Interview with a Grandmother
Over the last decade Linux has been gaining in a number of markets, most notably in the server arena. Recently, the march onto the desktop has begun and the PDA market has opened up as well. There are also clusters and supercomputers. However, there is one more market where Linux could make more inroads: the home user. A few articles are around regarding techies who have helped their non-techie friends and family members get running with Linux. But what about the non-techie home user doing it all by themselves? Could a home user, say a grandmother of three, use Linux with no help from anyone but the vendor's normal support system? This is the story of one such grandmother and her entrance into the wonderful world of Tux.
First, some background on the grandmother. She is a 64-year-old mother of four, of which I am one, and grandmother of three. Her previous computer experience consists of being a user as a secretary and in administration. She's been retired since 1995. Her current computer needs are quite normal: e-mail, web, calendar/date book, the occasional need to write a document or two, a game of solitaire and so on. This is, I feel, an accurate description of most home users. She had been using a Windows 98 system that my brothers bought for her a while back. A number of times she had complained the computer was not acting right and required more effort than it was worth to get anything done.
Being the good son that I am, I decided that she needed a change. Earlier in 2002 I had written a mini-review of OEone's HomeBase Linux for Linux Weekly News. I thought it would make a perfect system for her. After talking to the people at OEone, they offered to ship a pre-installed system to my mother for her to use and allow me to write about her experience. One reason that I wanted to go with a pre-installed system is I wanted her to get a computer that was functionally like the one she was using. She hadn't had to install Windows 98 on the old box, so why even bother with a Linux install1? A few days after I spoke with OEone the system arrived. The following is an interview with her where she tells exactly what it's like to “switch” to Linux.
Joe: So what was your first impression of OEone HomeBase?
Mom: Wow! I just couldn't get over how easy, quick, simple.... I can't use enough adjectives to expound on the simplicity of this system. It's great.
J: How much work was done by a techie in setting up the system?
M: Just setting up the mail for me. That's about it. [I just configured the IMAP and SMPT settings - jjk]
J: What specific things do you like about HomeBase Linux?
M: I love the page to access the applications. It's easy to pop right back to it and go from one application to another. I use this as my main starting page. The web log-on location bar is in just the right spot—always accessible but unobtrusive. I can't wait until I can afford a printer. I know I will do even more (like write letters to my sisters and brothers who do not use computers to communicate). They are quite older than I and still write letters. I prefer e-mail, but at least a computer generated document is more my style. I hate to write letters, and I do want to talk to my brothers and sisters more often than a quick telephone call.
J: What about the main applications? How did they stack up to what you had previously been using?
M: If you have used any word processing system2 before, you can use this one easily as well. If you have not, the user guide is well written and it should be simple to follow the directions. The e-mail from document [capability] is wonderful. It is a really useful feature. My page is super, too. I like knowing the local weather and what is on my agenda for the week without having to go to my calendar or to the weather channel. It's like one stop shopping.
J: Did you know you could do that in MS Office on the old computer?
M: No, I didn't know that. Figuring out how to do anything on the old system was very difficult.
J: Was there anything else you found different than the old system?
M: Yes. The address book is really special. I can't wait until I can scan pictures onto my cards. It's really helpful that the system automatically makes cards for those to whom you send e-mails. It was quick and simple to delete those that I did not wish to retain. Oh, I almost forgot to mention the calendar3. I never really used one before, because I couldn't figure out how to access it on the old system. Now, with HomeBase Linux, I don't know how I was able to function without my calendar. I do volunteer work for the church by driving seniors to their doctor appointments. If I didn't have this calendar, I don't think I would be able to keep track of the numerous dates and times I drive each week. What with my own appointments and the seniors' appointments, sometimes I have three or four different appointments per week. My daughter stopped by and saw me putting a new event on my calendar and was really impressed with it as well.
J: Have you had any need to do any administration work? Managing the system or adding users, things like that?
M: Yes, actually. I have added three users, my grandchildren. It was so simple. The easiest system I have ever used. And the upgrade feature is wonderful. I was notified that an upgrade for the system was available. I clicked the button and voilà, the upgrade was quickly completed. I really appreciated the prompt comments. So polite and seemingly personal. I felt as though they were written directly to me.
J: Did you ever have need to contact OEone for support or help?
M: I did. I had gone on a vacation for two weeks and when I got back the system was dead. I think one of my sons [It wasn't me - jjk] might have been using it while I was gone. (Laughs) Anyway, I called the tech support line, and they talked me through some diagnostic procedures. The people on the other end of the line were very helpful. The problem turned out to be a hardware failure so the company sent a completely new system, already pre-configured with my settings.
J: Was there anything you didn't like about HomeBase Linux?
M: Nothing major, just some minor annoyances (and I do mean minor). For the first day I found it difficult to adjust to not exiting things. But once I got used to it I loved it. Also, I work a lot in percentages, and I could not find a percent key on the calculator. Perhaps I just didn't recognize it. Maybe it's just too sophisticated a calculator for a non-scientific user. Lastly, I wish I could change the picture on the back of the deck of cards. See what I mean? All very minor things.
J: Did all the web sites you visited look good and work correctly?
M: Yes. There was one time when it said I needed a plug-in of some kind, but I clicked where it told me to and things worked after that.
J: Did you exchange documents with others? Were their any problems doing so?
M: I exchanged some documents with my son [This time it is me4 - jjk], and it all seemed to work fine.
J: Is there anything you miss from your old computer?
M: No, nothing that I can think of.
J: Do you use the computer more now?
M: Ever so much more than before. My family here at the house has commented that I am on this computer more than they ever noticed before.
J: You have mentioned that HomeBase Linux is much easier to use. In what way is it easier?
M: When I think of something or if I am walking by and something comes to me, I can just plop right down (or just stand there if it's something short or quick I want to do) and proceed. No waiting to bring up the program or remembering to log on or exit.
J: Would you recommend HomeBase Linux to your friends?
M: Definitely, yes. It's truly amazing to see what you can really do with a computer.
Even with the tremendous improvements the Linux distributions have made with installing, I believe the vast majority of people, especially in the home user market, should not have to worry about installing the OS. It's not something they do with any other OS, so it doesn't need to be an issue.
This might be a little before most readers experience. Before there were Personal Computers there were these machines called word processors. The were pretty much like a typewriter with a CRT display. You can search Google for Wang Word Processor if you're curious.
The calendar developed for HomeBase Linux was given to the Mozilla project by OEone and is the basis for their calendar.
For the record, the documents she exchanged with me were transferred to, and used on, a Linux system with Applix Anywhere and OpenOffice, as well as on an OS X iMac with MS Office X.
Joe Klemmer is a long time Linux user and a wonderful son. He can be reached at email@example.com. Marlou Klemmer is a wonderful mother, grandmother and a fantastic cook. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.