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Ubuntu Linux… for your mom.

"This will be the year of Linux on the desktop!". This has been the topic of tech-predicting articles on the web since at least 2001. It's been repeated (and proved wrong) so many times, it's even become an Internet meme. But ladies and gentlemen, rejoice. For the year of Linux on the desktop has arrived! I have witnessed it with my own eyes. How do I know? Because my 60-year old mom is using Ubuntu on her new laptop!

The new machine

Let me tell you how this came about. My mom, who is 60 years old, used to run Microsoft Windows 2000. It was the only Windows version fast enough for her old 300Mhz machine. I sometimes thought about blowing new life into her machine by installing some version of GNU/Linux, but I was afraid it would be too incomprehensible for her. So I always kept her with Windows.

Now, about three weeks ago, my mom decided she wanted a new computer. She found a nice Packard Bell budget laptop for sale at the local electronics store, so she asked me if it was okay. I told her, "sure, looks like a nice machine". A 1.8 Ghz with 1 Gb of memory ought to be more than enough for her computing-habits: surf the internet, watch a couple of movies online, write a letter, chat on MSN, manage her photos, print a document, write an e-mail.

Windows Vista

The new laptop came pre-installed with Windows Vista, the latest 'hot' operating system from Microsoft. "Great", I thought, as Windows 2000 was becoming a bit of a nuisance. I once thought about installing Windows XP on my mom's old machine, but was afraid it might be too slow. Now she could have the latest Windows version with a clean install on her brand new laptop.

Unfortunately, it turned out that Vista wasn't such a good deal as we thought it was. Even though we're talking about a brand new 'Vista-ready' laptop, the horrors of The First Boot where mind-shattering. Mom's brand new, out-of-the-box laptop was slower than her old 300 Mhz machine! The cause? Windows Vista! Sure, it's a budget laptop, and it's not the fastest machine around, and I wouldn't be surprised if it didn't make a great gaming platform, but it sure should be enough to run a simple Operating System!

Another big problem was Vista's new 'security'. My mom is a paranoid lady. If she doesn't trust something, she'll back off. And when she doesn't understand something, she won't trust it. You'll never find my mom entering her address, personal or bank information anywhere on the Internet, for instance. This is probably the reason why she never gets spam, nor has she ever been conned. The problem with Windows Vista is that it alerts the user about everything and then makes them choose. A clever way to delegate the burden of responsibility of security to the user instead of the Operating System. After about half an hour of working with Vista, we must have seen at least fourteen security related pop-ups. I personally couldn't make heads nor tails of the 'possible security problems', let alone my mom. It's common knowledge that when you let the user choose each and every time anything happens, they'll quickly adopt the Don't-read-just-click-okay mindset. Hell, I'm a paranoid security freak and even I started to just click okay without reading any of the warnings.

I tried tweaking and configuring Vista so that it would run faster. I tried turning off the annoying security and placing restrictions on the default account the default user uses. I tried and tried and tried, but all that happened was a botched up Vista that was either still incredibly slow, annoying or wouldn't boot anymore. Enough was enough. Time to pop the big question: "Mom… what about Linux?".

Ubuntu installation

My mom agreed to me putting Ubuntu on her laptop. If it wasn't satisfactory, I'd get some illegal version of Windows XP from somewhere and install that instead. "Can I write email/chat on MSN/manage my digital photographs?". Sure! Everything my mom wanted to do on her computer was easy with Ubuntu, so no worries there.

I started my very first Ubuntu installation (I'm a Debian user) and started clicking 'Next'. Everything in the install worked pretty easy, with some notable exceptions:

  • The 'Next' button on the next screen didn't work when I left the mouse cursor on it. I had to move the mouse of the button, then back on it, and then I could click it.
  • I couldn't partition and format the harddrive. It kept complaining with some kind of error during the creation of the ext3 filesystem. Turns out I had to reboot the machine after creating the partitions, but that wasn't mentioned anywhere.
  • When I brought the machine over to my mom's house, there was a particularly nasty problem where the machine would hang during or right after booting. It turned out there was a bad WiFi network around my mom's house somewhere which caused the machine to halt with a 'SOFT BUG ON CPU#0' bug. Removing all the propriety closed source drivers fixed the problem.

After installation, I tested all her hardware: the digital camera, the wireless mouse, etc. Everything worked like a charm. Watching video on the internet? No problem. Listening to internet radio stations? A breeze! Making sure her own software is up-to-date with the latest bug and security fixes? Easy as pushing a button.

The verdict

My mom's verdict: "This is just like Windows, except faster?! I thought I had to do stuff with a lot of white-on-black text, like I always see you do?! This is much easier than I thought, and I can even watch internet movies!". Don't worry mom. I wouldn't have put Ubuntu on your desktop if you'd had to learn how to use the terminal.

She's been working on it for a few days now. Of course, there's some stuff she still needs to learn, simply because the programs are different then what she's used too, but she's coming along just great. My mom already used Thunderbird and Firefox for her emailing and browsing. She's picking up the other new programs fairly quickly.

Would she have been able to do the installation herself? Well, probably yes, if it wasn't for the problems mentioned above. That's more than I can say for Windows, cause she's never been able to install that herself.

So there you have it! Linux on the desktop. 2007 was the year. Kudos to all who predicted it.

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