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#title Ubuntu For Grandma Article by Knightwise

They say it's for geeks, they say it's for nerds, they say it's for those whose pinkie finger has the imprint of the enter key tattooed on it. We say it's for your grandmother! Yes my friends, I kid you not, for all of those who are afraid to dip their little toe into the great Linux Lake, let us reassure you: if your grandmother can do it, so can you. Before we start, let me clarify: we are not talking about turning your Linux machine into a clustered database server with SQL, PHP, Apache, Samba and what-have-you. We are talking about the advantages of using Linux... as a desktop.

Why this experiment

I have been toying around with Linux since 1999, I've seen the first desktop versions evolve and I've seen the Linux OS grow in strength on the desktop. Last year I found out about Ubuntu Linux and have been doing several articles and podcasts on the use of Ubuntu as a desktop system. I am by no means a Linux zealot; no pingu-pimping for me! Drop me in the Linux command line and I'm as lost as Dirty Harry in a nail salon. I do, however, have a philosophy about computer use. I think technology should be safe and simple and that a computer should work for you and not the other way around. Linux has always been seen as too hard and too complicated. So it was time for a little experiment. Could we put together a Linux desktop system that was simple to use, safe from viruses, spam, and user mistakes, and had a lot of software to offer. Could we build a Linux box that your grandma could use? Well, lets see.

Step One : Find a grandmother

My fiancée's family is pretty tech savvy, her dad is a computer whiz, her mother is on MSN messenger all day, her sisters live online, and her grandmother... is right up the alley. It's not that they are all computer freaks out there, they all just have an open mind towards technology. Good old granny started out on her gaming trip some fifteen years ago when she swiped a hand-console Tetris game from one of her grandchildren. An all night-gaming rush that night got her hooked on these little hand held gaming consoles. Some two years ago, she got a second-hand worn-down IBM Thinkpad laptop running Windows 95 for running some simple games like... surprise, surprise... Tetris. So when she called me last week in a panic because she accidentally deleted some shortcuts and "could not get her games to work anymore," and in her despair, was even suggesting buying herself a brand new laptop... it was time to jump in.


Granda Meme (above)

Step Two : Find a laptop

Finding a laptop for cyber-granny was not all that hard. My fiancée's dad had an old Compaq laptop lying around that was no longer in active duty. With an 800 Mhz Processor and 256 meg of ram it had been set out to pasture because of a defective PCMCIA slot on the motherboard. Apparently, force feeding a PCMCIA card upside down into its slot does not bode well for the laptop. So it no longer had wireless capability and since the family had bought a new laptop ... it was just laying around. One discarded laptop, one grandma in need .. Cheque please!

Step Three: Somebody get me a penguin

With our laptop secured under our arm it was time to browse through some available operating systems to help “La mama” out. The needs to be met were:

  1. Be simple to use.
  2. Be safe from malware, viruses, and user-boo-boos.
  3. Offer enough free software to avoid having to take out a loan to get started. This kind of ruled out Windows XP Pro right off the bat. Several Linux distributions offered themselves up but Ubuntu took the cake.

So it was time to let loose the beast. Downloading a standard ISO image from the 5.10 version was about 20 minutes' work and the whole installation process took about an hour. The simple installation only bothered us with the country settings, keyboard layout and a user name. No problem there. We let it have the entire hard disk at its disposal so we did not have some boot loader clogging up the startup process. The idea here was "easy as firing up a toaster."

When the bongos rumbled to announce the first successful bootup we went straight to the Synaptic Package Manager and started adding games to our installation. Ubuntu comes with some games in the standard configuration, but when you look in the package manager, it's like uncovering the lost island of Arcadia. Some games are action based, a lot of them are brain-breakers; ideal for our test subject. We loaded the distro up with some 100 games and that was that.

Now what do you do when you've beat Tetris for the 500th time and can't see another polygon for the rest of the evening? You watch a movie right? Unfortunately most Linux distributions come without support for playing mpeg2 (DVD) and mp3 support. With the latest Ubuntu we can easily install all the video playing goodies you could ever want. Just open a media file and Ubuntu 7.04 will ask you if you want to install the goodies.

Step Four: Sense some simplicity

Now. it's no good to have a complicated system for our super granny, is it? Time to simplify the whole deal.

Step one: Automatic Login. In the settings menu you can choose the AUTOLOGIN feature. This makes sure our little laptop boots up straight into the user's desktop. No login/password combinations but hey... it's not like she's typing up memos for the Pentagon.

Step two: Could I see the menu please? Thanks to the Gnome desktop the menu is pretty simple as it is, but a lot of options on the menu were just not needed. So we added the games menu, the DVD and CD player icon and the shutdown icon to the main menu bar and removed everything else. Next up the menu bar was set at the bottom of the screen and the bar you see below was set up top. I left an icon for the main “start” menu there so I could access all the other programs and settings if needed.

Step three: Explaining how it works. Ok Gran, here is how it works. Press the blue button to start up the computer. Wait until you hear the music. Then you have four buttons on the bottom on the screen. One will give you a menu with ALL the games. If you want to play a movie, just pop in a DVD and click on the second button with the little film reel on it. Want to play some music? Pop in the music CD and click on the little CD. And to shut down the system just click on the little door there.


That's it, half-an-hour later Granny was trained on using the computer, had a ton of games to choose from, could play movies and music CDs and was able to boot up and shutdown her system without ever having to worry about pressing the wrong button. Who said Linux was hard?


Needless to say, Nana was thrilled. She had a stable and secure operating system and did not have to worry about pressing the wrong buttons because quite frankly... there were none. A grin as wide as the Brooklyn bridge spread across her face when she saw the entire selection of games she could play and not have to worry about breaking anything in the process. “This is much easier than the previous one” she uttered, casting a wayward glance to her old Windows computer.

I'll be keeping tabs on our cyber-granny over the next few weeks to see how she gets along with her new system.


Now with computers becoming more abundant in our everyday lives, it's natural that everybody wants one, including everyone in your family. But as the family computer-geek (and professional IT consultant) it would just turn into a nightmare providing support for everyone. So using a simplified Ubuntu installation does keep calls about viruses, broken operating systems and spyware away. Even if she decided to go online, I would just have to add the Firefox and Pidgin (formerly known as Gaim) buttons to her menu bar, give her a crash course in chat 'n' surf and she would be on her way. No high maintenance on this operating system. When handled right it can be a simpler and safer operating system to plant down in the soil of an inexperienced user. OK, you can't install all the CDs you see in the shop, but Linux comes with all these goodies built in. This way you even save money! So the question is: have you seen your granny lately?


First published in FullCircle magazine issue #2 under Creative Commons ShareAlike v3 Licence


UbuntuForGrandma (last edited 2014-01-20 18:34:37 by cprofitt)