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Installing Linux On Your Neighbor's Computer

2010-11-23 - Category: computing

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The story you are about to read is completely true.  Or at least most of it is. I'm a computer geek and quite a few people in my neighborhood know this.  And being a good neighbor, I give them advice and help with their computing needs.  They babysit my kids every now and then, so this is a good trade!  I encourage all you geeks out there to create a similar barter system with your neighbors!  It builds great friendships and everyone wins!  :-)  But, I must confess, I have an ulterior motive for my supposed kindness.  I have been dying to install my favorite Linux distribution, XUbuntu, on an average user's computer and use them as a Guinea pig to see what their experience with it is like.  *queue lightning, thunder, organ music, howling wolves, and hideous laughter* This article is about a family who lives near me who have a couple of average laptops that run Windows XP.  Or at least they try to run it.  The hardware is rather meager and Windows XP enjoys taking up most of the system resources.  And then the viruses that live on the systems take up the rest.  This leaves very little room for doing anything useful at all with these machines.  Rather than go out and buy the latest anti-virus, which would cost money and take up its own computing resources, the family would prefer a better solution.  And I really don't believe getting usefulness out of old laptops is a difficult thing to achieve.  This is the year 2010 and we have options! In fact, using a laptop that's a few years old can work just fine for today's most popular computing activities if you've got the right operating system.

What Do You Use Computers To Do?

Naturally, the first question I asked them is, "so, how do you use computers?"  Here's a summary of what they said:
  1. Facebook and Farmville!  Whee!
  2. I love YouTube.  Gotta have my music vids.
  3. The kids need the ability to research online for school work.
  4. Document creation for school is a must.
  5. Some other things like a media player and some games would be nice, but isn't terribly necessary.  Music, video, and games are an online thing nowadays.
This list wasn't too awfully surprising.  I think it is safe to say that most of today's computer users use their PCs and laptops to do these same activities and do not have anything else to add to this list.  The exponential growth of Web technology and variety has swallowed up a lot of the demand for traditional desktop software.  Give them a Web browser and they can do anything! The family owned 2 laptops, both with slightly less than 1 GB of RAM each, and some fairly modern CPUs.  One of the laptops had not been turned on for a long time since viruses has brought it to its knees many months ago.  They told me to take it and turn it into a useful machine.  After asking if there were no useful files on the machine, I downloaded the new XUbuntu 10.10, burned it to CD, installed it on the laptop, and handed it back to them!

Oooh, Aaah!!

That is what they said when I came over and gave them a demonstration of how quickly XUbuntu boots up, and how quick and easy it was to navigate all the neat bells and whistles that come pre-installed.  I showed them how to connect to their wireless Internet connection, how to fire up Firefox, OpenOffice, and several other popular software items.  Then I told them to go crazy!  Heck yeah, feel free to roam around the menus, try out all the software, install software from the massive software repository; bang around all you want because you probably can't break anything.  I believe that was definitely music to their ears since they'd had quite the opposite experience in the Windows world, as I'm sure we all have had at some point.  Breaking, screwing up, b0rking, and totally hosing a Windows system, that is.  It's child's play.  Anyone can do it.  :-) I watched while the high school aged daughter fired up Facebook and she was instantly impressed with just how fast she could navigate, add content, and so on.  While she was enthralled with catching up on her friend's latest activities, I rubbed my sinister hands together and slipped out the front door.  "The transformation is nearly complete!  bwaahahaha!", I hissed.  Ok, not really, but drama makes these articles so much more entertaining.  Ahem.

So How Are Thing Going After A Few Weeks?

After two weeks, I dropped by to see how they were doing with their new software environment.  I was expecting them to have some complaints about how they used to run Software XYZ and it wouldn't work with Linux or something similar.  But instead they had nothing but good to say about their experience.  When I entered the house, the daughter was watching a YouTube music video on the laptop in full-screen mode, and I was surprised at the high quality appearance of the video and how it wasn't pausing  or hiccuping at all.  I then asked her about how she was doing with her writing assignments and so forth.  She said that it was quite easy to write documents in OpenOffice Writer, and print them (I guess she set the USB connected printer up herself).  She also said that taking them to school on her thumb drive and opening them in Microsoft Office also worked, by default, without saving them in .doc format.  I didn't even know that was possible!  (I tried that today, actually, and it does indeed work on my copy of MS Office 2007.) She went on to talk about how her younger sister uses the Dictionary program to look up words all the time (I'd never used that program before, either).  I asked her if she had any problems playing mp3s or movies, and she said she did all those sorts of things on YouTube.  Just to give it a shot, I downloaded an mp3 from my home server and attempted to play it.  The default media player said it was missing the correct codec to play the file, so I popped open the software center, searched for mp3, and installed the gstreamer codec package, which listed all kinds of file types that it can play.  Then the mp3 played fine! Next, the family asked if I could install XUbuntu on their other laptop.  I asked them if they were completely sure they wanted me to do that,  and they told me they were.  So I showed them how to connect to the Windows XP laptop via the Gigolo program, copied their personal documents and photos  over, and then I handed the eldest daughter the installation CD and told her to install it herself!  I think this brings up a couple of important reasons why Linux is good for computer users:
  1. It breaks people out of their comfort zone and allows them to start exploring the fundamentals of computing concepts, rather than blindly following the prescribed process that Windows provides for them.  Instead of mindlessly following a wizard, they think instead in terms of "where does the data need to go and how do I access it" and "what protocol do I need to use".
  2. Linux gives people options.  If you don't like a particular distribution, window environment or piece of software, you have the power to do something else.  Open source software is all about freedom and choice.
I will continue to communicate with my neighbors and find out what their continued experience is like with XUbuntu.  The eldest daughter of the family seems to really enjoy computers and I think she has a knack for them.  I'll definitely encourage her to continue the pursuit of educating herself in computing concepts.  After all, women are the next wave of IT professionals, it has been my observation!
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