September 3, 2003

Is Linux ready for mom?

- by Chris Gulker -
The short answer seems to be "no" (unless of course mom happens to have a computer science degree). However, hard work by the KDE and GNOME groups, augmented by contributions from consumer-oriented Linux distros and IT corporations, is beginning to move Linux into reach as a mainstream, non-geek desktop OS. Most user-friendly Linux desktops aren't much harder to master than some Windows versions. It's the small things that tended to trip up non-technical users in my recent non-scientific tests.

For a week, I've been grabbing real-life non-technical people and plunking them down in front of the same Linux box (Ximian desktop on Red Hat 8.0) that I use almost every day. My "victims" have included a 92-year-old retiree, a 28-year-old economics student, a lay minister, and a preschool teacher.

Most of the users had their own login (itself a bit of a novelty), which presented them with a fresh Ximian 1.0 desktop environment. In some cases I just observed as a user sat down to do a quick chore like get Mapquest directions or find movie times.

Preschool teacher Julie Brown is a frequent visitor to our house, where her accidental use of Linux gave me the idea that Linux might be approachable for general users. In her 20s, Julie doesn't think of herself as a technical computer user, though she does use a Windows machine frequently to check email and surf the Web.

Julie often sits down at one of the Macs in our den to do the same, but one afternoon found all the Macs in use. Julie sat down at the Linux machine, saw a browser open, and then navigated to a site to get movie times, no problem and no call to the help desk.

One morning, when I hadn't logged out of my Linux desktop, I noticed that there were some windows open on one of the machine's virtual desktops. A check revealed a browser running with a selection of music and style sites: stepson John Getze, a 28-year-old economics major at the University of San Francisco who normally uses an iMac, had figured out during an evening visit how to use the virtual desktop to keep from disturbing files I had left open on the machine. So its safe to say that the Mozilla browser experience is within reach of people who can use browsers on Windows and Mac OS.

One of the most informative experiences came from Anne Peterson, senior associate at All Saints Church in Pasadena. Anne uses Windows at work and has a Windows 2000 laptop at home, but does not consider herself a power user.

Anne was able to log in, find the Programs menu, and launch and navigate Web sites in Galleon, but wasn't able to complete the email setup Wizard for Evolution. "I would have been on the phone asking you what all the mail settings meant," she said.

One frustration was the slow first-time Galleon launch; with no splash screen or "wait" icon, Anne thought she'd done something wrong and was headed back to the launch menu when a page finally popped up. Another glitch occured when she tried to plan a Club Med vacation and was dropped into a Flash page that just looped black and white blank pages.

Anne did successfully navigate to her church's home page, a site using frames, that displayed properly, if slowly, in the Mozilla-based browser. She also intuitively expanded the browser to full screen and knew how to exit when done.

Ximian Evolution's setup wizard stopped Anne cold at the second screen: while she was able to enter her account information correctly, she wasn't sure what the difference between SMTP and Sendmail was, and had questions about just about every option on the ensuing POP/IMAP/Spool and SMTP setup screens.

With the help of a "support call" (to me) she did set up Evolution and was able to navigate the app with a little help, add appointments and tasks and check her email, and could switch back and forth between Evolution and Galleon.

OpenOffice was different: while she could find and launch the app with only a hint that it was under the Office item in the Programs menu, she had difficulty using the formatting pallette -- "I need the manual for this." She was able to save her document, but finding it again was a bit more difficult. When she ventured into the Evolution folder in her home directory, she became a bit lost: "What is 'cache' for?"

Ximian attempts to shield users from most of the file system by putting only Home and My Computer icons on the desktop, but application prefs files in the home directory proved to be confusing. Mac OS X, for example, hides these, along with most of the /bin, /usr/, and other similar directories in a /private directory that requires knowledge to access.

Asked if she would buy a Linux machine if it were, say, $500 cheaper than a Windows/MS Office machine she said, "Maybe, but then again I might just spend the extra money to make sure it worked like what I'm used to."

Another telling experience came when I asked father-in-law John Hubbard to take the test. John is 92; at age 89 he decided to learn to use a computer and has for three years been using a Mac (with Mac OS 9.2) to stay in touch with buddies and relatives all over the world via email and Web pages.

John was initially almost completely unable to use the default Ximian desktop. John suffers from cataracts and other complications which means he needs large on-screen icons and fonts. A condition with his hands makes it difficult to use a mouse, and the three-button mouse on the Linux box was particularly vexing after the Mac's one button.

With a little screen res juggling, we were able to get John into the Galleon browser, and he successfully navigated to a San Francisco Giants Web page, which unfortunately broke rather badly in the Galleon display. Galleon also put up a "helpful" alert box saying that it had crashed the last time it was run, and the choices to "restore session" et al. left John unsure how to proceed.

John did like the dictionary.com and Google windows on Galleon's bookmarks bar. And I was heartened to find that most of the tools I had needed to set up John's home Mac -- blowing up the screen to 640 x 480, setting large icons and fonts, and installing a very large cursor -- are already available in the Red Hat 8 distro.

What vexed me was setting the machine back to my normal 1024 x 768 resoluton after John left. The non-resizable screen resolution window opens in 640 x 480 with the Cancel and OK buttons invisible -- the box is bigger than the screen at that res. Since I couldn't remember what the keyboard shortcut might be, it was a frustrating 15 minutes trying to get the machine back to a setup that was easier for me. Screen resolution, it turns out, is not a pref that changes with the user login, as tends to be the case on Windows and Mac machines as well.

Our next experiment will be to try some of the consumer-oriented Linux distros with the same crew: Lindows, Lycoris, and Xandros.

Chris Gulker, a Silicon Valley-based freelance technology writer, has authored more than 130 articles and columns since 1998. He shares an office with seven computers that mostly work, an Australian Shepherd, and a small gray cat with an attitude.

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