Mom Moves to Linux

By Timothy R. Butler | Posted at 9:27 PM

Associate Editor Steven Hatfield takes a look at how his mother, who uses
much of the same functionality on her computer as an office worker, migrated
to Linux. Was the switch-over successful? Read on to find out.

One hundred and seventy days ago, I embarked on an adventure. I talked my mom
through the installation procedure for SuSE Linux 7.2 Professional Edition
over the phone, seventeen hundred miles away. I thought it would be an
exercise in futility, but alas, I was off the phone one hour and nine minutes
later. I suppose that I should back up a bit though, and let you know what
led me to take such drastic action.

About 7 Years ago in 1995, when I still lived at home, I bought a PC for my
mom to use for simple tasks - email, word processing, casual web browsing,
etc. - nothing big. It was a fairly low end machine, something like a 386/16
with 3MB of RAM. I put DOS6.22 and Win3.11 on it and she became a happy
computer user. Teaching her how to use the OS wasn't the easiest thing in
the world, but I digress.

About a year later in late 1996, I took a job near Silicon Valley as a
consultant, and moved away from the home that I had grown up in. A painful
step into the realm of “adult,” but a necessary one, none-the-less.

My mom and I used the Internet to keep in touch, through email, and later via
Instant Messaging. It was nice to be able to talk to her w/o spending an arm
and a leg on long distance phone bills.

During the next couple of years (1997-1999), she outgrew her computer, and I
knew that it was time for an upgrade. She had started playing some 2D games
and after upgrading to Win95 and the latest versions of Microsoft Internet
Explorer and Office, it became apparent that she needed a more powerful
computer. It was during this time that I started really getting into Linux.
As I learned more about operating systems and what Free Software was all
about and also about
Microsoft's illegal behavior, my taste changed to the alternative. I have
never regretted moving to Linux on my home desktop. Ok, back to the story…

I paid an old friend of mine to build my mom a new PC - this time a 350Mhz
Pentium II with 128MB of RAM from spare parts that he had sitting around. It
was quite a bit faster than her old PC; definitely a step up the ladder.

Because I firmly believed that my mom wasn't ready for Linux, and Linux
wasn't ready for my mom, we went with Windows NT4. Using NT4's built in file
permissions, I could section her off as a normal user from the rest of the
system. Viruses and Worms were starting to appear in the wild, and I didn't
want her toasting her system by opening an email attachment that happened to
make it through the anti-virus software that I had installed on her PC. As a
side note, I used VNC to control her system remotely, so that I could
install/configure software and help her through application crashes, etc.

Windows NT 4 seemed to have some problems, though. It would frequently tell
her that she was running out of virtual memory, and that it was expanding her
swap file. Applications crashed very frequently. She began to become
annoyed, and I didn't like it one bit.

Windows 2000 Pro had just come out, and I thought that it might be a good
idea to move her to the new OS. I checked the system for compatibility, and
it was fine, as older hardware almost always is. I had my friend go back over
to her house and he upgraded WinNT4 to Win2k (I don't like upgrading between
OS versions, but she didn't want to lose any of her settings or installed 3rd
party software). The upgrade went smooth as silk, and she was up and running
again in no time.

But the problems still remained.

Applications crashed very often, and she was beginning to run out of hard
drive space (something like 250MB free), not to mention patience. The new
“better” Windows OS was much slower than she expected it to be. Her annoyance
with the computer started to lead to anger. It was about this time, in 2000,
that she and I began talking about Microsoft. She was disgusted with what
she had read and heard about the trial, and was becoming interested in Linux.
I have to admit, I talked about it a bit with her, and explained what it was
all about. She really liked the idea of free software (who wouldn't?).

It was about this time that I tried SuSE 7.1 Pro for the first time, and was
thoroughly impressed! It installed clean and ran cleaner. It was easy to
update and keep consistent. I had used RedHat and Mandrake up until this
point, and I haven't used them since.

The day finally came when SuSE 7.2 came out, and I bought the new
distribution and installed it. It was even more impressive than 7.1 was, and
it was then that I knew that it was time. I called my mom and talked to her
about it, and to my delight, she was very interested in giving it a shot.

The plan was simple, my friend was to buy a 40GB HDD and add it to her
system. He would install SuSE as a dual boot with Win2k, so that she could
choose between the two.

Unfortunately, it didn't work out that way. He installed the HDD, but his
job keeps him pretty busy and he didn't have time to install the OS. I
thought about aborting the mission, but she insisted that we continue with
her in the driver's seat.

Thus came the inevitable phone call (instant messaging doesn't work until
after you install the OS). I thought for sure that I would be on the phone
for two days straight, but that wasn't to be the case. She popped in the
first CD and rebooted her machine.

Using the manual, and suggestions from me, she installed SuSE and was able to
get it up and running just fine. The dual boot worked like a charm, as SuSE
is incredibly well engineered. I had to talk her through modifying her DHCP
startup script, but that was pretty simple. When Linux is behind certain
cable modems, you have to provide the computer name that the cable modem ISP
gives you when you pull an IP address. This just requires the addition of a
“-h ” parameter in the call to the DHCP server (Editor's Note:
not all distributions require manual file adjustment to make this change).
It was pretty simple to talk her through editing the file, and restarting the
DHCP server. From that point on, it was all downhill.

Using VNC and Licq, I trained her on the KDE2 desktop. Using the various
“Aqua” based themes and styles for QT/KDE and GTK/Gnome, I created an
extremely consistent desktop for her. All applications look and act pretty
much the exact same way. She loves the “gumdrops” (min/max/close buttons) on
the titlebar (courtesy of the Acqua theme for KDE2) and finds the desktop to
be “very beautiful.”

Over the past 170 days, I have upgraded the whole of KDE maybe three or four times.
I've also upgraded several core system packages, and added quite a few
programs for her. I will eventually show her how to do all of this stuff, but
she's more interested in using the computer than tinkering with it.

She's been a happy Linux user now for one hundred and seventy days.

Why do I keep saying “170 days”? Maybe the following shell excerpt
will help clear that up:

dee@mom:~ > uptime
6:07pm up 170 days, 8:46, 2 users, load average: 2.16, 2.39, 2.49

She hasn't had to reboot the machine since the day she installed it.

Steven R. Hatfield is associate editor of Open for Business. Steven is
also an IT worker at a large financial company. You can contact him at shatfield@knightswood. net.