October 6, 2003

Making Linux accessible for Granddad

- by Chris Gulker -
At age 89, my father-in-law asked for computer lessons. Now that he's 92, it's about time to upgrade him; question is, should I leave him on a Mac, or move him to Linux?

Four years ago, the choice was easy. I had an old Mac sitting in the garage, and the Linux distros available in 2000 were still a tough choice for a complete newbie.

An education for pupil and teacher

Those computer lessons were an education for us both. My father-in-law, John Hubbard, quickly discovered that many of his old friends could be reached by email, and he now regularly corresponds with buddies and former colleagues from Thailand to Georgia. Our far-flung relatives email him photos of grandchildren, which he loves to print out on his ink-jet printer.

I learned that things that I take for granted -- my eyesight, the ability to mouse around a screen -- are not easy for everyone. In fact, watching John, I discovered that even small disabilities can make computing a very frustrating experience. John, I should note, is a vital, busy guy who still swings a golf club better than I can ever hope to.

I also forget that 16 years of daily computer use has left me almost unable to fathom how bewildering a modern computer is for the uninitiated. I tend to think a modern GUI is a snap compared to my old Apple IIe's 40-character display and command prompt, but there really is a lot to learn, and much of it is not intuitive for someone who has never used a computer.

I quickly learned that 1,024x768 was not a good screen resolution for John's 17-inch monitor -- he had trouble seeing the cursor or reading text and a slight physical impairment in his hands made it difficult to move and hold the cursor over the small screen icons. A screen resolution change to 640x480 helped, as did the inclusion of a big, bright yellow cursor via shareware.

800x600 a workable resolution for elderly eyes

Last year we upgraded to a 19-inch monitor as CRT prices began coming way down, and found that running 800x600 on that screen, along with bumping up the Mac screen fonts, worked pretty well and gave John more screen room in Outlook Express, his mail client, without reducing type size.

What doesn't work well for John is the Mac's stability; it's running Mac OS 9.1, a venerable OS that nevertheless does not have the advantages, like protected memory, of more modern operating systems. The Mac hangs fairly often, and relatively routine chores like firing up the modem make the machine appear to be frozen, leading to frequent hard resets and the loss of unsaved data.

Even with fonts set to the largest supported size, John has trouble distinguishing between commas and periods on-screen, and that makes for some very frustrating experiences with email and Web addresses. I tried some Mac shareware screen magnifiers but was even less happy with the machine's stability.

His machine, an eight-year-old PowerMac 8500 (with a 180MHz PowerPC 604e chip) won't run the more stable, BSD-based Mac OS X without upgrading the processor to a G3. While that's possible, it's relatively expensive -- about $250 for a new processor daughterboard and sufficient RAM -- and would still leave him with an old, small hard drive and slow motherboard.

Pondering an OS change

For the price of the G3 upgrade we could build John a reasonably snappy PC, but that would mean an OS change. Windows XP has accessibility features, but its price, $199, would almost double the cost, and since I'm John's "support desk," it would mean that I'd have to have to run and learn it as well. I could install Yellow Dog Linux on the Mac, but it would almost certainly require a larger SCSI hard drive, and we'd still be running on ancient hardware.

So I sat John down at my AMD/Red Hat 9.0/Ximian XD2 Linux machine to see what would happen. I set the screen resolution to 640x480 on my 15-inch flat panel, which proved readable for John, but the exercise ground to a halt because of my mouse -- a really nifty, compact Macally USB optical wheel mouse.

John has difficulty even with his Mac's single mouse button: The two buttons and scroll wheel on my mouse were both confusing and too small for his fingers to easily find and work.

Since then I've done some homework. First I read the Linux Accessibility HOWTO, which has a lot of useful information; the sections on features for the visually impaired and physically impaired were particularly helpful.

The HOWTO pointed to a number of screen magnifiers that I thought might be helpful to John. This way we can give him ample screen real estate while allowing him to be able to read small type. One of the drawbacks of an 800x600 resolution on my system is that many configuration and directory windows open with their bottoms invisible below the bottom of the screen, so you can't click OK buttons or resize them. While there are workarounds, this isn't ideal for a non-technical user.

Blowing up selected screen regions

GMag was the first one I tried -- it's small, downloaded fast, and, though it generated an error, compiled on the first try. GMag places a configurable window on the screen that blows up the region of the screen under the cursor, and it seemed like just the thing to help John tell commas from periods when typing email and Web addresses.

Unfortunately, GMag has a configuration window that can't be put away or hidden (although you can roll it up). With screen space so tight already, that's a drawback, as is the confusion factor. John is easily overwhelmed by complexity, and is reluctant to proceed when he comes across things he doesn't understand. He does best when we keep the system as simple as possible -- extra windows with lots of mysterious parameters are not a good idea.

I tried dynamag, which wouldn't compile on my machine, and KMagnifier, in the hopes that it might work with my Gnome-based desktop, but no dice. So we'll be sticking with GMag for the time being.

We have already used the accessibility controls to select a large, white cursor. Working with John, I'll try to make the mouse double-click timing friendlier, and to get the keyboard repeat and bounce timing likewise configured to help John minimize keyboard mistakes and unintentional key presses. My experience with John on the Mac is that this takes a bit of cut-and-try to get right: poor choices can make the system harder, not easier to use. We'll also see if a sticky Control key helps the cause.

Simple file system important

I want to set John up with the simplest file system we can manage. His Mac has stuff saved all over the file tree and John frequently can't find things he's saved. Some experienced computer users find it hard to believe that people can't master hierarchical file systems, but it's amazingly common, and not just among 92-year-olds. Ask anyone who has worked the help desk at a non-technical corporation.

John's home folder on his desktop is a good start, but I think he may do better if I bring out a separate subfolder instead, so he isn't exposed to things like prefs files and mail spools. It may also help him to set permissions, to the extent possible, so that he can write only to that subfolder.

I've configured Evolution so that it looks and works a lot like his copy of Outlook Express for Mac, and he's already used Galeon with no more difficulty than IE for Mac. Indeed, he likes the convenience of the Google and dictionary lookup windows in Galeon.

One- or two-button mouse?

We still have the issue of the one-button mouse: I have found a larger, two-button mouse that should be easier for John to use physically, but acquainting him with a second button and when to use it will probably be a chore. It would have been better to start him out on two buttons; if we don't manage the transition to Linux, it may have a lot to do with two buttons versus one, amazing as that might seem to a computer-literate person.

I'm even a bit concerned about the virtual desktops: It's one of my favorite features (I usually have two or three separate projects going at one time), but I can see where it might be trouble for John. One errant mouse-click and his entire desktop would appear to have gone away; maybe we'll start him out with that panel removed. We'll certainly configure the top panel to mimic as much of the Mac as we can.

Today we're ready with a log-in and what will likely be twice-a-week Linux lessons until he's either a happy new Linux user or we're back on the Mac. That we can even consider doing this says a lot about how far Linux and open source desktop environments have come. I'm hoping John can make the transition; he's already a sort of "help desk" for other computer users at his assisted-living apaprtment complex, and I think he would make a fine open source evangelist.

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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