Free Agent: Linux for Grandma?

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One of the projects on my to-do list for 2004 is introducing my 75-year-old grandmother to the Internet. Every time I talk to her, she kvetches about how she's just seen a URL on television and wants to hop online, or how she wanted to e-mail me the previous week to tell me about my cousin's baby's latest trick.

She's a smart gal, grandma, but she's never used a PC. So I'm going to have to begin her education at the "here's how you use a mouse" and "this is called a scrollbar" level. The very last thing I want to do is drop her into a world where she has to deal with security updates, virus scanning, adware, spyware, and the like.

What I'm saying is, I don't think I'm about to saddle grandma with Microsoft Windows XP. She needs a machine that can do three things and pretty much only three things: E-mail, Web browsing, and word processing. I ought to be able to hook her up with a nicely customized Linux box that will run forever, and that I can remotely tinker with (or even update) should the need arise.

The question, then, is this: What flavor of Linux is grandma getting? At first I thought I'd hook her up with a newbie-oriented distribution, but now I'm beginning to wonder if I can do better.

The Return of Corel Linux's Ghost

A few years ago, under different leadership, Corel tried to jump-start Linux on the desktop with its very own distribution. Looking back now, that effort seems terribly premature; but that's not to say that the Corel folks didn't do good work. When the company abandoned its Linux strategy, the product that had been Corel Linux was sold to start-up Xandros, and some of the folks who had made Corel Linux happen became Xandros employees.

Two years later, we have Xandros Desktop 2.0 to play with. I gave the Deluxe edition a spin on my test machine here at PC World HQ, and I was very impressed. Xandros 2.0 is extremely easy to install--four clicks usually gets the job done. And if you're on a corporate network, you'll be shocked by how well Xandros interacts with it. For example, Xandros is the only Linux distribution I've ever used that can connect to a printer on a Windows network the first time, every time. When I helped a fellow editor get set up with Linux for "The Linux Experiment," we had a terrible time getting the latest editions of Mandrake and SuSE to see our networked printers. Xandros didn't blink.

Xandros does not offer a choice of desktop environments, as most Linux distributions do. The current edition runs a modified version of KDE 3.1.4. The biggest modification is the inclusion of Xandros's own proprietary file manager, which mimics Windows Explorer to a very large degree and has a much higher degree of integration with available networks than either KDE's Konqueror or the Gnome desktop's Nautilus. The Xandros File Manager also provides handy, context-sensitive commands that let you virtually mount network drives on the local file system (thus making network files available to any application) or burn sets of files to a CD-R with just a few clicks.

While a whole lot of thought has clearly gone into the Xandros File Manager, it still has a few things to learn. For one thing, when I drag a file out of a folder window and onto my desktop, I expect the file's icon to appear where I dropped it--not in the upper-left corner of the screen.

The file manager is not Xandros's only specialty app. Xandros Networks should probably be called the Xandros Software Manager; it's really what Linux types call a "package manager," with a very spiffy user interface. The app lets you grab system updates from Xandros, download additional precompiled Free Software, or even shop for, pay for, and download commercial software.

Xandros Networks is a one-stop repository of Free and commercial software.
Xandros Networks is a one-stop repository of Free and commercial software.
There's also an option to pull Free Software down from the Debian project, on which Xandros is based. If you're running Xandros, follow these steps to add a whole universe of software to Xandros Networks: Select Edit, Set Application Sources, click the check box beside "Debian unsupported site," and click OK. Now select Settings, Expert View and knock yourself out.

For Grandma? Not Quite

All of this is very sweet stuff, and after seeing how well Xandros Desktop 2.0 plays with Windows networks, I am not surprised that Xandros is choosing to focus on the corporate market with its new offerings. I have reservations about dumping Xandros on grandma, though.

First, Xandros lets Mozilla handle both Web surfing and e-mail duties--other clients are not installed by default. But I think some alternatives--Galeon or Epiphany for the Web, and perhaps Balsa for e-mail--may be easier for a complete newbie to handle. Sure, I could install those apps, but then I'm headed toward a strange mélange: Gnome apps running under KDE. That's perfectly doable, but not ideal.

Another thing that bugs me--and that I don't want grandma to have to put up with--is a squirrelly install of the suite. Under Xandros, OpenOffice's fonts aren't quite right, and performance seems sluggish. Granted, these are frequent complaints about OpenOffice on any Linux distribution, but the suite behaves far better on my Mandrake Linux box. (Ximian's compilation of OpenOffice is even better.) I think Xandros's OpenOffice package needs some additional tweaking.

A Tale of Two Desktops

As I was crawling through the KDE Control Center on the Xandros machine, I also got to thinking that the Gnome desktop is far more friendly to newbies. The KDE folks have done a splendid job creating a full-featured interface that helps people get their work done, but the Gnome hackers have spent the last couple of years applying a "keep it simple, stupid" approach to their UI, and the results are really something.

As I've mentioned previously, the Gnome Human Interface Guidelines are a work of genius, and though KDE has a similar standard, KDE developers don't seem to adhere to them as strictly as many Gnome developers are now adhering to the HIG. Third-party Gnome apps are growing some very elegant interfaces, and even the core parts of the desktop seem friendlier in Gnome. The KDE Control Center provides so many panes of options, you need a road map. Gnome's Desktop Preferences menu, on the other hand, leads the way to a set of very simple dialog boxes that are far less likely to overwhelm or confuse new users.

The Gnome folks have the right idea. Here's one way to prove it: Take someone who is familiar with both Windows and Macs and put them in front of a Linux box for the first time. Log them into KDE. I think they'll tell you that what they see reminds them of Windows. Now log them into Gnome. You'll hear them say that Gnome feels like a Mac. In my book, that's very high praise. The bottom line, as I see it: Both desktops are powerful to use and attractive to look at, but Gnome has the edge when it comes to straightforward usability. That's just one of the reasons why I use it, and why I believe grandma is going to be a Gnome user as well.

I'm currently beta testing Mandrake 10.0. Next time, I'll talk about my love/hate relationship with the Mandrake distribution; and I'll give you an update on the Linux for Grandma project. If you've got thoughts about what you'd put in front of a total PC neophyte, drop me a line.

Free Software of the Month

Streamtuner can pull down dozens of online broadcasts from three main sources, and can also manage your personal music collection.
Streamtuner can pull down dozens of online broadcasts from three main sources, and can also manage your personal music collection.
Streamtuner is an all-in-one digital music organizer for the Gnome desktop. One of its plug-ins gives you access to your MP3 collection; but as you might expect given its name, Streamtuner's main focus is providing easy access to free radio netcasts. Streamtuner currently supports Live365, Shoutcast, and streams. This is 100 percent Free Software that will never throw an ad in your face. The interface is elegant, and though the current version is only 0.11.1, I haven't been able to make Streamtuner crash.
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