One Too Many Viruses: Converting a Non-Geek to Linux, Part 1

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The first in a series of articles chronicling the journey of a 30-something law student from Windows to Linux.

I got a call from a friend the other day asking, "What would it take to get me a Linux box?" I could hear the frustration in her voice. This wasn't the first time she experienced computer problems. Word-based viruses run rampant on college campuses, and being on a student's budget, she can't afford the top-of-the-line AV software. On this day, it seemed that another virus had snuck past the freeware she had loaded.

We had been discussing Linux for some time. I had given her an account on my wife's machine so she could play with it, and we had talked about what it was she needed from a computer. Being a law student, she had specific layout requirements for her work but no requirements for a specific word processor. She did need Acrobat Reader, a browser that would handle various sites she needed to access for her classwork and support for her printer, a Hewlett-Packard DeskJet 697. She also wanted to be able to move files to and from her Windows machine, in case something came up that Linux couldn't handle, and to use the two at the same time in her cramped office.

The only thing I had a question about was the printer, so I fired up YaST2 on my local SuSE box and navigated the printer dialog. Both a generic 690-series driver and one specifically for the 697 were listed. Everything else I knew we could do. "So, what's your budget?" I asked. "$500", she said. Can do; I knew where she could order a machine for $200 plus shipping. "I'd like a new monitor, too", she added. Her eyesight isn't the best, and the 14" CRT on her old machine was giving her headaches. Fortunately, I had a source for good used monitors, a rather large second-hand computer store downtown.

She picked me up, and we went down the store. When we got there, a sign out front advertised, "Back To School Special - Complete System, $299". The store had received a shipment of commercial Compaq systems: 933MHz Pentium III machines in a small form factor with 128MB of RAM, a 20GB hard drive, CD-ROM, integrated graphics, NIC and sound, modem, 17" S720 monitor, keyboard, scroll mouse. Almost everything she needed was sitting right there in front of us.

I was concerned about having only 128MB of RAM, though, because KDE (the desktop she wanted) tends to take up so much space. So, we negotiated a $20 upgrade to 256MB of RAM, and we also picked up a KVM switch and cables, plus a cheap Ethernet card for her Windows machine, to facilitate Samba. We walked out with the whole shooting match--tax, tag and title--for a handful of change under $400. "Holy [censored]", she said, "I just bought a Linux box." "Well, it's not a Linux box yet", I replied, "but we'll fix that."

We brought the system back to my house, and I proceeded to put SuSE 8.2 on it. I made sure several different word processors were loaded, as well as Samba, AcroReader and the sound goodies. So far, so good. The next step was to have her walk through a demo. She wanted to make the fonts bigger, so we fiddled around for a bit in the KDE Control Center. Under Appearances and Themes: Fonts, we found where she could change the font size for all the decorations and such that KDE controlled. I also showed her how to change the fonts in Galeon, and where the zoom control was.

We explored OpenOffice.org for a bit and discovered it didn't do tables the way she needed them formatted. KWord from KOffice did have tables as she liked them, so we proceeded to put a KWord icon on her desktop. To my personal delight, she discovered that in KDE 3.1, you can drag and drop from menus to task bar to desktop pretty much willy-nilly. We then connected to her school Web site to verify that Galeon digested its funky JavaScript properly and that Acrobat Reader was in fact version 5 and would read whatever her professors threw at her. At this point she was reasonably comfortable with the system as a standalone machine connected to my LAN.

What lies ahead of us, however, is the truly interesting part. A lot of work needs to be done once we actually get the machine to her office. I have to make sure the machine can access her dial-up connection from a local telco. We have to set up the printer and make sure it prints nicely. We'll need to make sure the KVM we purchased doesn't confuse X; if it does, I'll have to show her how to switch virtual consoles to avoid the issue or how to fix it if it happens. And the big task will be configuring Samba and her Windows machine so they talk to each other for both file sharing and printing. I also may want to set up dynamic DNS so I can get into the machine easily on her dial-up link and fix issues. It's only a 15-minute drive, but why waste gas when you can use SSH and neither of you has to get out of your PJs? As both of us are stuck on single phone lines and dial-up connections, I've already grabbed the latest version of GAIM and compiled it for her, so we can talk and fix at the same time. SuSE 8.2 actually deals nicely with having both GTK 1.x and GTK 2 on the same machine, so getting GAIM to work simply was a matter of making sure all the relevant -devel RPMs were loaded. This isn't quite as simple as it sounds, but then that's why I'm helping her.

What I have learned so far from this process is the devil is in the details when you're dealing with someone--a friend, a client, a boss--who is brand new to Linux. The smallest thing--the ability to move icons from the task bar to the desktop or having the right kind of table in your word processor--can become a big issue. But working with new people on a daily basis and becoming familiar with all the weird and wonderful things a modern Linux system can do keeps you sharp. Helping new folks learn, be they friends, co-workers or some random person that shows up to a LUG install-fest, not only promotes Linux but is a good investment in your own skills, both technical and interpersonal. And from down here in the trenches, this is a happy thing.

Glenn Stone is a Red Hat Certified Engineer, sysadmin, technical writer, cover model and general Linux flunkie. He has been hand-building computers for fun and profit since 1999, and he is a happy denizen of the Pacific Northwest.

email: liawol.org!gs

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Re: One Too Many Viruses: Converting a Non-Geek to Linux, Part 1

Anonymous's picture

Not a very helpful article at all. Saying generically that I did this and did that, how is that helpful to anyone. Explaining the various procedures in the form of a howto would be much better.

Re: One Too Many Viruses: Converting a Non-Geek to Linux, Part 1

Anonymous's picture

Any Linux user will know the how-to already or can easily find it. The point of the article is a non-geek discovering and accepting a non-mainstream computing environment. I hope the article focus more on the woman's discovery of using linux. This story lacks credibility. Nieve computer user decides to choose linux. Linux evangelist show the smooth road to computing freedom. Pa-lease!

Why Linux and not OS X? If she's a law student, she can afford it. An iBook is affordable, portable, classroom chic, can meet all her requirements AND run YellowDog.

Re: One Too Many Viruses: Converting a Non-Geek to Linux, Part 1

Anonymous's picture

"This story lacks credibility." Exactly.

She can't afford decent antivirus software ($50), yet can afford to spend 10 times that for a linux system. Give me a break. This article proves that to these Linix zealots, the question doesn't matter. The answer is Linux. I'm suprised to hear Linux hasn't cured cancer, stopped world hunger, gotten rid of terrorism, and ended pollution.

Re: One Too Many Viruses: Converting a Non-Geek to Linux, Part 1

Anonymous's picture

Agreed. Why buy Norton Anti-Virus Pro 2003 for 35 bux when you can go out and spend 300 on new hardware and still pay for law school? Nonsense. The question doesnt matter is right.......
Its like reading Donald MacVittie's column on the Internet Week website, the guy hates Windows, which makes for a nice biased approach to computing. The only windows users I know that 'hate' linux are not technical enough to use it. Thats the problem. The real problems out there would be resolved if both 'sides' came to the realization that we need to live in a world where choosing one over the other isnt going to prevent you from getting your work done.

Actually, you are wrong in your assessment.

Don MacVittie's picture

To the anonymous coward that stated "Don MacVittie hates Windows"...

I don't hate Windows, I believe in the "right tool for the job". Contrary to what MS marketing and MCSEs will tell you, Windows isn't always it.

I work rather closely with the MS people and their PR firm when writing, I use MS for some things. But the blind belief that a system designed for the desktop is the best solution for servers, or that a system not even designed for network use is a viable NOS for high-volume loads is kind of annoying.

Right tool for the job. Windows for some things, Linux for others. UNIX still has a space, but it's rapidly dwindling.

Feel free to email me, and we can talk about it. My email address is posted on the Network Computing web site.

Don.

Re: One Too Many Viruses: Converting a Non-Geek to Linux, Part 1

Anonymous's picture

Contemplating the TCO advantage of Linux here...

Re: One Too Many Viruses: Converting a Non-Geek to Linux, Part 1

Anonymous's picture

The article is about someone who has become fed up with kludges.

Re: One Too Many Viruses: Converting a Non-Geek to Linux, Part 1

Anonymous's picture

Then the story should be about the new user, not a sudo-technical discussion to how easy it is to set someone up. There are few success stories of non-geeks using linux successfully. IMHO.

And non-mainstream = non-commertial, but I should have stuck to the authors term "non-geek". It's more appropriate and causes fewer rashes. (^_^)

Re: One Too Many Viruses: Converting a Non-Geek to Linux, Part 1

Anonymous's picture

Here are commercial Linux products for you:

http://www.redhat.com/software

Re: One Too Many Viruses: Converting a Non-Geek to Linux, Part 1

Anonymous's picture

Certainly would like your opinion on what constitutes a "mainstream" OS.

Re: One Too Many Viruses: Converting a Non-Geek to Linux, Part 1

Anonymous's picture

Anon observes that Glenn Stone's article reports What but not How.

Why? Maybe because it's news to a _lot_ of WinDOSe sufferers that converting to Linux is even possible -- let alone cheap & easy.

Re: One Too Many Viruses: Converting a Non-Geek to Linux, Part 1

Anonymous's picture

The purpose of the article was not to describe technical details, but to explore the interpersonal aspects of Linux. I found the article interesting, since I have also tried to help others install and use Linux, but they generally require more hand-holding than I expected. I'm always looking for ways to improve this.

Articles like this also serve as excellent advice for open source developers who maintain the packages mentioned.

Re: One Too Many Viruses: Converting a Non-Geek to Linux, Part 1

Anonymous's picture

Well the title seemed bold enough.

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