The Scientific Indian

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.

2. Firefox
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:

Help on Ubuntu problems: Ubuntu Forums


  1. #1 daneel
    November 14, 2006

    Its strange that you had a problem with the router that BSNL gave you because i have the same thing and they supplied me with a CD which had win/mac/linux drivers. but ethernet is much faster and requires no drivers, so i never bothered.

    BTW, i live in chennai and have been using Ubuntu for a long, long time. So this is nothing new.

  2. #2 Mohan
    November 14, 2006

    Well I use Ubuntu as my server, and on my notebook computer have been for years now. How do you handle system updates? Considering the fact your parents are users on the computer and you are the only one with administrative privileges, and not to mention you are halfway around the world.

  3. #3 Dan R.
    November 14, 2006

    The next time you are in town… set up their computer with the VNC server (its built into the base Unbuntu distribution). This way you can remotely login (I like TightVNC) to rescue/maintain etc.

  4. #4 Kartik Thakore
    November 14, 2006

    Hey thats excellent, but how did you convince them to switch from windows. I am an avid linux user but unfortunately I have problems convincing my parents, siblings, and friends to use ubuntu. Where did you find the source for the BSNL usb modem, I would like to use it.

  5. #5 miksuh
    November 15, 2006

    I did similar thing last christmas because Windows 2000 on my mothers somputer was totally messed up. I live about 120km away from my parents, so I can’t always go there if there is a problem. So system needs to be stable and reliable. I decided not to even try to fix that Windows. I decided to install linux. I was a bit sceptical first because She had never used linux before, but there has been no problems at all. She has used Debian Sarge since then. When I go to home in christmas I’ll upgrade it to Debian Etch which should be released by then..

  6. #6 angelchen
    November 15, 2006

    How is Ubuntu 6.10 Edgy Eft? Does it come with any exciting features? I’m considering to install it on my Windows machine.

  7. #7 Aleksandersen
    November 15, 2006

    I only wish this could be true with my parents. My dad does accomplish more by his own on Ubuntu than he ever did with Windows. But he still does reqire a whole lot of tech support from me!

  8. #8 selva
    November 15, 2006

    >how did you convince them to switch from windows
    With a lot of help from windows.

    The BSNL modem supplied is Huawei USB modem. Buy a different modem if you can or add a network card to the system (the Huawei modem has ethernet ports too). The linux driver source is supplied in a CD. Compiling it is not recommended. (USB is a bad choice for network connectivity. The reasons can be looked-up on the internet.)

  9. #9 Naveen
    November 15, 2006

    Well, well…..neat..a very neat job I must say….I guess I can do the same for my parents too….cause to tell you the truth, Ubuntu is more user friendly…and maybe the customisation to use Tamil fonts also will help…..and I have managed to configure Airtel broadband on Ubuntu too….and installed XMMS (which resembles Winamp, which my dad loves)….yeah me making the switch to Ubuntu for my parents the next time I am home….and yeah good idea to configure gmail on an email client….

  10. #10 Makurosu
    November 15, 2006

    I hear you, Selva. I deal with the same thing from my parents. My Dad has had his computer in the shop twice this year over issues related to malware and patching. It has cost him hundreds of dollars, and I just can’t help him over the phone. He’s 70 years old, and despite a previous career in Engineering, he just can’t figure out how to prevent and solve these problems, because he’s not a hobbyist like I am. He shouldn’t have to be! All he wants is to browse the web, use email, and scan and store photos. Dad actually talks about turning off the computer and not using it anymore, because it’s such a hassle.

    When I migrated my home computer to Ubuntu, I fully expected to be forced back to Windows over some unsolvable issue. When that didn’t happen and I found that Ubuntu actually requires less maintenance than Windows, I suggested he move to Linux like I have, and he is very open to the idea. I was surprised, because I expected him to be held hostage by this ubiquitous bad Microsoft software like everyone else is. But no – he’s that fed up.

    So, during my next visit, I’m going to use GParted to shrink his Windows partition and create an Ubuntu partition for him to use with a dual boot, just in case he ever does need to go back. I suspect he won’t though. I never do.

  11. #11 Anand
    November 15, 2006

    Selva: I’m thinking of doing the same for my parents’ computer as well. So which version, Edgy Eft or Dapper Drake? Also, for us non IT guys, can you just run through the process of installing Ubuntu and removing Windows? Or is there a web page that can tell us the whole story?

  12. #12 Nate
    November 15, 2006

    @Selva: the Ubuntu has a very nice Live CD with the options of installing it.. So, you could boot the cd up, have your parents play around with it for a while (until they shut off the computer) and then from there, you install it. Installation is very easy, theres a desktop shortcut, and its only like 5 or 6 steps, and its pretty much like windows… you pick a keyboard, a timezone, a name/pass, and you can have it auto-make your partitions.. thats about it! (destroying any and all windows data so back up!) has a great many resources to get you even more info! (and other products like kubuntu/edubuntu/xubuntu)

  13. #13 Thomas David Baker
    November 15, 2006

    I moved my parents over to Ubuntu, too. It was actually pretty painless. I put answers to some of their questions up at

  14. #14 Arun
    November 15, 2006

    I was thinking of doing the same whenever I go to India, but there are couple of issues that are preventing me from doing that. The main point that’s preventing me from doing that is, we do video chat most of the time and Ubuntu, for that matter all Linux distributions, is bad when it comes to webcam support. It’s not Ubuntu’s fault since the manufacturers don’t support Linux, but still that’s the main blockade in upgrading their system to Ubuntu. The second and minor one is the OS upgrade. Microsoft takes 6-8 years to release their next version of OS and another 2-3 years to discontinue the support for older version. Ubuntu releases a new version every 6 months. Ofcourse they can stay with Dapper for 5 years, but then they’ll miss some of the new features (most of them might be backported). Ubuntu upgrades are not smooth always unless you do a fresh install. It’s not easy for them to upgrade their system and then fix any problem.

  15. #15 WowAddict
    November 15, 2006

    if it can’t play WoW. its not good.

  16. #16 Dylan Brams
    November 15, 2006

    I, too, have done something like this. I took an old computer of mine, threw a few parts bought at the local computer chop shop into it, and threw the Ubuntu CD in. If it weren’t for the bloody annoying wireless network setup I ended up doing, the entire process would have been half as time consuming as I thought it would have been. Literally five hours from pieces to working machine that I haven’t had a single support call on.

  17. #17 Kyle
    November 15, 2006

    Ubuntu Linux, as well as pretty much all* flavours of Linux can use the Cedega application to play up-to-date games these days. It costs around $5 per month to own, and you have full support etc. of all the new games coming out.

    World of Warcraft is on their main support list.

    Linux will rule the world. Not micro. Not soft.

  18. #18 kupil
    November 15, 2006

    One computer at a time bruthas, while vista is going to force everyone to upgrade their hardware to run it we can get people using Ubuntu. All it takes is for each one of us to turn 1 other person on to Ubuntu and we’ll be unstoppable. Go Ubuntu!

  19. #19 vhere
    November 15, 2006

    The only thing that I need to shift to windows occasionally is the webcam. Webcams work wonderfully with windows skype.
    But i still haven’t figured out a good solution for ubuntu.
    Asking my friends to start using Ekiga didnt seem like an elegant solution. So untill skype churns out video support to linux I still have to visit windows occasionally.

  20. #20 Marcally
    November 15, 2006

    In America we have lots of money. My parents would never accept Linux unless it could run all the software they use easily. They have legal Windows, it came with the computer, like almost all new computers. If you bought your parents a new computer instead of letting them take one out of a dumpster they would have it too. Linux is nice because it has no viruses, but if it is hard to run TurboTax, Quicken, Photoshop elements and the other software they already know how to use, most people like my parents are not going to bother.

    I’m glad that Linux exists and that it gives an alternative to you poor people, I know that there are lots of people in the world who can’t afford new computers. But don’t expect any of my rich friends to switch.

  21. #21 kuriharu
    November 15, 2006

    Seems kind of odd. I would think you’d have more administrative effort with Ubuntu. I figured you’d get calls like “What’s this software updates are available” message that shows up almost every time you log in. Or “Why does it keep asking me for a password?” type questions.

    Glad to see it worked out, tho’.

  22. #22 Kiran Kamsetti
    November 15, 2006

    > Selva: I’m thinking of doing the same for my parents’ computer as
    > well. So which version, Edgy Eft or Dapper Drake? Also, for us non
    > IT guys, can you just run through the process of installing Ubuntu
    > and removing Windows? Or is there a web page that can tell us the
    > whole story?

    Hey Anand,

    I love the people who likes to move to Ubuntu, because I really recommend people to use Ubuntu than Windows. You can order a free Ubuntu Installation CD if you have enough time or you can download from there website or you can directly install from there websites. Follow the links to know more about installations. It is pretty easy…


  23. #23 Kiran Kamsetti
    November 15, 2006

    @Selva Anand
    Sorry, I have given two same links above, here the actual links

  24. #24 DF
    November 15, 2006

    Did you even read the article? He didn’t switch to Linux for the price, he just wanted an easier operating system for his parents. As far as your choice of software, why would people in India need to run American tax programs? Chances are they don’t edit photos either.

    A new computer wouldn’t have solved his problems and would have been a waste of money. Somehow I doubt that he is poor if he lives in the UK and has the skills needed to install and maintain a Linux system.

  25. #25 dadood
    November 15, 2006

    I have turned my dad’s computer into a dual boot machine also. Ubuntu is a very simple and easy distro to get up and running in no time. I dual boot Ubuntu and Freespire on my machines at home. Ubuntu is perfect for the simple tasks like web surfing , chatting, email, photo and music storage but I am an avid online gamer and thoroughly enjoy Windows XP. I get very frustrated with Linux at times when wine doesn’t configure things right or having to make changes to… its just easier to reboot and start windows. I do feel strongly though that Linux has really taken leaps and bounds recently, thanks especially to Ubuntu.

  26. #26 Selva
    November 15, 2006

    Anand, I used Dapper. If the machine already has windows and you have internet connectivity worked out, then all you need to do is grab (or write) a copy of Ubuntu as a bootable CD and pop it in. Reboot from the CD and follow the instructions. Quite easy to do even for a non IT person. Before you start read the Install Instructions at the Ubuntu forum. If you specific customization help, use the forum or give me a shout via email.

  27. #27 Anand
    November 15, 2006

    It will be good to include some screenshots also just to give an idea what the desktop looks like with Tamil locale 😀 !!

    Definitely an option I am considering for my parents…the question is Ubuntu, Sarge/Etch or OpenSuse?!! Each is very a good desktop distribution.

  28. #28 nada
    November 15, 2006

    You are a very good son and citizen. Keep it up.

  29. #29 Kman
    November 15, 2006

    Interesting read. Most parents–including my own– would be afraid to move away from windows. It’s kinda like the devil you know.

  30. #30 z999
    November 16, 2006

    my problem is I’m 13 and I didn’t leave home yet (lol a lame joke). I want to install ubuntu on our computers (xubuntu for the old one) but my dad isn’t a big fan of those open source stuff. he thinks they are just programs made by a bunch of kids and that they crash all the time, so i’m stuckk with a windows XP. pirated, most of the computers in israel run pirated windows XP because no one no any other replacement and because in schools they learn with antiques that run win 98/XP(!)

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