Newsflash: Grannies Need Linux


I completely realize I'm a geek. I've been using Linux far longer than it's been the "cool thing" to do. I've also been around the Windows world longer than Windows itself. And to nicely round off the playing field, for the better part of a decade, I've been supporting a network of Apple computers. All this experience means two things:

  1. I sound much cooler than I really am
  2. Everybody asks me for help when their computers break

The first is really only true in geek circles, but the second is true everywhere I go. I don't mind at all, and I love to help people. (I find most Open Source enthusiasts tend to have that mindset. It's quite refreshing) Hands down, the number one problem people come to me about is spyware. Most of the time, that's not the leading question, but it's almost always the root of a myriad of issues. Even if you're a pro, spyware is a pain in the butt to clean up.

One of the common suggestions my fellow geeks give people is to buy a Mac. The reason is that Macs generally "just work", and require very little maintenance (read: very few calls to friendly grandsons). I'm not personally anti-Mac, or even anti-Windows -- so the Apple suggestion is one that makes a lot of sense to me. They come pre-installed, have friendly phone support, and last a long, long time. But what if Granny already had a Dell that your dumb cousin Eddie convinced her to buy? Enter Linux.

Chances are, Granny's computer hardware is fine. Since Linux will run on anything from a toaster oven to a space station -- unless there's actual physical damage, the upgrade to Linux should cost nothing but some of your time. (And maybe some of Granny's cookies.) Here's a quick list of suggestions to make life easier on you both:

  1. Set up automatic login. Logging in is often a tough concept, I don't know why.
  2. Install things like Flash, Java, MP3 support, DVD support, video streaming plugins, and true type fonts.
  3. Put bookmarks on the browser's toolbar. Label them so Granny will understand.
  4. Make the taskbar/panel large
  5. Install Skype and/or instant messaging software, and preconfigure them so Granny can chat with you. You'll both love it. Again, automatic login.
  6. Configure system updates to run as automatically as possible.
  7. Standardize Granny's passwords. I know this is insecure, but I think it's worth it.
  8. Make sure Granny calls you with questions, not cousin Eddie.
  9. Remind Granny not to try buying software from Walmart, or online. Have her ask you first.

And now it's up to you. Please drop your suggestions for how to set up Granny's computer in the comment section below. If we work together, we can dominate the elderly desktops of the world in no time. :)


Shawn is Associate Editor here at Linux Journal, and has been around Linux since the beginning. He has a passion for open source, and he loves to teach. He also drinks too much coffee, which often shows in his writing.


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zcat's picture

At some point cousin Eddie or one of the many other relatives who know granny has a computer are going to generously buy her some wonderful piece of software.

And they're going to be very, very angry at you for 'breaking' her perfectly good Windows and replacing it with 'some crap that can't even run common programs like Microsoft Office and Photoshop'.

WINE is not an answer. It doesn't work well enough, or at all, with a hell of a lot of the software out there.

Good luck with that, I haven't found an answer yet. My In-laws still buy our kids Windows games every birthday and Christmas. They just do not seem to 'get' that we do not use windows here.

My In-laws still buy our

Anonymous's picture

My In-laws still buy our kids Windows games every birthday and Christmas. They just do not seem to 'get' that we do not use windows here.

I do not understand this wholesale phenomenon of Operating System as ideological movement. It's an OS. I choose to use Linux but I don't force my family to stop being able to use Windows software, and the infinitely better selection of games.

Fortuntately grannies don't give a $#!+ about games

Anonymous's picture

All this sounds reasonable to me. Granny wants to email and surf, nothing more.

Grandma Ready Linux

Anonymous's picture

I've been saying this for years!

Adam Trickett's picture

I've taken this line for some time. Contrary to popular opinion an older user particularly with no Windows experience takes to Linux easier than a younger person with Windows (i.e. bad) experience.

See for my articles and presentations on this topic.

Linux for grandmas

lipbalm's picture

My mother-in-law (and grandmother of my kids) has been using Kubuntu on an IBM ThinkPad X30 for a couple years now. It's very simplified and locked down. Firefox for web (with very obvious bookmarks on the bookmarks bar), ThunderBird for mail, and VLC for watching web-based videos of her grandkids. Everything is set to auto-login for convenience.

The killer app (though not-libre) is Picasa for Linux, which installs (and self-updates) on Debian/Ubuntu the correct way (via apt). Picasa gives her the ability to suck the photos off her digi-cam, correct red-eye, and e-mail (appropriately auto-resized) photos to her friends and family. Though not quite iPhoto-easy, it works well enough for a somewhat tech phobic granny.

This has required zero trouble-shooting on my end, except for an occasional wi-fi failure (which is always related to DSL flakiness and not the wireless network itself). She's also "lost" her KMix applet a few times and so couldn't adjust volume until that was restored. Other than those minor blips, it's been really painless and quite a testament to the user-friendliness of the modern Linux desktop.

Secure the remote access

Karl O. Pinc's picture

Make yourself an account.

Disable root ssh logins.

Disable password ssh logins and use public/private keys to get in with your account.

Now Granny can have bad passwords and she won't get cracked.

Note that to support Granny remotely one of you is going to need a real Internet account, one with a fixed IP. (Speakeasy has worked very well for me, YMMV.) Either that or you need some easy button she can press so she can read you her IP number off the screen. If you're the one with a fixed IP configure Granny's box so that when the interface comes up it brings up an OpenVPN connection into your network. Then you'll aways be able to get to Granny.

Sorry to be mentioning commercial entities in my posts. I am affiliated with none of them.

The other way to get Granny's external IP

Sum Yung Gai's picture

Just have Granny surf to and have her read it off the screen to you. Boom, you're in.


You forgot backups

Karl O. Pinc's picture

You forgot backups. Always backup to a remote site. Keep multiple copies. The easy way is with some sort of rsync, preferably done from LVM snapshots. There's dirvish, rsyncbackup, or whatever. There's rarely reason why the entire box should not be backed up, because someday you will need to restore the whole thing. Raid is not a substitute for backup.

If, for some strange reason, you don't have the bandwidth then use an outside service like Granny shouldn't be changing her machine much, except when upgrades happen, so a lot of bandwidth is not necessary.

This does mean that Granny needs to leave the machine on, at least sometimes.

Rsnapshot is a great way to

paulgear's picture

Rsnapshot is a great way to keep backups and include a history over time. An external USB drive that holds an rsnapshot archive (with snapshots automatically initiated when the system has been idle for a few minutes or if more than 2-3 days have passed since the last backup) would be my choice.

It's not just for grannies

Anonymous's picture

Great article. Don't forget the accessibility feature.

BTW, it's not just for grannies. It's for moms and kids too.

Once I moved all my kids and their mom to linux, with auto-login and nice accessible icons and menus (some kids even found beryl-compiz cool), my support time has been drastically reduced.

I had them hooked to firefox, thunderbird, and openoffice in windows before moving them to linux.

Some still require MS Word (dual-boot just for this) because that's what the school teaches and gives assignments on, but for most other tasks they use openoffice for presentation and spreadsheet just fine. Bibus, gimp, tellico, etc. complement their works.

If they have questions, fire up krfb and share their desktop to see what's up.

You say they still need MS Word?

Sum Yung Gai's picture Writer handles the MS Word format just fine and has for years. Any reason why your kids cannot just use Writer and save in MS's format, instead of having to dual-boot like that?


Granny support

nightflier's picture

Good suggestions. Sounds a lot like what I did for my parents. I also made it possible for me to remotely access their computer. On the LILO screen I created an obviously named entry that boots to runlevel 2 where sshd is loaded. Really helps when you are living on different continents.

Granddaddies need Linux, too

Terrell Prude' Jr.'s picture

Earlier this year, I set up my Dad, who is now a great-grandfather, with CentOS 5. Reason: seven years of bug fixes, and he's a few thousand miles away, so regular Ubuntu-ish or Fedora-ish reinstalls aren't an option. Had this been mid-to-late 2006, I would've chosen Kubuntu Dapper Drake LTS.

I did a whole lot of preconfiguring. Had to install all the multimedia codecs, *Adobe* Flash (sorry, Gnash just ain't ready yet--I wish!), and the kernel video driver to get acceleration and resizing. Also had to do a bunch of tweaks to get past the GNOME-isms of Red Hat distros (he runs KDE--it looks more "Windows-like"). Before, I had him on Windows NT, so he already understood the drill about logging in.

One other thing helped out a lot. A couple of years ago, I had already migrated him from MS Office and Outlook Express over to and Thunderbird (he *really* likes Thunderbird). Therefore, the only app I had to worry about was a Quicken 2003 replacement. KMyMoney turns out to fill the bill pretty darned nicely.

Kai Staats, CEO of Terra Soft Solutions (the Yellow Dog Linux folks), has a similar story involving his father. Turned out Mr. Staats needed exceedingly little hand-holding.


My Tips

TripleII's picture

I have OEMed Linux a lot, here are the common links I put on the desktop. Literally, the icons are named.

Write a Letter (Points to OO Writer, Abiword on one low powered machine)
Internet (links to FF)
Email (links to thunderbird)
Pre-Configure their Junk folder, show them how to mark things as Junk.
Listen to Music (Points to Amarok)
GRIP Pre-COnfigured to RIP into the default music folder of Amarok, all set up.
Pre-Configure any MP3 players in Amarok before I turn them loose
Watch a movie (Points to Kaffeine, as you said, with ALL codecs installed)
Get Pictures (points to digiKam, preconfigured with default pictures directory)
Look at Pictures (points to GQiew configured to start at top of picture folder, large icons, etc)
In GQView, right click will edit in default Picassa
I drag the ENTIRE games menu to the desktop
Chat with people (points to Pidgin, autologin)
I drag KDE Control Center to the desktop, leave it as Control Center

The above are the defaults. A few other items.
1) Show them where downloads from the web are defaulted, change if needed.
2) Remove the delete (if present) and leave the "move to trash". Everyone understands the trash can concept.
3) I demonstrate how to find and install software (if savvy, otherwise, I tell them to call me).
4) Enable Mouse Over Previews of everything, including MP3s.
5) Pre-Configure ANY hardware they use, if required, as SANE to the desktop, etc.
6) Change KDE so that unmounted CD/DVDs icons remain on desktop, make sure that all removable drives/devices show up on desktop when mounted (automount). For some reason, even when no CD/DVD there, having the icon is re-assuring.

After the above, 10-20 minutes watching and helping them, they are on their way, very litle support needed.



Michelle Greer's picture

I was looking for a checklist of everything Linux does not include when you first install it, and here it is. Kudos!

Depends on the Distro

Anonymous J's picture

Some distros, like Linux Mint I believe, come with a lot of these things available out of the box as it were. I don't know about PCLinuxOS but I think they lean towards this philosophy as well.

(disclaimer: I haven't installed either of those distros because I actually prefer to install that stuff myself)

Good list regardless though!