Thursday, May 14, 2009


Linux for Mom and Dad?

My former colleague Bob Sutor is IBM’s Vice President of Open Source and Linux. In the linked blog post, Bob suggests pushing Linux instead of Windows 7:

I think members of the Linux community need to respond if they believe that the Linux desktop is a better choice and more suitable to be on machines given to friends and loved ones. This doesn’t mean waiting until December 1, it means thinking about how to 1) promote Linux desktop and its tools and applications, and 2) preparing to counter Microsoft claims as it gears up to claim that Windows 7 is the best operating system since Windows Vista XP.
For starting ideas, Bob suggests these angles:
Top ten reasons to give Mom a Linux desktop for the holidays?

How to get two or three more years from Dad’s computer while giving him the gift he really wants?

Linux: the operating system that gives you more and saves you money?

Let’s step back a moment, and look at some of the reasons that most people use Windows:

  1. It comes pre-installed on the computer.
  2. All the software you’ll ever need runs on Windows.
  3. Much — perhaps most — software is developed for Windows first. Mac is usually second, and Linux often comes in third. That means Windows versions are usually available sooner, and are often better tested.
  4. Most folks are already familiar with using Windows. It’s comfortable.
  5. The geek down the street, your brother-in-law, or that friend of your cousin, who will help you when you have problems, knows Windows. Help is more readily available.
There are probably others, but those are the big ones.

Now, why might you want to avoid Windows?:

  1. Because “everyone” uses Windows, most malware targets Windows.
  2. Maybe you don’t want to support the Microsoft juggernaut.
  3. New Windows versions require increasingly “loaded” computers — faster processors, more memory, larger hard drives.
  4. There’s a perception that MacOS is “easier to use” than Windows. Similarly, there’s a perception that with Macs, things (software, plug-in devices, network connectivity, and so on) “just work”, and that that’s not so with Windows.

OK, so.... Many manufacturers will give you the choice of Windows or Linux. Windows will come by default, but if you ask, you can often get Linux, and it might even take a few dollars off the price, because it avoids the Windows license fees.

If you think of Microsoft as a large, inflexible monolith, you should probably tar Apple with the same brush. Apple has an image of being more “cool” than Microsoft, but, if anything, its interfaces to its hardware and software are more tightly closed than Microsoft’s are. Linux, of course, is pretty much wide open. Though people can certainly provide (for free or for sale) closed pieces, it’s not the Linux culture.

Tux, the Linux logo/mascotTake it from a Windows user who’s had a Mac for two years: MacOS isn’t easier to use than Windows. It’s just different — not better, not worse, just different.[1] It probably was true that Macs were easier, back in the days of Windows version 3 and Windows NT. But Windows 95 changed all that, and with each subsequent version it’s been getting smoother.[2] Linux desktop managers — one can choose among several, though the distribution installed on your computer will likely be set up with one in particular — are also easy to use (and, yet, different still), so this is really not a big issue. The point here is that if one is starting out, one will learn whichever desktop environment one is given... and if one is already used to one, changing to any other will be disruptive for a while, but one will get used to it.

That leaves the various software issues. So let’s spend a few minutes on those.

The software one needs depends largely on what one does with one’s computer. I, as a programmer, use various software development tools that my mother, for example, won’t need. Some people use things like Illustrator, Photoshop, Dreamweaver, and Flash. Some use various video editors. Gamers have their own needs.

But if we’re just looking at what most people need — people who use their computers for email and web access, and the occasional spreadsheet — we’re looking at a more limited set of software. A few years ago, we’d have listed the necessary stuff as an email program, address book, calendar, web browser, and an office suite (word processor, spreadsheet, presentation maker).

If anything, though, we’re paring that list down. Many are using web-mail services, such as Gmail. They usually include address books, and may have calendars too. For the office suite, there’s always OpenOffice, an open-source program, to take the place of Microsoft Office. But one can even avoid that by opting for an online service like Google Docs.

Indeed, you can set yourself up as an all-Google house if you like. Gmail handles mail and address book. Google Calendar and Google Docs will do the other stuff. You can use Google’s Picasa for your photo editing and storage. And most of us don’t need more than that. Skype, maybe, and that runs everywhere — and there’s even Google Voice, their re-branding of the recently acquired GrandCentral, which is adding Skype-like functions.

Of course, we’re exchanging one monolith for another, by doing that, and we’re moving our information — email, contacts, schedule, documents — onto Internet servers out of our direct control. We might think about whether we really want that.

In other words, many people will need nothing more than a web browser, which is certainly no problem for any operating system. If you use Firefox, all the plugins you need will run on Windows and MacOS and Linux. Opera runs on those, too, and on Solaris too... and there’s even an OS/2 version, in case anyone’s still using that.

So, the vast majority of people will not have to worry about software. The key to enabling Mom and Dad to use Linux instead of Windows is

  1. making sure they can get Linux pre-loaded on their new computers,
  2. making sure that drivers are available and easily found, so that plugging devices in “just works”,
  3. making sure configuration and network connections work smoothly, and that the geeky bits are hidden, and
  4. convincing them that it’s OK that they can’t call on Cousin Bubba’s friend, because he only knows Windows.

That fourth one might just be the hardest part.

[1] See my posts about my experiences with my Macbook, in which I point out a number of aspects where MacOS is different, and sometimes internally inconsistent.

[2] I did stop at XP, though, so I can’t speak for Vista. I’ve heard mixed reviews of Vista: some love it, and some think the changes have made it worse.


lidija said...

Re your footnote [2] :) ... Vista is a Mac clone in many ways... Anyway I agree with all these assessments having gone through the growing pains of many OS changes. There are very few things much better or much worse than others in this realm, in this day and age.

The Ridger, FCD said...

My father's on the computer a lot, but he absolutely hates web-based email. He likes Outlook Express. He's tried Outlook and Thunderbird - nope.

Barry Leiba said...

Well, that would stick Dad with Windows, for sure. There are many clients with versions for Linux, but if he's particular about Outlook Express, Windows 'tis.

I find that interesting, actually. While there are certainly differences among the three client you mention, they're largely similar. His pickiness reminds me more of us techie types, who have esoteric (some would say "anal") criteria for selection.

The Ridger, FCD said...

Thunderbird annoyed him because he couldn't print a selection from an email. Outlook ... I really don't remember now what he didn't like about it.

Randall Stross said...

I agree about the limits of Thunderbird's printing abilities. Still, it's a great mail client.