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The Trials of Getting My Wife to Run Linux

The Trials of Getting My Wife to Run Linux

My wife runs Windows 98 on her little 300mhz computer and it basically does what she needs - some photo editing, writing of documents, spreadsheets, e-mail, and Web surfing. It works well most of the time, but she gripes every now and then when Word crashes, or the machine requires a reboot to fix something. I had volunteered to convert the machine to Linux for her and let her give it a try, but I wasn't about to push it.

After one particular hair pulling week with Word, she let me do the conversion. I thought it would be a good experiment. Linux isn't my grandmother's operating system, but can it be my wife's operating system? First, a little about the computer - it's a 300 mhz AMD processor book PC with built-in ethernet and video. The video isn't very good, but she doesn't use it for games. The machine is small and only has room for a single hard drive, which is close to being full.

I was unsure of how she would do with the conversion, so I replaced her Windows hard drive with a Linux hard drive. That way if the project failed, I would be able to put things back the way they were before Linux appeared. I decided to put Redhat 7.1 on the machine because I was more familiar with it. I heard that Mandrake makes a better desktop distribution and I've fiddled with it in the past, but I'm more familiar with Redhat's quirks and I would have to come up with answers quickly when my wife ran into problems.

First problem was that the graphical install wouldn't work, and I had to use the text install. The Trident Blade chipset didn't seem to be as well supported by the install. I also had trouble setting the video resolution and ended up going down to 16 bit color. 24 bit color was freaking out the screen so I don't think the drivers for the chipset are all that good. Otherwise, the install went smoothly. She settled on KDE and I showed her the replacements for the Windows applications she used. She seemed to do okay until I got called over and found out that Kspread can't import her Excel file. "That's why Linux will never be mainstream", she tells me. So I tell her to try gnumeric and it loads up. Of course, she doesn't like gnumeric because she can't figure out how to change the toolbars. Running in 800x600, the toolbars take up one third of the screen. I told her we can try StarOffice later. Naturally, she wanted to play some mp3 files just like Windows. So the first thing she did was go up to tucows and try to find a player. Then she complained to me that when she unpacked the downloaded file, it had this readme that told her to run "./configure" and "make install".

"Where's the install program?" she asked me, expecting one of those GUI install programs that typically displays when installing Windows applications. "This is why Linux will never catch on. People aren't going to be able to do this." I told her Linux comes with an mp3 player. I opened up xmms and played her mp3 files. At some point the sound died and the music stopped playing. I had no answer for her since I hadn't experienced the problem before. She mumbled something along the lines of "I thought Linux had fewer bugs."

I knew it was going to be difficult but I pressed on. I had forgotten that she did some video conferencing with her parents and I didn't know anything about Linux video conferencing software. I started searching for something that would work well with Netmeeting. I found the Openh323 site which has binaries for Linux. They didn't work so I had to pull down the source. There were a lot of dependencies, but I finally built a version of the video conferencing software.

I tried to get it to work here within the LAN, but the software was too hard for her. to use There was no GUI with a pretty menu and options that can be clicked. The options were all command line options, and I knew I couldn't sell that to her.

We encountered another problem when it came to printing. Linux printing is great when you have a printer that's supported by Linux, but our printer is partially supported and the driver won't do the 1200x1200 mode that it used for printing photographs.

At this point, I knew it was not looking good for Linux. Some tools she's used (like one of her Windows GUI FTP utilities) had good Linux GUI replacements, so many of the smaller things went well. Web browsing was just as easy under Linux as was e-mail, and since they were the majority of her time, those parts of the transition went well. When the weekend came she asked about her video conference, and I ended up putting back the Windows hard drive. It's been in her computer ever since. She still gripes about the crashes but I'm going to wait for a few things before I try again.

It was interesting to watch a non technical person work in Linux. My tendency to use the command line is very different from her use of menus to find everything. I won't put Linux on the machine until I can get some good video conferencing software and a new printer, or working printer drivers for the existing printer. I've been watching the GnomeMeeting project with interest and have installed the software on my Linux machine, but it doesn't appear to support my USB camera.

There is one more thing I learned - it's difficult to migrate a non technical user to Linux. Windows users have a certain comfort with Windows.The transitions from Internet Explorer to Mozilla and Excel to gNumeric went well because the applications look similar. Configuration and hardware support were a little shakier.

I will say that my wife is willing to learn, but she *expects* the computer to be able to perform all the duties it currently does under Windows, such as video conferencing, Web browsing, e-mail, printing, spreadsheets, document processing, and graphics editing. While Linux came close, it isn't currently met by the last Linux install. As she adds more applications on her Windows machine, I fear my next attempt will have more hurdles.

More Stories By Maureen O'Gara

Maureen O'Gara the most read technology reporter for the past 20 years, is the Cloud Computing and Virtualization News Desk editor of SYS-CON Media. She is the publisher of famous "Billygrams" and the editor-in-chief of "Client/Server News" for more than a decade. One of the most respected technology reporters in the business, Maureen can be reached by email at maureen(at)sys-con.com or paperboy(at)g2news.com, and by phone at 516 759-7025. Twitter: @MaureenOGara

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