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

by Glenn Stone

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 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.


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