Moms Running Linux

My Mom Runs Linux!

People are coming to Linux in droves these days. They each have their own reasons. It could be a desire to get out from under the thumb of proprietary software’s limitations, privacy concerns or just plain old economics. Some of them find a whole new world of computing happiness and others walk away frustrated. Why is that?

How you approach learning something new usually will determine just how successful you are at learning it. It’s all about attitude. Learning is a journey and those who cling to the fear of not reaching a pleasant destination usually quit before they start and stay right where they are. Those who are born with an innate curiosity and a sense of adventure often find that learning something new brings great rewards. Thus, they are constantly looking for new things to learn. It’s the naturally curious ones who tend to do well with Linux.

If you sit a child in front of a Linux computer, they usually just start using it. It’s an amazing thing to watch. Kids are curious by nature and they also have the added advantage of not having any preconceived notions when it comes to how a computer ought to work. I have found, on the other hand, that the hardest kind of person to teach Linux is the crusty old Windows power user. They are lost from the start and tend to get easily frustrated when they come across something they don’t understand. Their outbursts of anger can be quite animated! The Internet’s public forums are full of vitriol flung at the Linux Community by these sorts of folks. I learned a long time ago that the best way to deal with them is to simply ignore them. The psychological reasons for their bitter negativity are beyond my expertise to deal with, therefore, I don’t. What I try to do is focus on the positive and help folks who want to learn.

For me, the most important aspect of Open Source software is the freedom it gives users. Freedom isn’t just for those who crunch code, either. The average user who is just trying to do something with a computer benefits as well. I have helped hundreds of people to get started with Linux and I’ve heard from very few who didn’t continue with it. Many of them send me notes telling me how much fun they are having and how much more they can do with the very same computer that used to run a proprietary OS. This flies right in the face of those both within and without of the Linux world who constantly bemoan the fact that there is still software that is awesome on Windows and Mac that isn’t yet available for Linux. For many, it doesn’t really seem to matter at all, though. Once they let go of what they knew, they find new ways of doing what they need to get done and many say that they find the Linux alternatives simpler and more logical. Their words, not mine…

I didn’t really understand just how profound the power of Freedom was until I saw it in action with my very own mother. It is a story worth telling because it exemplifies my point. Here goes:

My mother had never even sat down in front of a computer until she was 68 years old. In 2009 she decided it was time for her to get on the Information Superhighway and so, with my help, she bought a shiny new Dell Inspiron small form factor desktop. The machine arrived loaded with Windows XP but since Windows 7 was the new movin’ groovin’ thing, Dell sent an installation DVD for the new Windows 7 as well. I was living far away at the time but I flew in and installed Windows 7 for her and got her going. She had her “Windows 7 for Dummies” book and off she went. I would get the occasional call from her with a question about how to do something or other and I would help her get it set up or fix the problem. I upgraded the RAM and replaced the power supply when a lightning hit killed the original a couple of years ago. It was about that time that I dropped all support for Windows with my clients and decided to focus entirely on Linux. It was also about then that I first mentioned Linux to my Mom but she didn’t want to move away from what she knew. No big deal… She really didn’t do much with her computer beyond basic e-mail and web stuff anyway. I remember going there once and sitting down in front of the computer to check on things and I found probably the cleanest Windows 7 install I had ever seen. Keep in mind, this was when it had been up and running for almost five years! She just didn’t do much with it at all. Still, I booted up Linux and showed her how it worked in a Live session. She liked it but was not ready to take the plunge. Sometimes it takes a certain amount of pain to push someone to a new OS.

She probably would still be running Windows 7 today but Microsoft decided that everyone should be running Windows 10 and the forced updates rendered her computer very close to useless. No, she never installed Windows 10 but putting off the update made the OS unstable and slow. Something had to change and so it was time For my Mom to start using Linux if I was going to continue maintaining her computer. I formed a plan and it worked nicely. My goal was to make the change as painless as possible for her. Little did I know that there would be no pain at all at the time. Read on.

The first order of business was to find a direct replacement hard drive for the machine. No big deal, I had torn down an old DVR box and kept the 3.5 inch SATA drive. 320 GB would be plenty for her and the drive checked out OK with surprisingly low hours. It would do nicely to replace the 7 year old Western Digital that had come with the machine. Next, I would have to find her a printer because the Dell she had bought with the computer was not supported. I recommended an HP Envy 4500 Printer/Scanner/Copier. Mom has been a Firefox user since the day I booted up the computer for her the first time and I had switched her to Thunderbird for e-mail ages ago. This meant that I would be able to transfer all of her configuration files for web and e-mail and they would look and act just as they had on Windows. All good but what distribution? That was a vexing question. After much deliberation, I decided to start her on Linux Mint 17.3. It has proven itself to be very stable on slightly aged hardware and it would be easy for Mom to transition to from Windows 7 with the Mint’s Cinnamon Desktop.

With my freshly wiped hard drive and a Linux Mint 17.3 install DVD in hand, I journeyed the mile or so I now have to travel to get to Mom’s house. I shut the computer down, carefully removed the old Windows drive, popped the new-ish one in and installed Linux Mint. First boot, updates, a few tweaks and Linux Mint was running nicely. I plugged the old Windows drive in and transferred data files and configuration settings to the fresh Mint install. It took five minutes because my Mom had very little data stored on that machine; a few pictures and MS Works documents plus three or four songs and that was all. Shut down, unplug the old Windows drive and put it in a static bag, put the top back on and I was done. Success.

I sat down with Mom to show her around. I helped her choose a background and tweak the theme and fonts to her liking. She opened up Firefox and found all of her bookmarks were still there. Thunderbird worked the same way and she was happy.

My 74 year-old Mom was now officially a Linux user!

I told her that her Windows install was safe and sound on the old drive and put it in a safe place. I went home and waited for the phone to ring. I waited and waited and still I waited. No call from her asking questions, no angry messages on the answering machine telling me she hated this new-fangled crap and wanted Windows back… Nothing. I finally called her a few days later and asked how it was going with the new Linux Mint install. She said, “Fine.” I asked her if she installed the updates when they popped up. She said, “Yes.” “Call me if you need me” was all I said. A few days later I get a call. She has a question about the computer. No, not about Linux Mint, something to do with Firefox. On it went like that. Then I started getting more calls: “How do I use the scanner software?” Next: “How do I convert a document type in LibreOffice?” Then: Can I create a PDF file?” “Mom, what are you doing?,” I asked. “Oh, I’m finally getting all this family tree info into the computer. I’m scanning documents and pictures, working with gemology sites online and I’ve started exchanging information with folks in forums…. It’s really fun! Sometimes I stay up until 3 am punching on this thing…” Then she adds, “It’s all so easy!” I helped her with the technical stuff and she took off and ran with it. Now we are discussing backup options. She wants a new Ubuntu laptop she can stream stuff to her TV with and she asked me the best way to network everything. This from a lady who barely did e-mail and Facebook a few months ago!

I jokingly asked whether she wanted me to put the Windows 7 drive back in and she answered me with “NO!”

This story is typical and miraculous all at the same time; typical because I hear similar stories from new Linux users all the time, miraculous because we’re talking about my mom here. She doesn’t like change and she is suspicious of technology she doesn’t understand. The moral of the story to me is that Linux offers Freedom to anyone who has the patience to learn how to use it. Once these folks get past the “scary new stuff” part of the process, it is absolutely amazing to see what they come up with to do with it. You can do just about damn near anything when you work within a system with no limitations and Linux has very few. Isn’t it exciting to wonder what they will come up with?

It’s easy to compare Windows, Mac and Linux computers like they were appliances but a personal computer is far more than an appliance in the sense that a dishwasher or toaster is; it becomes an expression of the person who uses it. Linux is not a product of some big corporation that says, “Use it the way we tell you to or else.” No, there’s way more to it then that. It’s you and me… and my mom. How cool is that?

Joe Collins
Joe Collins worked in radio and TV stations for over 20 years where he installed, maintained and programmed computer automation systems. Joe also worked for Gateway Computer for a short time as a Senior Technical Support Professional in the early 2000’s and has offered freelance home computer technical support and repair for over a decade.

Joe is a fan of Ubuntu Linux and Open Source software and recently started offering Ubuntu installation and support for those just starting out with Linux through EzeeLinux.com. The goal of EzeeLinux is to make Linux easy and start them on the right foot so they can have the best experience possible.

Joe lives in historic Portsmouth, VA in a hundred year old house with three cats, three kids and a network of computers built from scrounged parts, all happily running Linux.

15 comments

  1. Great article. My mother-in-law had never used anything beyond a flip phone and at 80 years old, we had her learning to use an Android tablet and a smartphone. She loved it and my wife and I got a kick out of watching her. I am convinced that had she not passed away a few years later, I would have had her on a Linux laptop and she would have been rockin’ right on with it.

    I’ve noticed the same thing you have about many Windows users. Their complaint always seems to be about what they “can’t” do on Linux or what software they use that isn’t available or isn’t as good on Linux. They just can’t get the fact that many people just don’t use the computer like they do. They just need a browser and some basic word processing software, and they don’t want to drop $500+ to get those things. An old laptop or desktop that people throw away is just fine for those things. I have several around and they all happily run Linux and do everything faster than when it had Windows on it.

    Kudos to your mom and thanks to you for your work. I’m learning a lot from your videos.

    Mike

  2. As a slightly crusty user I do have a few arguments. I’ll start by saying it would be really nice to break the Windows hold on the desktop and I’d welcome a Linux future. But I really don’t think users are coming over to Linux in “droves”. At best, Linux over 20 years has moved from 1% to 2% share of desktops.

    Where they have been coming over in droves is Android and ChromeOS. But are these really Linux the way we’d like to think of it? They’re really interfaces to Google services or the play store.

    Linux is still otherwise very fragmented and there’s no “perfect” distro for the converting Windows user. Fedora has no stability. Ubuntu seems like it could have been the perfect one but they Unitied it which was a silly move (yes, there’re arguments to be made for unity, but plain and simple it was a mistake if they were going for wooing the average user who is used to the WIMP familirity), and Mint which sensibly made an Ubuntu with a nice simple standard interface’s security reviee is not as up to snuff as Ubuntu which has corporate backing.

    If anything I wish Mint would just make Cinnamon Ubuntu and Elementary make Elementary Ubuntu
    and people start merging all these forks (like at this point do we really still need OpenOffice and LibreOffice? Merge!!)

    I dunno I suppose there’re also good arguments for keeping things as they are. But I think the fragmentation and half finished projects is still a huge problem, and at some point the free software community is doing to have to start to realize that it should mean free as in liberty and not free as in beer. If we want our software to be truly great, we’re gonna have to pay for developers to do that…

    1. “I dunno I suppose there’re also good arguments for keeping things as they are. But I think the fragmentation and half finished projects is still a huge problem, and at some point the free software community is doing to have to start to realize that it should mean free as in liberty and not free as in beer. If we want our software to be truly great, we’re gonna have to pay for developers to do that…”

      Can’t agree more with this thought. I’m amazed at the number of people that think everything, at least from a software standpoint, should be free. Even better is when there is a problem, they demand that the devs fix it immediately. I understand the arguments for free, as in beer, but at some point one must be able to earn a living or they won’t be able to afford the freedom to buy beer (or a home, car, food, electricity, or that fancy new gaming system they have their eye on). Nothing is truly free, it costs someone time, effort, or money. If you aren’t willing to put in the time and effort to develop your own software then you should be willing to put in the money for those that are.

    2. i would have to agree with you, however i feel windows 10 is changing all that very slowly, i noticed almost half the computers are running windows 7 , with only 1/4 of computers running windows 10 ……. although linux is a small user base, there has been quite an increase of users since windows 10 and i would expect this trend to continue (just my personal opinion)

  3. Nice article, I truly enjoyed it. I’m very similar in regards to “Oh you don’t run Linux? You should!”. Over the last 10 years or so, I have switched my clients (small businesses) over to Linux so long as they don’t have Windows or OSX dependent software as well as groves of friends. I think I’ve only heard of one or two going back to Windows and it was due to software restraint.

    ME personally, all of my server are Debian or Ubuntu and my personal laptop is Crunchbang. Of course the laptop I use for work is a MacBook Pro, but don’t fear I run Linux on it was well.

    I did enjoy your analogy of how children are so curious as they just jump right on there.

    Thanks for the read.

  4. Good article.
    A few yeas ago I saw a thread in an e-mail list that I wish I kept on file. It was a discussion regarding what is the best OS to teach to a senior who has never used a computer before. Most everyone said it was Linux, and one person who said that he teaches people this sort of thing and it is “hands down, Linux is the best OS to teach a senior”.

    My mother who justed turned 91 has been using Linux for years, I do the support work for her, but my mom only calls me now because she has forgotten how to do something.

    Best regards,

    John Kerr

  5. Even as a “crusty old Windows power user” I have long known that Linux can be a good solution for people who rarely do much more than web browsing, e-mail, and word processing, such as children and senior citizens. But something as simple as having an iTunes music library, or having schoolwork that requires Microsoft Office, can easily derail any plans to transition to Linux.

    Yes, LibreOffice is “almost as good” as MS Office, but the menu commands are different, it lacks advanced features, and isn’t 100% compatible with MS Office files. And yes, you can manually copy music files over from an iTunes database into a Linux music player, but it’s a messy process, and you’d have to say goodbye to being able to purchase new music from the iTunes Store or syncing it with your iPhone or iPod.

    Still, for those who are not reliant upon commercial software, Linux does have the appeal of being able to quickly repurpose an older machine and get it into a usable state in usually less time than it takes to (re)install Windows. But as soon as you start putting money into upgrading an older PC to run Linux, you really have to consider investing in a platform that many Linux users wish Linux would be: a powerful, secure, easy-to-use UNIX-based operating system with a wide array of both open-source and commercial software available, as well as the classic UNIX terminal that you’d have to pry their cold, dead hands off of.

    It’s called Mac OS X (or “macOS Sierra” if you’re using the newest version), and runs brilliantly even on older Macs that are really quite affordable. I have OS X El Capitan running on an old 2008 MacBook Pro that I pulled out of the trash, and it browses the web and plays and edits 1080p HD video flawlessly. I’m still a “crusty old Windows power user”, but there are some things that Mac OS simply does better than either Windows or Linux, and if my mom wanted a new computer I wouldn’t hesitate to give her a Mac.

    1. (Half awake, so pardon any painful typos)

      Thanks for sharing your experiences. Wife runs OS X exclusively, while I run Linux exclusively. I do have Windows 10 in a VM, but only use it to keep current for Windows using friends.

      Speaking of family: My mother-in-law runs OS X and my own mom (like Joe’s mom) runs Linux. Both “moms” are supported remotely and both have zero issues. Trusted support is helpful.

      -Software-

      The interesting thing I found is most people are tied up with legacy software rather than commercial software. There are surprisingly number of commercial applications for the Linux desktop. It’s usually the legacy work flow dependent creative suites and other specialty stuff folks find themselves missing. Adobe, Microsoft Office, CAD, the like.

      As for LibreOffice, I think for most students and casual users, it’s ample. The obvious exceptions to this would be those tied into working in Microsoft Office environments…especially those dealing with super large spreadsheets. This is an area where Excel still wins hands down. MS Word features are largely matters of convenience or docx formatting lock-in. The last two releases of LibreOffice have had outstanding docx format support, but when all else fails – WPS Office for Linux is a safe fallback for clean docx formats.

      -Microsoft Shop-

      My day job has me working closely with a Microsoft “Shop” and I use Thunderbird to stay connected to their Exchange server. I use a special extension that plugs me into Exchange. Oddly enough, using Thunderbird turned out to be more reliable that running Outlook under Windows. While the extension isn’t free, it does offer fantastic compatibility with a 100% success rate.

      -Legacy vs commercial software-

      I’ve found *most* (not all) software challenges are fairly easy to overcome. It really just comes down to ones interest or willingness to change usage patterns. For video content, I enjoy Plex media, Hulu, Amazon and Netflix without any trouble at all. As for music, I finally bit the bullet and opted for a Google Music subscription. Since I use Android, it’s a good match bundled with the “Unofficial” Google Music Player for Linux. Even Linux gaming is making strides, be it still playing catchup.

      -Music-

      Despite retiring my PC repair biz years ago, I still support folks migrating from iTunes. Having used current releases of iTunes, I’m not at all surprised – it’s amazingly bad compared to older releases.

      With regard to music migration, unless it’s ancient DRM encumbered music, migration away from iTunes is quite doable. Just drag and drop.

      Now, I’ll admit right off the bat that finding a good music player for Linux is overwhelming – there are lot of options to sort through. I’ve found Banshee is the biggest hit with most OS X converts. The biggest hassle I found was using scripts to keep those pesky iTunes playlists intact when moving to Banshee. Keeping playlists intact on a migration requires someone Linux savvy, sadly. There are perl scripts that make this doable however. And once completed by a Linux savvy person, new playlists sync fine to mobile phones.

      Where most people run into trouble is when they try mixing iTunes and Banshee. Since iTunes often changes/upgrades database handling, it’s best to stick with one or the other.

      -Recommending OS X-

      Now here is where I think we disagree. I do not agree that OS X is right for the “browser only” crowd. Keep in mind that we own multiple OS X devices in my home. So I’m speaking as a guy who is in charge of supporting current OS X. One 2012 Mini, one iPhone 5-something and one 2010 MBP. I handle all the support end to end.

      Like Windows or Linux PCs, I’ve found that Macs can in many instances prove to be “too computer” for casual users unless there is a direct line of support available. Linux, Windows and OS X all need geeks around to handle “Time machine is full” down to Linux grub errors and blue screens on Windows.

      For folks without easy access to support, I’ve recommend ChromeOS all day long. Having tried them all and also remembering the nightmare that was my old PC repair business (shudder), I think most people should use ChromeOS as it’s literally idiot proof. 🙂

      Again, great comment submission. I just wanted to share my own experiences. Good stuff.

      Matt

      1. I just wanted to ditto the ChromeOS statement. That really looks to be the best alternative for those who aren’t computer savvy and don’t need more than email, social networking and watching streaming services.

  6. Did you ever look in the AARP magazine for the ads for “senior computers”? There’s at least two, which (at high price) are easy to operate (they say). And no virus worries! Guess what OS is running the big buttons.

    I’m a 69 year old retired vacuum tube engineer. And I’ve run Mint, Ubuntu MATE, Manjaro, Puppy, openSuSE. … maybe a couple others at various times…

  7. Hey guys, new to this site but loving it already. Some have mentioned that they have converted many to linux. I have only accomplished this feat with my wife and a cousin. I was wondering what people have found to be the most effective method for converting people over from Windows or OS X.

  8. very nice article my wife uses windows 10 to play games, however next week we are buying a second computer for her and the 1st thing i will do is back up her windows system and then install linux mint 18.1 on it………………. she is looking forward to becoming a linux user

Leave a Reply