken the help of local young men who gleefully installed Microsoft Windows software (pirated, of course). Pirated software, you must realize, is like getting a new pair of shoes with godawful bugs in them. They bite and you can’t ask for help from the seller or go to a qualified doctor. My parents, like many parents whose wards have ridden the software wave, aren’t so bad off. They’ve got free tech support. I intensely dislike having to support crappy software. I was determined to solve this problem.
Windows or Ubuntu?
You don’t need more than two brain cells to realize that for most computer users in India, like my parents, the IT needs are very few. Use a Voice chat application, be able to see photos, send and receive emails with attachments and do the odd browsing. An OS (Operating Susyem) is an overkill for these uses. What we need are appliances – like TVs and phones that have a few buttons on them and can do specific things and do them well. At the moment I am not aware of any enlightened product makers in the market who have deep enough pockets to sustain an socially transformational business effort. What we do have is a choice of Operating Systems. The two contenders are Windows OS from Microsoft and Linux distributions from many opensource efforts.
While Windows is not so bad, it is really not a software that was made with my parents in mind. Whatever flavor of Windows I buy and install for my parents, it would still keep me tied to the tech support role I loath. I’ve used Windows professionally for too long to trust it. Linux, the free alternative for Windows, was like a mechanics toolbox till recent times. If I had to have my parents use it, I must work very hard to hide the internals from them.That’s a lot of work and I simply do not have the expertise. Fortunately things have improved in the Linux world lately. The leading light in user friendliness is a Linux distribution called Ubuntu.
Connecting it up
So, Ubuntu it is, I decided. My parents already had broadband at home provided by BSNL, the Indian monopoly (atleast in small towns like Namakkal). BSNL, unsurprisingly enough, had given a USB DSL router that would only work with Windows. This was probably because many of the computers at Indian homes do not have a ethernet card but have a USB port in them. The computer my parents had (the one inherited from me) had no ethernet card. So, even if they had tried Linux earlier it would not have worked.
USB modems are a pain to get working on Linux. You had to compile the code yourself, stand on your toes and do a waltz and repeatedly flog yourself with the router cables for it to work. This, I was not prepared to do. Luckily, there was a simple solution. It was to buy a LAN Card (Network Card or Ethernet Card, costs Rs.300 ) for the computer and connect your router via the ethernet port to the computer. This worked like a charm. Pure magic.
What to Install
The connectivity sorted out, it was time for me to look at the software applications. I had a list of them. I was going to install the software on my list and lock down the system from any further changes. To do this, I created a user id for my parents use which had no administrative previleges.
The list of software and my customizations:-
1. Skype for voice chat
Installed. Created a user, added all the usual suspects and customized the menu for ease of use.
Already part of Ubuntu. Installed Macromedia Flash needed for viewing Flickr photos. Customized the bookmarks for all the favorites – flickr being the important one.
3. Evolution email client
Already part of Ubuntu. Created a gmail account for my parents. Added the account to evolution. Added all the people into contacts.
4. Picassa for Photos
Installed it. Checked if it detects and grabs all the photos from the Digital Camera. Worked flawlessly.
This done, I added these to the System menu and customized the Ubuntu Menu using the very handy menu editor, removing all other software other than the ones above. I was going to leave no room for error for my parents. It is an appliance they need and an appliance they shall get.
I then installed Tamil font support and switched Ubuntu to use Tamil locale. All the menus now appeared in tamil – more meaningful for my parents. Alright. We are done with the system. Now, to the training sessions.
It took two sessions one hour each to get my parents use the system comfortably. Piece of cake, they said. I did one more session for a local internet center people (entrepreneurial local youth who run an internet browsing center, assemble and sell computers, fix computers and install pirated software). This, I hoped, would be useful as these folks could now install Ubuntu on the systems they build for people in Namakkal.
I am back in UK and no longer do tech support. It’s pure bliss. The expense to setup all the above was zero if we discount the cost of the network card I bought for 300 rupees. Thanks to Ubuntu, domestic peace is now restored in my home.
So there you have it. The above is only a broad overview of what I did. There’s a lot of technical details I did not go into. If you are thinking of using Ubuntu, go for it, the problems are easily solved. I repeated the same for my brother-in-laws parents and they are happily using Ubuntu now. Some useful links below.
Ubuntu Linux Website: http://www.ubuntu.com/
Help on Ubuntu problems: Ubuntu Forums