Switching My Dad to Linux--Part Two

As mentioned in my last posting, I'm not a very good Linux evangelist. I don't try and convert family and friends to Linux.

Therefore, as surprising as it sounds, putting Ubuntu on my dad's new laptop--as I did a week ago--was the first time I've ever directly converted another individual to Linux. It's safe to say I've indirectly converted 100s of thousands of people with my books (Ubuntu Pocket Guide) has been downloaded over 500,000 times, for example). But this was my first "hands on" experience.

It was fun. To my dad, a computer is primarily a magical eBay machine. Like many in the older generation, he loves online auctions. He knows practically nothing about how computers or operating systems work. He just has no interest. A computer is a tool, not an end in itself.

He also browses a lot and sometimes prints off letters using OpenOffice.org. I switched him to Firefox and OpenOffice.org years ago on his old XP laptop. As it transpired, this made the transition to Ubuntu a lot easier because I didn't have to deal with Microsoft's proprietary file formats. Additionally, everything on Ubuntu looked mostly the same as far as he was concerned.

My father's computing demands might sound trivial but are actually quite demanding. He has to be able to get photographs off his digital camera, for example, so he can put them online for his eBay auctions. He needs to be able to tweak them if necessary. He has to be able to print his letters. Like most people nowadays, he has DSL and a wifi router, so it was necessary to get wifi working.

Let's update from an Ubuntu perspective the points raised in the previous posting that drove him (and me) away from Windows Vista:

Updates, Updates, Updates

I set his new Ubuntu 9.04 install to update automatically and invisibly (System > Administration > Software Sources, and make the selection under the Updates tab). Very few system updates under Ubuntu require a reboot. That's just not the way Linux works. If the update does require a reboot, it can wait until the computer is shutdown at the end of the session. My father certainly won't be nagged by a pop-up dialog box that won't take no for an answer.

The end result is that I sleep safe at night knowing that my father's computer is as secure as it can be. He gets invisible security. That's how it should be.

Where is everything?

From my father's perspective, things look mostly the same because he's been using Firefox and OpenOffice.org for years under WinXP. I altered the color scheme to a Windows-like blue, and I also installed the msttcorefonts package, so fonts looked the same on websites. I even compared his old XP laptop alongside his new Ubuntu laptop, to ensure everything looked as familiar as possible!

The only slight stumbling block for him was locating his digital camera snaps after he imported them. I had to teach him to use the Places menu to open a file browsing window, and also teach him about the concept of the Home folder, where his personal data lives. To my surprise, he understood this easily. I guess the metaphor of a Home folder is actually pretty intuitive.

From my point of view, I know Ubuntu backwards so I'll be able to help him out over the phone without having to sit in front of the computer to fix problems. (Techies might be interested to know that for security reasons I didn't enable SSH, as useful as it might have been.)

Confirm or deny?

I created a "desktop" user account for my father, which means that he'll never come into contact with any software that requires him to authorise it. Therefore, there shouldn't be any mysterious password prompts appearing that will cause him to reach for the phone and my speed-dial number. As mentioned above, updates are automatic and invisible.

This is an important point -- a well setup Ubuntu system really will be fuss-free compared to Vista, which has a very bad habit of nagging the user. Ubuntu is very good at keeping in the background, like a good operating system should do. It's a shame Microsoft have forgotten this.

Printer drivers

We ran into a problem here. Generally speaking, printers work out of the box with Ubuntu, and it has built-in support for 100s of models. However, my father has an old Canon MP130 multifuction printer and, for some reason, Canon have not produced Linux drivers for it.

The first thing I did was search Ubuntuforums.org. This is the community forum that's essentially a massive hub of knowledge. It is always the first port of call whenever I encounter a hardware issue. It took seconds to find a solution, which is to install a driver for the iP1500 printer, for which Canon has produced a driver. Luckily, this is entirely compatible.

The solution given at Ubuntuforums.org involved typing commands, although it's also possible to do the same thing using the Software Sources and Synaptic programs on the Administration menu. However, the solution was provided as a step-by-step guide, so even if I didn't understand what I was doing, I would be able to get things working quickly, and it only needs to be done once.

Antivirus programs

There are no viruses for Linux, so no antivirus program is necessary. This alone means that my father is getting a speedier and better-performing computer.

Ridiculous Wi-Fi program

In the last blog posting I mentioned how my father's laptop (a Fujitsu-Siemens Li2727) has a crazy system whereby wifi is always deactivated at boot. Because of this, the user must run a program when Windows boots to activate Wi-Fi manually. Under Windows there's no way of automating this.

It goes without saying that this program isn't available for Linux. That's a good thing, because it is an abomination, and Fujitsu-Siemens should feel ashamed for ever have produced it.

I once again hit Ubuntuforums.org for a solution. I found many. This was initially heartening, but some solutions were ridiculously complicated, and also a few years old. I suspected a better solution was out there so I kept searching and found a tutorial that was written just six months ago. It's worth mentioning that, although packed with information, Ubuntuforums.org can be like a huge library that lacks a card system. It can be difficult work searching for a solution, but persistence nearly always pays off. Solutions created recently are often far better than those that are a few years old because of the fast-moving nature of Ubuntu.

Again, the solution to the wifi woes involved typing commands, but there's a full step-by-step tutorial and it needs to be done only once. The end result is that wifi activates automatically at each boot, just like any other laptop. No user intervention required! This is a good example of how Linux gives the freedom to create solutions. With Windows, you're effectively on rails, and must do things the way Microsoft or hardware vendors want you to.

Other issues

My dad's been happy with his new system. Lots of small details seem to please him. For example, Ubuntu's font rendering means text is easier for him to read compared to Windows (although he's always used slightly larger fonts).

The biggest stumbling block that I didn't see coming was working with digital photographs. Bearing in mind he doesn't entirely understand the concept of files, my father previously relied on Windows XP's wizard-based system that appeared when he plugged in the camera. This let him rotate pictures during the import procedure. Under Ubuntu, I had to teach him to open the relevant photos individually, rotate them, and then save them. This was slightly outside his area of comfort, but he took to it very well. He also had to learn how to unmount the camera when he'd finished with it -- under Windows he'd been used to simply yanking it. Now he has to right-click the desktop icon and select "Unmount Volume" (nice beginner-friendly language there, Ubuntu guys!).

Here again, however, there were things my father liked -- the way Nautilus provided thumbnail previews of pictures, for example, and how he could make the thumbnails bigger by using the zoom controls. He liked how there was a large thumbnail preview of the image in the "file open" dialog box when he uploaded his photos to eBay.

The only other issue he encountered was printing a highlighted selection, a feature he uses on eBay auctions to avoid printing all the junk at the top and bottom of the page. The option to print only selected text is hidden under the Options tab of Ubuntu's print dialog box -- a baffling decision by developers considering how useful that option is.

The key thing throughout the experience has been that Ubuntu is genuinely a better choice for my father's laptop. It has to be said that a large part of this is the failings of Windows Vista. If the laptop had come with XP installed, I would probably have suggested he stick with it, although I'd have installed Firefox and OpenOffice.org for him. But Vista is a turkey of an operating system that works against its users.

However, his experience also shows how far Ubuntu has come. The wrinkles have been entirely smoothed out compared to Linux of just a few years ago. Yes, we encountered a handful of issues, and having the author of several Ubuntu books at hand is a luxury few other people have. But installing any kind of operating system from scratch will present almost identical issues to those we encountered, regardless of whether it's Linux or Windows. It's a matter of spending a little time finding solutions, and learning to adapt to slightly different ways of working. In my father's case, the rewards really were worth the effort.

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