June 13, 2002

Senior citizens learn Linux isn't too geeky after all

- by Tina Gasperson -
The Sun City
Computer Club
has been after me to be a guest speaker at one of its
monthly meetings because I used to write the Cheap Computing column for Andover.net after Robin Miller
went on to bigger and better things. I
finally agreed to speak at the June meeting. They didn't know about my
new Linux leanings. But they were about to find out.
The Computer Club in Sun City Center, Florida, is about 2,000 members strong. Sun
City is a huge planned retirement community, the size of a small city, with
15,000 residents. Sun City's marketers aim it at the "active senior," so it's no
surprise that interest in
computers is brisk and about 15% of the total population is involved with the
club in some way.

They meet in a large auditorium to learn practical things about their computers:
how to use accounting programs or how to send photos in email. Guest speakers
each month educate club members on some interesting aspect of computing.
Genealogical experts, stock brokers, and even Microsoft representatives come in
to talk about software and the Internet. Jack Fischer, the president of the
club, says the focus is on education rather than simply socialization. "We have
classrooms for SIGs (special interest groups)," he told me, pointing to a
hallway off to the side of the auditorium.

Before this night, I had already surmised this was a group of people who by and
large didn't know anything about Linux, except perhaps some vague impression of
it being too hard for the average person. Indeed, when I told them I wanted to
speak about Linux, they asked me not to because "we have our hands full keeping
up with Windows." I persisted, because I, of all people, know that the average
computer-enthused person can do Linux, at least to the point of getting it
installed, getting on the Internet, and doing office-type tasks. After a few
days, they got back to me with a decision: go ahead and talk about Linux -- maybe
they couldn't find anyone else to speak that month.

I got there a couple of hours early to set up. Listening in on some of the
pre-meeting casual discussions reinforced my belief that this was a
group of people eager to learn all they could about computing, but ignorant of
the fact that a lot more is going on in computing than just Microsoft and
Windows. And isn't that a snapshot of the American computing public? Maybe even
the entire world? I pondered these things and hoped that my demonstration would
go smoothly. I felt like a public relations representative for Linux.

I already don't look much like the stereotypical Linux user (male and somewhat
given to
countercultural appearance), but to aid the Computer Club members in their
(hopeful) paradigm shift, I dressed up. I usually wear jeans and never wear
dresses, but for this event I wore a simple, professional-looking dress and nice
shoes. When it was time for the presentation to start, Fischer introduced
me and mentioned that the previous month, the guest speaker had told them that
Linux needed to get "less geeky" before it would be usable as an operating
system for them. I stood up, said hello, and told the story of how I
came to be a Linux user, and took care to point out the fact that I am not a
programmer, just a normal(?) woman who happens to be a computer lover just
like them.

Then I proceeded to install SuSE Linux 7.3 Personal on my laptop, right there
before their very interested eyes. (The venue is so large that the Computer
Club provided me with a projector that plugged into the monitor outlet on my
laptop in order to display it on a large screen.) As I popped in the CD and
started the system, I explained how easy it is to install Linux beside Windows
and have the use of both operating systems.

As the install went on, I talked
about the benefits of using Linux: affordability, ease of use, lots of free
support, security and stability. I explained that Linux is available for free
online, or for a few bucks through mail order, or for about $50 at Best Buy. I
pointed to the projected screen and talked about how anybody could do this kind
of install, as I made a point of selecting all the defaults -- the only thing I
had to change was the time zone.

I told them about LUGs, similar to their own beloved Computer Club, where they
could bring their computer to a meeting and get help if they needed it. And
about knowledge databases online, like the one here at Linux.com, and about
forums and mailing lists where people are more than happy to share what they
know about Linux. I explained how Linux is an account-based system, and how
having a separate administrator account would protect the data on their computer
from accidental deletions or corruptions.

I told them that email viruses don't
work on Linux -- and it was then, especially, I began to see their eyes light up
and to see them leaning forward in their chairs. I told them they need never see
the "blue screen of death" again -- yes, they talk about the BSOD even in
pro-Windows cultures. Linux, I said, doesn't need to be periodically rebooted
"just because."

As the install went on, I told them that the Linux OS always comes with plenty
of software -- everything you need to do all the things you like to do on the
computer. The questions started rolling in: is Linux like Unix? Yes, I
explained, if you are familiar with UNIX, then Linux will be familiar to you --
but no command line experience is necessary with Linux because of the graphical
user interface. Someone wanted to know how they got people to volunteer to work
on Linux, and another was curious how Linux companies stay in business. I
offered that many Linux companies, just like many other technology companies,
haven't stayed in business, but that other companies, like Red Hat, have done
well in part because they cater to the server side of the business and make
money by providing support and customizations. I explained that many Linux
developers are actually paid for their work by sponsoring companies like IBM,
Red Hat, SuSE, and others. One man in the audience, obviously familiar with
Linux, raised his hand and mentioned IBM's billion-dollar investment in Linux.

Is this a crusade against Bill Gates? was another question. "Not for me
personally," I answered. I told them that among Linux people there were some who
were religiously attached to the operating system and who believed that no one
should use any other kind of software other than Free Software. I told them that
there were many more like me, who believe that people should have the freedom to
use any software they like on their computers -- I added that for me, Linux and
many other Open Source software programs have turned out to be the very best for
my purposes. I could have gone on to say that I believe many of Microsoft's
tactics are devious and sewn with a thread of ambition to completely shut down
all competition, but it wasn't necessary in that venue. Especially since I
also think Bill Gates is an exceptionally shrewd businessman who is working
within the time-honored system we have here, and is merely taking advantage of
American apathy and unreasoning acceptance of the status quo. (In other words,
we're asking for this kind of treatment, but that's another story.)

Then the install was done, and right there in real-time I logged in, went to my
desktop and showed them around. "It's just like Windows," I said, knowing it was
ever so much better than Windows in so many ways. Clicking on the "start"
button, I took them on a tour through all the calculators (Linux is made by
people who like math, I pointed out as they laughed), the CD burning software,
the graphics software (especially the GIMP, which, I pointed out is remarkably
similar to PhotoShop but ever so much cheaper), and the many games including
dozens of variations of Solitaire.

Then I opened up StarOffice and showed them
how the interface was completely intuitive -- we went through the word processor,
and the spreadsheet, and the presentation application. I told them how, with
StarOffice, they could receive .doc files from their friend and co-workers, open
and edit and save them with StarOffice and send them right back. We looked at
all the different file formats StarOffice is compatible with, and we were
impressed (I include myself in that number because I wasn't aware of
how many file formats StarOffice supported until I looked.) I told them honestly
that I don't use StarOffice much because all I do is type and upload, and then I
opened up my trusty KEdit to show them how quick and simple it is to use.

Then I was done, and I told them I was leaving them a copy of Mandrake 8.1 to
use, no less easy to install, and that they were free to copy it and give it to
all their friends. I gave them my email address and offered to answer any
questions, or at least steer them in the right direction if I couldn't. There
were several more questions and several people stayed behind to ask me other
practical questions like, "what is the possibility of messing up my Windows by
installing Linux," and "how much disk space do I need," and "how do I make it go
into Windows (or Linux) when I boot up?" and, "can I switch instantly between
Linux and Windows?" Only one person seemed standoffish about Linux and left
shaking his head when he found out that if he wanted to remove Linux from his
system, the partition Linux was on would not automatically be given back to
Windows. He left before I could offer possible alternatives, like WinLinux.

For days after the presentation I received several emails
thanking me for turning them on to Linux. One of the club coordinators said that
the talk had generated a lot of interest. Many in the Linux community believe
that the way to expand the reach of Linux is to bring children up on it, and
that is true. But there are computer clubs all over the country just like the
Sun City Computer Club, full of potential for interest in Linux, just waiting
for someone like me, or you, to come and show them how easy it is to use. And,
after all, most seniors have grandchildren they'd just love to share Linux with.

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