Gutsy for Grandpa, Part One

Does this situation sound at all familiar? You're a computer hobbyist, power user, or maybe even an IT professional. You have family members that are well aware of your "superior" computer knowledge. So, naturally, when they have computer questions or issues to be resolved, you're the first to get the call.

Does this situation sound at all familiar? You’re a computer hobbyist, power user, or maybe even an IT professional. You have family members that are well aware of your “superior” computer knowledge. So, naturally, when they have computer questions or issues to be resolved, you’re the first to get the call.

For the last 12 years or so, I’ve been the personal IT geek of my in-laws. My Mom is in her late 60′s and is still going strong with her career as a Real Estate agent, and Dad let’s call him “Bob” — is a 71-year old retired chemical engineer, stockbroker and financial advisor. For the most part, Bob’s activities center around his grandchildren, playing golf, watching TV, visiting friends, going on trips with his wife, listening to his iPod, and managing his remaining personal financial portfolio. In the last five years or so, he’s also been taking a lot of digital photos.

Bob is also a computer’s worst enemy and also refuses to learn the in’s and out’s of basic computer concepts like copying files from one directory to another, deleting things he no longer needs, and not installing every single spyware-laced program or visiting every spam link he comes across. So it’s been a constant battle trying to maintain his Windows computers for the last five years or so. Every visit, there’s always some issue to resolve.

“The computer is running slow. Can’t you do something about it?”

His latest machine, a 2003/2004-era Toshiba Pentium 4 2.2GHz 512MB laptop with a 40GB hard disk, has been continually problematic. Pretty much every visit to the house involved a malware sweep and garbage flush. Running Spybot Search and Destroy, CrapCleaner, and AVG Free (all excellent and essential freeware products I strongly recommend you use if you have to use Windows for any reason) usually turns up hundreds of issues.

But, no matter what utilities and cleanup schemes I used, removing old programs to free up space, running disk defragmentation, registry and temp file cleanup, running spyware and virus scans, there was nothing I could do to improve performance. And I was spending hours at a time each visit to try to resolve this and unravel the mess. There was no other way around it — this Windows computer had three years’ worth of crotch rot and it needed a total system flush. And I needed to do something to keep Bob’s natural tendencies of screwing up his computer in check.

I certainly could have loaded one of the spare Windows XP MCE 2005 SP2 licenses from MSDN I had lying around that I wasn’t using, but then I would have needed to bring the system up to date with all the Patch Tuesday bug fixes going back eons and re-load a ton of software. And I knew that in a matter of months I’d probably be back to the routine of scanning and flushing, and pretty soon the machine would be running slow again.

Much in the same way that I had recently changed my diet to low carb and low sugar, began a disciplined exercise regimen, and hired a personal trainer, I needed to do something drastic for Bob and his computer. The computer needed a lifestyle change. I was going to give it Linux.

Bob’s new and improved desktop

Making the Switch

Now, I’ve helped friends migrate to Linux before, but most of these folks were fairly computer savvy or at a bare minimum, in my own age group. So it was relatively simple to relate and to assess their needs. I wouldn’t go as far as to call Grandpa Bob computer illiterate, but he is… for a lack of a better description, stubborn and ornery. At 71, nobody is going to tell him what to do or how to change his habits. And he doesn’t like listening to people. So I had to give him a Linux desktop that was easy enough for him to understand and would require minimal hand-holding for the transition from Windows.

I debated the pros and cons of the various distributions for newbies Xandros, Linspire, LinuxXP, Novell SUSE Linux Desktop, MEPIS, Ubuntu and its derivatives like Xubuntu and finally settled on the latest and greatest Ubuntu release — Gutsy, which had only been released a week before.

I was impressed with the software Gutsy came with and its device driver support, and the positive reviews it had been getting. I’m also quite familiar with Ubuntu since it’s one of the VMWare images I use frequently, and it’s easy to obtain software for. It also has the advantage of being completely Free, so for the purposes of this thought exercise and real world test of the “if a grandparent can use it …” desktop Linux scenario, I thought it would be interesting to see what would happen if we tried it with a completely community-based distro. It wasn’t the most Windows-like of the other distros I was looking at, but surely I could tweak it for Bob.

First came looking at what Bob did with his old computer, and map its functions against what he would use on Linux. He used Outlook Express to POP3 his Optimum Online account, and had about 800MB of stored emails on the box. Unlike what I had to go through with Fat Guy (see “The Man Who Saved Everything” from the September 2004 issue) this would not be as much of an ordeal due to improved mail migration techniques.

I simply installed Mozilla Thunderbird on the old laptop, ran the mailbox conversion import routine, and copied the whole mail and profile directory to my Corsair 8GB USB Flash Voyager, which I would then copy back to the machine and run on Linux Thunderbird/Swiftdove later.

For the times he goes on the road and visits the grandkids or his friends in Florida, or goes on another international trip with his wife, I set him up with a Gmail account that POPs his Optimum Online, so he doesn’t have to schlep his computer with him, or worry about setting it up on a network he can just use a kiosk machine or someone else’s Web browser. Once I had all of Bob’s data taken care of, I gave Windows XP the three-finger salute, installed Ubuntu 7.10, and then Automatix to provide the extra codecs and stuff he would need for the more content-rich multimedia sites he visits.

Bob’s other big application is his financial portfolio management, which he handles thru Scottrade.com. Scottrade is an ASP-based website, and runs pretty much flawlessly with Firefox. However, he also uses the Scottrader real-time stock quotes application, which runs off the Scottrade web site using Java Web Start and the Sun JRE. Since Java and the JRE Web start plugin is supported in Linux, the application runs in Firefox no problem — provided the browser is tweaked to handle pop-ups from the Scottrade site. So that problem is licked.

Using Scottrade.com on Linux

Bob also takes a ton of digital photos, and he used Picasa on Windows to manage all his albums. Fortunately, we didn’t have much of a learning curve to deal with this one because all I had to do is copy out all his Picasa albums, transfer them the the USB drive, and install Picasa for Linux. I had to do a minor tweak to his Linux configuration when it came to doing imports from the USB card reader, since Bob would have to use the “Import” function to pull the photos from the /media filesystem as opposed to auto-detecting the card in the application and using the import wizard like he had in Windows, but it was easy enough for me to symlink that directory straight from his home folder, so he wouldn’t have to traverse the whole Linux system tree to get there every time he wanted to import pictures. No big deal.

Picasa on Linux

Next up, I had to deal with his HP Deskjet 682 color printer, which took about two hours of my time diagnosing why it didn’t work with his existing parallel printer port and cable when I could have solved the entire problem in a whole five seconds by replacing the cable with a USB printer cable instead. Ubuntu doesn’t deal well with parallel printers, but the second I switched it with the USB port, everything was detected and I had the test page printed out in no time whatsoever.

The iPod was a non-issue. I plugged it in, the icon popped up right on the GNOME desktop, and when I clicked on it, Rhythmbox launched and all the iPod’s songs were available. Bob doesn’t buy songs from iTunes, he rips them off the CDs he buys, so this is a perfectly good solution for him. I also have Banshee installed just in case he wants to play with a different interface.

While GNOME is somewhat of a departure from Windows, I was able to minimize Bob’s learning difficulties by putting launcher icons on his desktop with familiar names for all his frequently used apps. So for example, I created a “Bob’s eMail” icon to bring him into Thunderbird, I renamed Pidgin “AOL Instant Messenger,” Firefox to “Internet Explorer,” (and installed an Explorer-like theme) and created Firefox launchers with familiar looking icons that brought him directly into Scottrade and Yahoo! Calendar, which he uses to keep track of his appointments.

I also removed a ton of menu items that he wouldn’t need, such as most of the administrative options and anything else that could potentially get him into trouble. Finally, I left him with a nice calming golf course background. His Linux desktop was all set to go, and running smoothly.

After spending about an hour showing him how to launch and use all his programs, Grandpa Bob is now live on Linux. We’ll check back in a few weeks to see how he’s doing.

Comments on "Gutsy for Grandpa, Part One"


Well, that’s what I did to my Ex-Head-of-School (close to 70, I assume), who asked for help with his computer about two years ago. I booted it up, saw the nice and shiny Win98-Logo, recognized that there was nothing left to do and installed Ubuntu to it. About 6 months later he needed some help tweaking some preferences, but since then I haven’t heard anything from him anymore. And as he’s still writing his articles for the local newspaper, I assume everything’s still up and running ;-). Thanks, Ubuntu!


One of my dog-walking friends is a 60 year-old former surgeon from the U.S. (he is taking tests to be licenced in Canada). He gave me an old tape recorder he never used, and in exchange I built him a computer from leftover parts. We talked about operating systems for a while, and we settled on Ubuntu Gutsy as well. While not terribly computer-savvy, he is obviously a bright guy and I’m anxious to see how he likes it when I give it to him next week. Every day I use Ubuntu I appreciate it more.


Ubuntu rules.
Alas,Prof Jason doesn’t realise his protein diet is equivalent to using microsoft OS:
‘…The popularity of high protein diets…are increasing the risk of life-threatening kidney failure for millions of people. Although the damage caused by excess dietary protein has been recognized for more than 100 years…


Actually let me rephrase that. I am eating carbs, but not simple ones. What I’m trying to do is keep the glycemic index down (sugars) and fats down. The carbs I do eat — whole grains like brown and wild rice, quinoa, barley, millet, buckwheat (kasha), whole wheat pastas, whole grain breads (which we bake at home using whole grains we mill into flour ourselves and have no HFCS crap like the ones you get in the supermarket) are complex carbohydrades and are low on the glycemic index. As far as the protein goes the ratio of protein to vegetables I eat is relatively low, particularly vegetables that are high in Alpha Lipoic acid (like spinach and other cruciforms like cabbage, brussels, broccoli, etc). I eat about 8oz-10oz of protein per meal and a lot of vegetable volume, and I drink a ton of water. The water drinking is key to keeping your kidneys from failing.


Well, I must explain I fullfil both categories. I am over 60 and have some experience in IT because still earn for living programming. I have had Linux as a second OS in my computer but I believed I can’t live without Windows. When I installed Ubuntu 7.04, things changed significantly – Windows were the second OS (there is a lot of companies that consider the Linux community isn’t worth to effort).
I upgraded to Gutsy Gibbon (downloading about 1G took about 12 hours because I did it a couple hours after announcing), answered couple questions about configuration files and…. all my programs installed from sources worked! Incredible.
VirtualBox did the rest. I really don’t need to have two OSs in my computer.




all cool. ;)


I chosed Linux for my mother in law, because she lives 3000 km away. It is easier to maintain a Linux remotely than windows


When my dad upgraded from dial-up to DSL, his old Win98 computer lacked an Ethernet port. We upgraded him to a new machine running Ubuntu 7.04. He’s had only one slight problem – the default solitaire only permitted draw-3 solitaire, but he prefers draw-1 solitaire. A little research turned up an equivalent application. :-)

Otherwise, he (like the rest of our family) has done just fine with Ubuntu.


About your parallel port problem, well I had to deal with it too, but I didn’t have the chance of switching to a USB cable ’cause y use an EPSON LQ-1070+. Fortunately I discovered that everything was about the BIOS setup. It seems that Gutsy doesn’t likes the ECP mode in the LPT so y switched to normal and everything went OK.

Ah, my mother uses Ubuntu, she is 60 years old.


Age 71, Ubuntu enthusiast for last 12 months. Gutsy fine graphics nearly there but lost the sound! Still struggling with Linux on a stick (wifi drivers).
Wife has been on LinuxMint and won´t be without it! Great community.


Hi there :) Nice article :) I’ve been using Ubuntu for about 1 year, many issues about my tweaking preferences (I’m a little unstable about themes, plugins and tricks, I like to experiment :D) But I’m pretty happy with it, rather than Windows. There’s no comparison. Yes, you have to learn some basic info (I think it’s easier if you are a new user in computers), and to learn is not bad for human beings.

Here in Mexico we’ve some issues with government, because some of the websites it uses, MUST be used with Windows Internet Explorer, or downloading software made for Win XP, like paying taxes and some important things, but, I hope this changes.

Sorry about my poor english :)


Hi All,

Truly brilliant article! I do know what you mean here about adding “Gutsy” for Grandpa to the title. But, “Gutsy, is unique to Ubuntu. Perhaps “Linux Ubuntu Gutsy” might get you more hits? IMHO.

Anyway, I live in Tempe, Arizona, and unless I run IE Explorer, I can not log-in to the various WiFi systems here.

I’m a devoted Linux / open source user, and find this an irritant from time to time, when my home systems crashes.

I’ve often thought to bring a “bias” case against the local towns that offer broadcast service, but not IE users.

Think that might shack things up a bit?

Again – great article.



John, have you tried IES4Linux? Its a way to run Internet Explorer using WINE. I’ve used it and it is very good.


Another thing is that if the web sites are rejecting you simply by browser agent ID, there is a firefox plugin that allows it to report itself as Internet Explorer:


It allows you to switch it on and off at will.


There are no doubt many of us who end up being the expert for family and friends, which doesn’t neccesarily mean we are actual experts. I really liked the practical approach of the article, and can see a regular “grandpa” style column. I too use ubuntu and am happy to be free, and also very impressed by the community and forums when it comes to solving problems. I have a lot of background in using pcs and macs but little in programming, or other things that might prepare you for the terminal window. Whenever i post a problem, or search other posts for solutions, it doesn’t take long to solve it. This might be the next step for Granda, and i also think that Ubuntu is a good setting for it…


Great article!

I tried getting my 77 years old grandmother on windows 2k a few years ago so she could sent and get email from my cousin in Iraq, and it was a nightmare. Printer promlems, PeoplePC and NetZero dial-up…you name it, there was an issue. The final straw was a spyware program that took her computer hostage. She’s wrote off computer for good.

Maybe, I can get her back on the net with Ubuntu.

Thanks for the insperation


Is it possible to get a usb broadband card to work with xandros ie Novatel 950?


Well, I’m not alone. I gave my grandmother an older computer I had been using to experiment with linux. She had never used a computer before so it didn’t matter which O/S it had, there’d still be a learning curve. I installed Gutsy on her machine and walked her through a few things. She’s 87 and has never looked back. At first she only had dialup, which was a bit more complicated to set up but served its purpose for a while. They just installed Road Runner high speed and she loves it. The Road Runner tech had no idea how to set it up, but I had it going in no time.


You renamed Firefox, “Internet Explorer”? For shame! Kind of like sticking a Chevrolet emblem on a Lamborghini. After you performed this sacrilege, did the logo have a sort of embarrassed look?

Just kidding–great article. I have been considering doing the same thing for my uncle, who runs XP, and has never met a spyware-infested SPAM that he didn’t think was worth opening.


Where is part 2? I have been looking forward to that to see how this has gone over.

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