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.

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