Friday, November 13, 2009

Move your family to Linux

In a future post, I'll talk more specifically about how to be a good "Linux at work" advocate, but for now let me talk about how to move your family to Linux.

I've been a Linux user since 1993. But it was a few years before my wife decided that Linux was something she could use for herself. I helped my wife migrate to Linux (from Windows) after she finished her Master's thesis. Before, on Windows, she experienced regular crashes and lock-ups, and other weird behavior. Now, on Linux, everything runs fine. My wife uses her laptop to do email, write docs, browse the web, that's it. Not very complicated, so for her it was an easy move.

I did the same for my mom several years ago. My step-dad thought himself a great PC technician, despite knowing nothing about computers other than "point and click". So the PC was often hosed, usually through some malware problem. They used the computer just to browse the web, check email, write docs, do spreadsheets (home finance), play solitaire and freecell, play Flash games, watch Youtube. It was an easy move for them to migrate to Linux, and they've been problem-free on Linux.

The key in making the transition easy is for you to understand their computer use, what they use the computer for. In my experience, people who are "casual" PC users aren't doing anything that couldn't be done on Linux. Note "casual" ... with the people I support, that means no World of Warcraft, no Half Life 2. Just basic computer use, and simple "diversion" games. (PC gamers find it more difficult to move off Windows, because the hot games aren't available for Linux.)

The next step is for you to show your audience that Linux is okay, that it will meet their needs. My wife was an easy convert because she saw me use Linux every day, to do the same things she did. My mom was a little more difficult because I wasn't over there all the time. But if you can sit down with the family and show them how Linux is really just the same as Windows, then you may be in luck. If you have a Linux laptop, bring it with you when you visit for Thanksgiving. If not, consider running a "'live CD" version of a popular distribution, such as Fedora or Ubuntu.

Don't push it too hard, and don't expect to change minds right away. May take several visits, with casual demonstrations of what Linux can do.

When you demo Linux, don't tweak out your desktop. Let it be pretty much default. No odd themes, no cute backgrounds, no desktop effects turned on. That "geek stuff" kind of freaks out your potential audience. You'll note that the screenshot I used to talk about the Linux desktop used default settings.

Show that the same applications exist under Linux, but with a different name. OpenOffice versus "Microsoft Office". Firefox (same). Or Firefox vs IE. Make sure to install the Flash plugin ahead of time, so visiting Youtube is the same experience. I'd turn off Flashblock or not install it, so it's as close to the Windows experience.

If you do this, you might be able to make your family tech support easier. I find Linux harder to break, and certainly it isn't vulnerable to the Windows malware that's out there.


  1. I tried moving my parents to Linux a couple years ago, and the only problem was there wasn't a good open source version of iTunes and it didn't play on any of the Linux kernals. I run it under wine and it works just fine, but that would have been a bit much for me da. Now though, I think I've heard some good things about development and I might give it another crack over Thanksgiving or Christmas.

  2. Linux may not be a victim to Winduhs malware, but there's a lot of browser malware out there. For example, I could visit a malicious website which can exploit my browser to send a request to reconfigure my ADSL modem which happens to have the factory password; the trick works on Linux as well because it exploits a feature of browsers which is fairly common and usually activated. Another website might tell me that I have security problems and need to give my banking details to fix the problem.

  3. Linux may not be a victim to Winduhs malware, but there's a lot of browser malware out there.

    You definitely do have to watch out for stuff like that still (Linux provides about zero protection against phishing for instance), but that's not a reason to not use Linux. The decrease in malware will still make it worth your while if there aren't other reasons to tie you to Windows.

  4. My father bought himself a Macbook before I had the time to convert him, but my mother-in-law is in the planning. She already use Firefox, Thunderbird etc on Windows, so she is comfortable with the apps.

    Regarding my wife; she has claimed ownership of my eee after I installed ubuntu karmic netbook remix. (She already used it most anyway).She has a Windows partition to dual-boot on our destop machine. However, as her drive is mounted from Linux, she can accesss all her documents from "my" os. I can't remember the last time she booted Windows. I reckon it will be a couple of hours of security update pain if she tries :P

  5. Mom was far from problem-free on Linux. As I recall, her major complaints were not being able to write Word documents for work from home (she'd always forget to Save As from OpenOffice), not having iTunes, and that the GIMP was way too complicated for her to use. When she got a new Lexmark printer in December 2004, it wasn't supported in Linux, which was frustrating for her. When her hard drive died in May 2007, she asked me to reinstall Windows for her.

    Mom has been running Windows for the last two and a half years.


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