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Good Enough for Mom and Dad

By _Quinn in Technology
Thu Jan 04, 2001 at 09:23:17 AM EST
Tags: Software (all tags)

What do I need to do to make a Linux distribution Good Enough for Mom And Dad (TM:))? My parents, anyway, only do word processing, browsing, and e-mail on their machine, and storm away in a huff when Windows falls over. I'd like to develop a Linux distribution for them. I don't think the GUI is an issue, since they never use it, except to invoke the word processor, the browser, or the e-mail client; the issue is with the killer troika. (To coin a phrase. :))

word processing

I use LyX, a GUI front-end to [La]TeX:

  • I don't have the time and patience to download and upgrade to KDE 2.x for kWord, about which I've not heard wonderful things anyway;
  • The last beta of AbiWord I tried couldn't print correctly (and I don't know /anything/ about printing);
  • from what I've heard, Sun's OpenOffice would choke my machine and hurt to use even if it didn't;
  • I didn't get along with WordPerfect 8: it didn't produce (for what I write) substantially better looking output than some magic perl scripts and raw text, and something about it made me want to do everything the way I did in MS Word (6.0);
  • mozWord isn't close to ready yet;
and LyX, via TeX, produces the best-looking output I've ever seen. It doesn't, however, seem to handle images very well, or (like LaTex) refuses to unveil its layout-creation secrets to us lesser mortals. So I don't think it's Good Enough for Mom and Dad. (I happen to think LyX has the right idea, though; they call it What You See is What You Mean; LyX tries to be a GUI that holds true the separation of content and formatting. Please discuss. :)) I'd appreciate recommendations, updates to my impressions, or counter-examples. I've never used Mozilla's composer, but it's entirely possible that it works well enough to be used a word processor. XHTML and CSS2 seem to give about as much layout control as you'd want in a document, except for pagination. If the interface and the ouput is good, it could be worth adding this (headers and footers, margins and gutters), and incorporating the grammar/spelling checkers from some other project. Assuming the word processing problem solved, what about the browser?

web browsing

My parents, in particular, actually use Netscape 4.5 (it came on the ISP's installation CD), so just about anything will be an improvement. In general, I think Mozilla, once it's sped up enough, is the way to go. (Though Amaya and Opera would be worth looking at.) Comments?


It could be that Mozilla's e-mail client is sufficient. (Gee, wouldn't that be scary? A distribution dedicated to running Mozilla?) I haven't tried Nautilus, but I'm happy with pine, so I'm probably not the best person to ask about e-mail clients.

distribution issues

Generally, it's important that whatever the distribution ends up being, it ends up being able to grow with my parents, should they ever want to learn more, or do more, or become more proficient with the tools. I think WINE will (eventually) take care of whatever parts of 'doing more' aren't covered by Linux software. Their system should be easy to maintain; ideally, they wouldn't ever need to upgrade it, but I think the W3C, at least, will obliterate any chance of that. And there will be bugs in everybody's software that need to be fixed. I don't use a package system, but I've heart that Debian's is wonderful, but that there are more .rpm's, and that the BSD 'ports' tree is comparable to Debian's system. Learning more depends mostly on (a) the documentation provided by the applications and the distribution and (b) the simplicity of the system. (Which is one reason I use Slackware; I learned on it, because it was supposed to be so straightforward, and haven't found a convincing enough reason to switch.) I think it's important to stay as similar as reasonable to a major distribution, to simplify things, though more secure by default.

Finally, I think it would be terrible thing not to introduce (or at least, make available) the benefits of a true networked operating system. I would like to install a user-nobody webserver that does two things: first, it would provide an SSL->SSH tunnel. This provides a secure way to check email (if they learn pine, and Nautilus interops with it properly; a local-only IMAP server may come in handy here) and the like from restricted terminals. The webserver would also provide clients for, say, VNC (IBM's Virtual Network Computer) for a wide variety of architectures, so that Mom & Dad could do everything they've gotten used to from wherever they want. One potential problem is the security of VNC; does anyone have information on this? There's potential for doing something relatively neat: if a session from the console is run through VNC, then it should be possible to link into that session from the remote machine, so Mom & Dad could pick up exactly where they left off.

So: should I go register GEMAD at SourceForge? :)


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Your mother is such a newbie that...
o ... she gets white-out all over her screen. 20%
o ... she thinks a Commodore 64 is really neat-o. 7%
o ... she waxes her modem, trying to make it to go faster. 7%
o ... she defrags her hard drive for thrills. 5%
o ... her Windows boots up in a day and a half. 17%
o ... she could back up her whole hard drive on a floppy diskette. 12%
o ... she recognizes lines from Wierd Al Yankovic's "All About the Pentiums" 30%

Votes: 70
Results | Other Polls

Related Links
o Also by _Quinn

Display: Sort:
Good Enough for Mom and Dad | 61 comments (51 topical, 10 editorial, 0 hidden)
The poll (3.66 / 6) (#2)
by theboz on Wed Jan 03, 2001 at 10:32:51 PM EST

I don't see the humor in the poll item about Commodore 64's. Although technology has advanced, I have not seen a cooler computer come along in years (I've never had the chance to use an amiga but I would think they were nice as well.) I would go through and list the reasons why I like it so much, and still have one even today, but I am tired and must go to bed. Let's just say that it was years ahead of it's time, and has inspired many a hacker to be interested in computers.

That's all. :o)


Speaking as a lay-person (3.00 / 1) (#4)
by Phage on Wed Jan 03, 2001 at 10:42:37 PM EST

All of that sounds less than easy to use.
It sounds like an engineer's solution, ie the best (technically) way to do it.
Speaking from purely my own point of view, my key criteria would be firstly reliability, and secondly ease of use.
I wouldn't care what the detail was, meet these two points and you will have built the proverbial better mousetrap.

I don't find Heathens to be sexy, as a general rule.

Reliability (3.00 / 1) (#11)
by _Quinn on Wed Jan 03, 2001 at 11:49:21 PM EST

   I happen to agree -- that's why I want to develop a Linux distribution. Linux (well, Slackware, specifically; I've only had an equivalent amount of experience with RedHat, which doesn't hold together as well, though that could easily be due entirely to the systems different application loads) is much more stable than the Windows (95) they're using now, and only 2000 is even in the running, in my experience. I'd even do a BSD distro if I knew enough about it.

   As for ease of use -- I think I could away with maybe three icons on the desktop, and the rest is up to the applications. If I go all-Mozilla, I don't even need icons -- load moz on log-in, and write a script to bring it back if it dies. *shrug*

   But do you think it's worth trying? What, specifically, makes a /distribution/ more or less easy to use?

Reality Maintenance Group, Silver City Construction Co., Ltd.
[ Parent ]
customization is bad! (3.00 / 1) (#20)
by Delirium on Thu Jan 04, 2001 at 12:20:03 AM EST

What, specifically, makes a /distribution/ more or less easy to use?

This is far from a comprehensive list, but setting defaults for everything and allowing GUI configuration of everything would help a lot. For example, X should start even if you haven't set up any settings for it (in some generic 640x480 video mode, just like Windows does). Then it should let you customize the settings from within X, again like Windows. Things should just *work*. Sure, customization is nice, but it shouldn't be required. Things should work first and foremost, and allowing customization should be a later option. Often it seems things are done the other way around.

[ Parent ]

Exactamente ! (4.00 / 2) (#28)
by Phage on Thu Jan 04, 2001 at 12:41:10 AM EST

People, and especially lay people like myself, care about results first and foremost.
Unfortunately engineers always want to do it the right way for some inexplicable reason...

I don't find Heathens to be sexy, as a general rule.
[ Parent ]

Customization Is Good! (none / 0) (#48)
by Matrix on Thu Jan 04, 2001 at 01:07:47 PM EST

Or at least, the ability to customize is. What you seem to be saying is that the defaults need to be well-chosen. I'd agree with that.

"...Pulling together is the aim of despotism and tyranny. Free men pull in all kinds of directions. It's the only way to make progress."
- Lord Vetinari, pg 312 of the Truth, a Discworld novel by Terry Pratchett
[ Parent ]

defaults (none / 0) (#50)
by Delirium on Thu Jan 04, 2001 at 04:24:57 PM EST

Yeah, the subject was a bit misleading. Adding customization is certainly a good thing as long as it can be ignored by those who don't want to customize. Well-chosen defaults are very important, and failing that, having at least *some* default is preferable. "640x480" is a good default video mode; "[select vidmode]" is not.

[ Parent ]
Is Linux really suitable? (3.80 / 5) (#6)
by Lance on Wed Jan 03, 2001 at 10:59:14 PM EST

I can't help but wonder whether Linux is really suitable for an OS that is "Good Enough for Mom and Dad". Web browsing and word processing are two areas where Linux is really lacking.

Your article focuses on Mozilla, but it is slow, buggy, and a memory hog. I really don't think it is going to improve anytime soon. I use Opera from time to time, but I have never been entirely happy with it either. I agree with your comments on the dismal state of word processing, and the XHTML/CSS idea seems to rely on Mozilla. I don't know of any other Linux software which could do this.

As for security with VNC, it isn't very secure by itself, but I believe you can tunnel it through SSH. I haven't actually tried this, however.

Anyway, +1 because I think this is worth discussing.

VNC is not IBM (3.00 / 2) (#7)
by turtleshadow on Wed Jan 03, 2001 at 11:24:19 PM EST

Just as a point VNC is not IBM.
Perhaps you got confused with Desktop on Call

VNC is located ATT

Thanks! (3.00 / 1) (#10)
by _Quinn on Wed Jan 03, 2001 at 11:48:51 PM EST

   That would explain why I couldn't find it! No, it's definitely the AT&T product. My apologies to everyone.

Reality Maintenance Group, Silver City Construction Co., Ltd.
[ Parent ]
Debian (4.00 / 1) (#9)
by fluffy grue on Wed Jan 03, 2001 at 11:46:55 PM EST

> apt-get install wmaker abiword

Basically, get X running (which is very easy with the XFree 4.0 packages in unstable, thanks to Dexter), and set them up with windowmaker and AbiWord, both very good for beginners. AbiWord is also compatible with Winword, which is a real plus (though I haven't really tested it in this regard).

As far as email clients, I use mutt, so I'm not the best person to ask there either. :) I'd actually recommend just using webmail - it's much more reliable, and doesn't have the niggling synchronization issues which are implicit with anything POP- (or even IMAP-, to an extent) based.

Problem with Mozilla is that, at the moment, it doesn't do https properly (from what I've seen), so if you want to do online banking, you're pretty much SOL. It's also destined to be forever slow, thanks to its stupid HTML-based interface. Ugh. skipstone and galeon aren't much better (they have absolutely NO https support, and they're pretty crash-prone, neat trick considering they're supposed to just be minimal gtk clients which embed a Gecko renderer, no?).

In any case (albeit tangentially), I recently setup a Linux-based firewall box for my parents so they could share their dialup connection. So far it's working great for them, and they're quite happy with it. My mistake was putting Debian on a 386SX/25, though - it doesn't have enough CPU to run the package manager efficiently. :/ Your ramble about the network terminal server thingy reminded me of that, though.

But anyway, I don't think starting another distribution is really the answer, particularly when Debian can be suited to their needs. All that Debian really needs is a decent, usable graphical package manager (or needs to finally fold in Corel's 'get-it' like I've heard whispers of happening for over a year now), and in the meantime, you can always periodically telnet in (apt-get install ddup) and update their system for them.
"Is not a quine" is not a quine.
I have a master's degree in science!

[ Hug Your Trikuare ]

worth investigating (2.00 / 1) (#14)
by _Quinn on Wed Jan 03, 2001 at 11:53:56 PM EST

   I'll look into this idea; it certainly looks like an easy enough place to start. Thanks.

Reality Maintenance Group, Silver City Construction Co., Ltd.
[ Parent ]
First of all don't give them linux. (4.40 / 5) (#13)
by rebelcool on Wed Jan 03, 2001 at 11:53:43 PM EST

Give them something that they can discuss with the neighbors and co-workers. "Well my son gave us this uh..what did he call it..Linus? something like that. it's kinda hard to use and doesnt like our printer"

Rather give them something that's plenty stable for their needs, yes, that "evil" OS Windows. Webbrowsing, word processing and e-mail works just fine under it :) Not to mention should they want to ADD something to it in the future, you can bet they'll have a relatively easy time doing it.

Since its unlikely your parents are going to be running a webserver for several months at a time on it, the "stability" issue is non-sensical.

COG. Build your own community. Free, easy, powerful. Demo site

But Windows isn't stable enough... (3.66 / 3) (#16)
by _Quinn on Thu Jan 04, 2001 at 12:04:50 AM EST

   ... if it were, I wouldn't be trying to replace it! Maybe it's an application problem, but I refuse (and I doubt Mom & Dad would) to pay for a newer version of Word that run even more slowly. It may be worth looking into migrating them IE 5, but I'm worried about all the various evil things it does to the system files. (And I'm guessing it'll hurt a pentium-120, as well.) The printer issue, however, could be problematic; I'd forgotten completely about it because I print to a PostScript-capable printer in my (not-in-the-house) Linux setup. I suppose the article may have been better phrased as a 'general acceptance' question about the troika, but whatever -- I'll try that if it gets voted down. :)

   As an aside, what else do people use on a regular basis and expect to fail twice a day? (I'm trying not to troll, but I can't think of a better way of phrasing it.)

Reality Maintenance Group, Silver City Construction Co., Ltd.
[ Parent ]
x (2.66 / 3) (#19)
by Delirium on Thu Jan 04, 2001 at 12:13:29 AM EST

As an aside, what else do people use on a regular basis and expect to fail twice a day?

X Windows =)

[ Parent ]

netscape (4.00 / 1) (#42)
by evvk on Thu Jan 04, 2001 at 10:47:56 AM EST

>> As an aside, what else do people use on a regular basis and expect to fail twice a day?
> X Windows =)

Nah. I've had XFree3.3.3 constantly up for months (using the computer for many hours almost every day). Back when I still used window maker and netscape 4 I often had X lock (either application not freeing keyboard/pointer grab) but having dumped it in favor of lighter alternatives (pwm and netscape 3) I've had no problems with X.

Netscape 4, on the other hand, can be expected to crash once every two days on average (with javascript and java disabled), often many times a day and certainly not staying up over a week (and then it has eaten all your free memory). I've had netscape 3 up for almost a month but on some pages it crashes always.

[ Parent ]
heh :) (none / 0) (#52)
by _Quinn on Thu Jan 04, 2001 at 06:03:20 PM EST

   Well, I'm just lucky, I guess. :) My X (whatever Slack 7 shipped with) has only crashed twice that I recall, both times when it tried to sleep my monitor when I switched to the console. (Well, it might have been /running/, but it wouldn't wake the monitor back up, so...)

   I guess I've also just gotten used to Netscape's oddities. :) It's not quite so bad that I want to use another browser, though.

   Any nominations for /physical/ things we expect to fail twice a day?

Reality Maintenance Group, Silver City Construction Co., Ltd.
[ Parent ]
heh.. (3.00 / 1) (#21)
by rebelcool on Thu Jan 04, 2001 at 12:22:55 AM EST

a fresh install of windows with few software that doesnt change much (you'll not need to replace the browser or word processor for the life of the hardware most likely), windows will work just fine. If you're *really* worried about stability use win2000. I go weeks without rebooting...

COG. Build your own community. Free, easy, powerful. Demo site
[ Parent ]

Reinstall (5.00 / 1) (#40)
by retinaburn on Thu Jan 04, 2001 at 09:36:29 AM EST

I have found that windows becomes buggy because of some hidden application problems, the only solution is a clean install. I find this generally gives a impressive improvement. Try to get them a clean install of windows with very little running in the background.

Or get them one of those them there internet toasters :)

I think that we are a young species that often fucks with things we don't know how to unfuck. -- Tycho

[ Parent ]
Tried it (3.00 / 2) (#15)
by chuckus on Wed Jan 03, 2001 at 11:57:32 PM EST

Windows broke on my parents' computer and wouldn't work no matter what I tried. So I installed a linux UMSDOS distribution. I tried really hard to make it look and feel like Windows... I used IceWM, I used program look-alikes... but still, they would complain over the smallest things, like the switch from single-click to double click. Moreover, Netscape took forever to start up and they kept clicking and clicking and frequently crashed the whole machine ;-p
Basically, it didn't really work.

crashes (3.50 / 2) (#18)
by Delirium on Thu Jan 04, 2001 at 12:12:13 AM EST

frequently crashed the whole machine

So why do I keep hearing "userland programs never crash Linux?"

[ Parent ]

re: crashes (4.00 / 2) (#31)
by 31: on Thu Jan 04, 2001 at 03:16:19 AM EST

Well, x crashes far too often... and while that (at least for me) tends to require a reboot, the machine is still useable otherwise (you can ssh in, the servers still run)... so it's still aok for everyone... except the poor person at the actual computer.

[ Parent ]
x crashes (3.00 / 1) (#32)
by Delirium on Thu Jan 04, 2001 at 03:26:56 AM EST

Yeah, that's what I've usually received as a reply, which is why I tend to consider the Linux uptime argument to be somewhat deceptive advertising. Sure, technically the system is up, but it really does not matter to me. If it crashes to the point where it is unusuable to me sitting at the computer, and would require me to go to a friend's house to use their computer to telnet in to make it usable again, it has crashed as far as I'm concerned. Rebooting is still pretty much the only viable option. So since both Windows and X cause crashes which result in reboots, I don't see where the argument comes from if we're talking about desktops rather than servers. And X certainly crashes a lot.

[ Parent ]
re: x crashes (4.00 / 2) (#33)
by 31: on Thu Jan 04, 2001 at 03:49:14 AM EST

Well, that wasn't intended as a rousing call for linux on everyone's desktop... but in terms of "userland programs never crash Linux?" it's a valid point, as X only messes up X-land...

But as long as everyone thinks of linux in terms of server stuff (myself included), linux is going to have very hard times getting into the desktop for people other than unix people... it's just like having ssh on a computer... the same people that care about having 99.99% uptime, and being able to access their computers remotely, already do so on the OS of their choice, it's not gonna make a differnce to the many people that just a want a computer to work for them...

[ Parent ]
Why does it crash? (5.00 / 1) (#58)
by tftp on Fri Jan 05, 2001 at 07:21:50 AM EST

So why do I keep hearing "userland programs never crash Linux?"

There is one little thing called resource quota. In theory, you should have quotas on everything - memory, swap, CPU time, sockets, bandwidth, IP filtering per application and everything else. Very few OSes implement such quotas, only disk space is usually done.

This means that if you try to start 100 copies of 20-MB Netscape on a box with 32MB RAM and 64 MB swap you can safely go and take a nap. All these apps will eventually start and most likely die because of lack of memory. But one app, while starting, will be competing for resources with all other apps. It can even happen that system apps will fail because of denial of resources.

The best protection from such attack is to implement quotas on everything in existence. This is, however, costly. Recently published NAI's security patches point to that direction, but they mostly focus on access rights.

Basically, any computer will fail if you overload it with something - especially if you define "fail" as "hasn't done what I wanted when I wanted". Under such (not unreasonable) definition you don't need OS to crash to get into failure mode.

NT, being an overdesigned monster, has IIRC few rudimentary quotas, notably ExAllocatePool(NonPagedPoolMustSucceed) and ExAllocatePoolWithQuota(), but that is not even close.

[ Parent ]

re: Tried it (3.50 / 2) (#25)
by eMBee on Thu Jan 04, 2001 at 12:25:35 AM EST

this is not linux fault!
it's because your parents were unable to adapt to the change (which is not your parents fault either)
no matter what you do, if people have difficoulties to understand a computer and adapt to differences, whatever they learn first will stick
if your parents had never seen windows before, and used linux first, they would have had the same problems if you suddenly switched them to windows, they would complain about the switch from double-click to single-click, and any other difference that makes no sense to them.

my grandmother is now 80 years old, and is using an 533mhz alpha running debian with Window Maker, xemacs, LaTeX, mozilla, ssh and pine.
she started out on a 286 i think running dos, handling dbase in 1992 (at age 71) got her own 386 where i selected OS/2 for her, and got her started with LaTeX, but because i was not around to help, her friends quickly moved her to windows 3.1 and word.
in 1994 i moved in to live with my grandparents, dumped windows and got her started using linux, emacs and LaTeX. i had set up a GUI system that was available then, and would do some drag and drop, but that was slow, and she saw how i was handling the system much faster from an xterm, so she copied me, and we eventually dumped that GUI thing, but used fvwm instead. that was then on a 486 which she used until fall 99. then i got her that alpha, and even though i am gone again, she is happily doing the above mentioned things (and complainging if i don't send her an email for 3 days :-)

anyways, the point is,

  • if someone is eager to learn something, they will.
  • everybody who is starting needs peers, that they can share problems with, and get help from.
  • it's these peers that determine what system is right for your parents.
  • if you live with them, and there is no problem for them or for you that they call on you for every tiny problem, then you won't have any problems with linux.
  • if they use windows at work, forget it, unless they take the initiative and say that they want linux (my dad did that, because he liked the philosophy behind linux, unfortunately i was never around long enough to help him, so i have no clue how he is doing)
so, don't ask, what is the best GUI for a person, instead, ask, what is the environment of a person, and then select, whatever best fits into this environment.

greetings, eMBee.
Gnu is Not Unix / Linux Is Not UniX
[ Parent ]

re: Tried it (3.00 / 1) (#27)
by eMBee on Thu Jan 04, 2001 at 12:32:00 AM EST

i forgot to mention:
the distribution you use is irrelevant, because YOU will be running it.
do not expect your parents to be their own systemadministrators, that will ultimately fail.
just select the right programs for them, and make sure you are around to help with problems

greetings, eMBee.
Gnu is Not Unix / Linux Is Not UniX
[ Parent ]

why Linux? (4.55 / 9) (#17)
by Delirium on Thu Jan 04, 2001 at 12:09:42 AM EST

It seems to me that you started this article halfway through - you've decided that Linux will be the best solution for your parents, and are soliciting advice for how to make it work as such. Why is the choice of Linux already pre-determined? If stability is your only issue, go with Windows2000 (it has very good uptimes in my experience, and if, as with most parents I know, they turn their computers at night, that's not even much of an issue; it rarely crashes and that's all that really matters). If you're biased against Microsoft for some reason, Linux is still not a predetermined "best" solution. Have you weighed the pros and cons of FreeBSD vs. Linux vs. BeOS?

Sure, Linux is great for some applications, but take a look at all the technology available to meet a particular goal - trying to fit your favorite bit of technology into every possible use just makes you a [insert name of technology here] bigot (in this case, a Linux bigot).

I see your point; (3.00 / 1) (#53)
by _Quinn on Thu Jan 04, 2001 at 06:05:27 PM EST

   perhaps I should have mentioned two things: I'm not willing (or, at the moment, able) to pay for a new Windows, and the hardware I have to target (see above :)) is a Pentium 120 with 32 MB of RAM. I think Windows 2000 will just snicker at that hardware. I don't know enough about BSD to really look into customizing a distro of it, and the user community of BeOS is even smaller than Linux's.

   The other motivation, of course, is that I'm working with Torvalds on world domination. :)

Reality Maintenance Group, Silver City Construction Co., Ltd.
[ Parent ]
win98 vs. linux on old hardware (none / 0) (#54)
by Delirium on Thu Jan 04, 2001 at 06:41:34 PM EST

Hmm, well in that case I'd suggest trying to get a win98 installation that is relatively stable. I have a Cyrix WinChip 200 (about equivalent to a Pentium 120) with 64 MB RAM that used to run win98. I reformatted and installed RH7 with GNOME, and the system crawled to a halt. Getting rid of GNOME speeds things up, but not to the point where the system is as responsive as Windows is; plus you can't get a decently functioning desktop without either KDE or GNOME running. Response time in X Windows is horrible on a system of these specs - you click on something and there is a noticeable lag before it gets highlighted (sometimes up to a full second). Plus, Netscape and Mozilla are really the only viable graphical browsers for Linux, and they're painfully slow on this sort of hardware. Netscape 4 for Linux is marginally better (to the point where it's actually useable) but it crashes so much (often taking X down with it) that it'd defeat your goal of moving from Windows to Linux for stability.

So I reinstalled win98 on the box, and I'm much happier with it now. It runs decently well, does not crash often, and IE is much much faster on an old Pentium-class CPU than Mozilla or Netscape 6 are, and is more stable than Netscape 4.

So in my personal opinion the answer to your question is "don't bother with Linux, win98 with IE is the best setup for an old Pentium with limited RAM."

[ Parent ]

TOASTER-HOWTO (none / 0) (#59)
by tftp on Fri Jan 05, 2001 at 07:32:07 AM EST

Pentium 120 with 32 MB of RAM

Ok, here is the recipe. Preconfigure X to run on startup, bypass xdm/gdm and run Netscape in endless loop. Use IceWM because it is small and fast. Then when your parents turn the computer on it just starts and goes into Netscape - and stays there forever, until shutdown.

Make a small /home partition - this will be the only r/w partition; mount all other as r/o (mount -o remount,ro /usr etc.) so that the box will survive even power off without shutdown.

Netscape will cover email and Web. If you want word processor then it's tougher - not because apps are not there but because it is not a "toaster" any more. Users would need to worry about file transfer from/to the box, compatibility with incompatible .doc formats etc. So if you don't really need wordprocessing then drop it. Netscape composer can do the job, actually, for most of parents. Document processing is not "parents" any more, it's "home office" and users for that sort of job must be better educated.

[ Parent ]

what a word processor in that distro should be... (3.20 / 5) (#22)
by phr on Thu Jan 04, 2001 at 12:24:22 AM EST

Basically it should be similar to Wordpad or the old versions of Macwrite. It should NOT be a full featured word processor or formatter like Word or LyX. Those programs have millions of features that just get in the way. My dad tried to use Microsoft Word; he typed in a big document, clicked some button and phoned me whimpering that his document had "exploded" (i.e. somehow the formatting of the whole doc got screwed up). KEEP IT SIMPLE.

Word processors suck (3.66 / 3) (#30)
by evvk on Thu Jan 04, 2001 at 02:59:27 AM EST

I sort of agree but I want to elaborate on the problems with LyX and Word (and other one-office-package-does-it-all-but-nothing-wells)

LyX: it doesn't have a million features but a newbie most likely isn't enlightened enough to let (La)TeX take care of formatting (and do it good and pretty!) and instead insists to apply formatting himself. Ugly and unmaintainable for sure. Most of us aren't typographers. Sure, LaTeX isn't suited for all kinds of texts, especially flashy marketing crap. It was created for scientific texts. (I don't care about GUIs and find writing things in my editor with my customized bindings that are the same independent on what I'm editing much more convenient so I use LaTeX.)

Word: Bloated, buggy and too much features. Even I have trouble using Word and I'm far from a newbie. It is so frustrating. Nothing works as one would expect. It breaks the documents and formatting all the time. It can't handle even the simplest structure in the document, can't number sections (or anything) correctly. It can't insert simple, numbered cross-references to figures (the simplest alternative insists on prepending the number with the text 'Figure ' and that doesn't suit all languages: in figure 1 = kuvassa 1, and not <something awkward> Kuva 1.) And it can't even place the damn figures and tables in an intelligent way but at where they are in the text flow, possibly breaking page ugly.
The default styles are ugly and I'm no typographer to create better. The maths are ugly. (And from a non-newbie view the user interface is totally unusable and I've not heard of anyone who would actually like it. Everyone always complains of Word but still use it for some reason.)

Sure, wordpad and such don't have any structural features and thus aren't suited for bigger, serious texts but at least it seems to do what it claims to do, isn't a bloated monstrosity and I haven't noticed it to crash. That is much more important than features.

[ Parent ]
Why Linux? (4.42 / 7) (#26)
by djkimmel on Thu Jan 04, 2001 at 12:29:17 AM EST

When I built a computer for my mom and dad I put Windows 98 on it. They are familiar and comfortable with Windows, it runs the programs they want and it doesn't crash often at all. The only major complaint in recent memory was that it was pretty slow, so I put some more RAM in and their happy. The minor complaint I remember was that their monitor is too small - one trip to Future Shop later and my parents have a nice 19" NEC.

If I had to start over and give them something new, I would certainly not pick Linux. I would either choose Windows 2000 (they already understand the concept of logging into the network, so I wouldn't make it automatically log in) or Windows 98SE.

I would not choose Linux, or any Unix-like OS for that matter, because it won't run the programs they want and I will have to teach them how to use it over again. The added bonuses, like stability and speed, don't mean much when they can't run WinFax and Excel.

In my opinion, Linux can, as an OS, be adapted to suit my parents. But until the applications are there I don't see any point.

BeOS would make an interesting starting point, but I don't think the applications are quite there yet either.

The BSDs that I love so much have the same disadvantage that Linux does here.
-- Dave
Kinda missing the point (4.40 / 5) (#35)
by Mawbid on Thu Jan 04, 2001 at 05:15:24 AM EST

He's not asking what's the best of the available choices, he's asking what it takes to make a Linux system good enough. I agree that it's probably best to use Windows (I put Win98 on my parents' computer) but that's just not the question. All too often, on IRC, usenet, and weblogs, a person asks how to do something and people say "do this instead". It may be good advice, but if they don't want to take it (and here, that's a given), we should strive to answer their question.

[ Parent ]
Why not Mac OS? (4.00 / 1) (#45)
by Robert Uhl on Thu Jan 04, 2001 at 11:35:13 AM EST

If you actually want an appopriate OS for them, why not Mac OS? When my brothers were 4 yrs. old they could admin a Mac. Why give one's parents Windows? It's not as cool as Linux, and not as cool as the Mac; it has not the power fo the one or the ease and beauty of the other. It is a sad compromise, and like most compromises manages to satisfy no-one.

A Mac has every bit of software one needs. It even runs Microsoft programmes, which is more than Linux does.

OTOH, I'm posting this from a Linux host, and run Linux at home--my Mac hasn't been on in months; I keep it only for the games.

[ Parent ]

Damn! (3.00 / 2) (#47)
by djkimmel on Thu Jan 04, 2001 at 12:25:25 PM EST

Now there's a suggestion I never even thought of!

That's actually a pretty good idea, come to think of it!
-- Dave
[ Parent ]
Use (none / 0) (#34)
by k5er on Thu Jan 04, 2001 at 04:12:33 AM EST

Use kmail as your mail client, its easy to use. As for a browser, use Mozilla. For office type stuff use kword or the whole koffice suite. As for a windows manager, use Gnome and Sawfish.
Long live k5, down with CNN.
2 Points (4.25 / 4) (#36)
by dirac on Thu Jan 04, 2001 at 07:02:31 AM EST

a) You're never too old to start:
The oldest Microsloth hater among my acquaintances is a highly qualified 69-year old civil engineer, who - despite being an old-school gentleman with impeccable manners - has occasionally threatened to go brain BillG with a baseball bat. I estimate he would be motivated enough to invest some time just to get away from Windoze, in exchange for a stable platform which allows him to Wordprocess, Email, and Browse without crashing.

b) Install MAME as well:
The only other reason low-level users like Windoze is for Minesweeper and Solitaire. A nice MAME install with pre-1990 games (Pacman, 1942, Tetris) will help them over the loss AND will make all their friends think of them has HardCoreHackers

Amaya is Poo (2.33 / 3) (#37)
by acestus on Thu Jan 04, 2001 at 07:40:10 AM EST

In general, I think Mozilla, once it's sped up enough, is the way to go. (Though Amaya and Opera would be worth looking at.) Comments?
Amaya is total poo. I hate it. It is the worst thing since something very bad, long ago. It seems to be written by an Italian cobbler and his dog, with the dog writing most of the rendering engine. I cannot fathom why W3C let such a horrendous piece of software become their own. Maybe they were drunk on cheap Italian wine.

This is not an exit.
Nah. It's decent... (none / 0) (#44)
by WWWWolf on Thu Jan 04, 2001 at 11:30:14 AM EST

Amaya is total poo. I hate it. It is the worst thing since something very bad, long ago.

Amaya is total poo as web browser. As a WYSIWYG HTML editor, however, it's actually pretty decent. (Of course, it's a lot better to make HTML with just Your Average Text Editor, but at least it's pretty easy to use and makes valid HTML...)

-- Weyfour WWWWolf, a lupine technomancer from the cold north...

[ Parent ]
I'm suprised... (3.00 / 2) (#39)
by 11223 on Thu Jan 04, 2001 at 09:24:18 AM EST

That nobody has pointed out Applix's excellent Applixware product. It's (IMHO) much easier to use than M$ Word or Corel Wordperfect or clones of either of these, and it blends right in to a GNOME desktop.

Personally, I think that any distro with the latest Helix GNOME, Nautilus PR2, and Applixware is perfectly easy to use for the moms-and-dads of the world out there, so long as they have some computer sense. It does everything they need, it seems to me.

The dead hand of Asimov's mass psychology wins every time.

Just be prepared to be Tech-Support... (4.00 / 2) (#41)
by lucas on Thu Jan 04, 2001 at 10:26:18 AM EST

The thing about doing something like this 'for' your parents is that you will become tech support whether you like it or not.

No matter how inspiring it was to see Elderly Man X talk about learning UNIX at the ripe old age of Y, your parents are most likely not going to be anything close to this man.

You may think being able to solve nameserver problems is as easy as vi /etc/resolv.conf, but parents often don't even want to RTFM. They want to be able to do things themselves without having the patience to dredge through a HOWTO -- it's purely results-oriented. "Take me from A to B and I'll be happy. Screw with the pathway from A to B and I'll raise hell." Using Linux is great until something out of the ordinary happens (e.g., the DSL goes down) and they call you up and ask how to connect using the backup modem and ppp.

"Yeah, uh Mom, also edit your /etc/inetd.conf and turn off any services you don't need because you might get kr4x0red..."

I'm speaking from personal experience, of course. Unless you are thoroughly bored with life and want them to call you during odd hours in a panic, don't mess with their software or their apps... even if it's for their own good. Windows sucks, but having to explain how ext2 corrupted their drive because the power went out is even worse... or trying to explain how CUPS works... or whatever.


Careful, pause, rethink (4.50 / 2) (#43)
by amokscience on Thu Jan 04, 2001 at 11:11:54 AM EST

You're falling into the 'what will be cool' fantasy instead of 'what is needed' reality.

Do you parents really need to be SSH/SSL tunneling? Are they really going to have the bandwidth and patience to use VNC over a network? Can they even set it up themselves? Is Word 8 (or whatever the latest version is) .DOC format compliance important? What happens when they hit the reboot switch and fsck requires user intervention?

What's cool to you is hardly what is even comprehensible by many others. By your own self-admittance you think pine is sufficient as an email client. Take a step back and think through that and realize your pov is probably not the best to use.

I'm not going to tell you to use BeOS or Win2K, but I do ask you to rethink some of the items you mentioned. Separate what your parents need to co-exist in *their* circle of life as opposed to what you would try to get them to use. If they get and transmit lots of windows centric data files then *poof* Linux is a pretty bad solution w/o proper compliance. Like quicktime movies? Oops. WINE may help some but I wouldn't want to maintain that setup remotely. I'm not even going to go into what I think is necessary for mom/dad distros. It would be too long and negative a list and it's several years away.

Of course you know your parents best. Maybe they're closet technophiles, but if they're anything like mine they call you up everytime there is a simple error message like "printer is out of paper".

boy, oh boy (rant) (3.50 / 2) (#46)
by mami on Thu Jan 04, 2001 at 11:35:42 AM EST

Sure, go ahead and register GEMAD.

<rant> I am a mom and have white out all over my brain reading this. Your poll forgot to mention the option that moms are capable of pulling the power cord to disable her beloved supersmart son's router delivering the DSL connection on her costs to him, crashing in fury all of his superfluous configuration for the next fad in applications not helping to promote mankind's civility. 8-)

First, give your mom and dad two computers (they pay them anyway, right ?), one with MS and one with Linux. Let them do whatever they want with their Win box, so that they can chat with their neighbors and don't have to get weird looks if they really don't care for Excel/Word/Outlook and use the things on the MS machine, which their employers most probably expect them to use.

Then instead of getting grey hair over trying to replace a MS desktop with KDE/GNOME desktop, give them Linux for all the stuff it's better at and put the question of the Linux desktop on the back burner. If KDE/Gnome meets their needs, they will discover it on their own. If not, who cares.

It's not the desktop which is so interesting, it's running your own server and learning to write little programs. Your parents can do this and it is your prejudice that they can't. They may not want to, and it is may be time to understand on your side that one is never too young/old to learn a thing or two from the elderly, who just don't buy in any of technology's latest "hurrahs". A secured Linux box is not a technical fad, it's a necessity and it's your parents who need to be protected the most. So, what you have in mind is on the right track.

Why do you think they might be too stupid to run their own Apache/MySQL/Mail Server ? May be you just mix up two things, being too dumb to use a Linux machine and being not interested in spending hours and hours on the hunt for the nifty little detail one needs to know about the latest changes made (and having to read K5 polls about how stupid we moms are in between... We just know to enjoy our time in a better way, you know... 8-))

If the Linux folks would just stop to change everything within weeks and standardize on one (server and developer oriented) distro, the world would look much nicer. If they just would not make one more GUI with some (and most often unsufficient) documentation for dummies (so that the consultants can make their money to tell them everything they didn't put in the docs).

I think the biggest misconception is that we always need intuitive GUIs, drag, drop and the like. Most of the elderly are actually trained to read, spell, write/type and would be quite happy with the command line, if just the docs would be written for end-users and not for unix gurus and if the changes would not be on a monthly/quarterly basis.

I am glad that so many of the gurus are writing good books and that so much good documentation is now online (and don't think I like to be dependent on the darn www to read those docs, I still prefer reading my stuff in the metro/restaurant/bed/ hairdresser/patio than to loose my eyesight reading online and not moving around - as if there wouldn't be enough obese women and short-sighted men in this country 8-)).

Configuring Linux on a laptop is still not something for the faint of heart and you should know that you mom and dad might be a littler weaker when it comes to heart and memory, as they are a bit more worn out than you are. Configuring Linux on a laptop and have it ready to use for dial in, ISDN /SDSL/ wireless connection in any country in the world, is big headaches and much needed.

OK, and then, just don't worry about how few women, minorities, poor and elderly are not using Linux. We don't need no one to tell us what to do. And what turns us away or in isolation may be just your prejudices and cocky attitude. There is a difference between not being able to use a new technology and not wanting to. Why do you think we need to cave in to any application , just because some gurus think we HAVE to or else we are just ...<fill in what you like> ?</rant>

Aren't the K5'ers so concernded with freedom ? So, how about our freedom to just ignore things, sit out the technical developments til they serve our needs and not forcing us to serve the needs of the developers ?

Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed. -- Francis Bacon

For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public
relations, for Nature cannot be fooled. -- Dick Feynman

Here are some suggestions (3.66 / 3) (#49)
by djkimmel on Thu Jan 04, 2001 at 02:00:10 PM EST

In light of this comment, I'd like to offer this. Note that my suggestion to use Windows still stands, but if you really want to use Linux here are my suggestions:

I used to use Edmonton FreeNet for my internet access. Now, this will be a bit of a tangent at first, but bear with me. The thing with FreeNet was that everything was really simple. You dialed in, got a Unix (AIX, IIRC) login prompt, entered your user id and password. Instead of a shell, you got Lynx showing you a menu plus various instructions and news about the system. From here you could use the links to access email (pine), usenet (tin), the Lynx file-management tools for your home directory, or the rest of the web (the 'g' command).

FreeNet was a really nice and easy to use system that was used by many people. Based on the postings in the local freenet.help newsgroup, the users in general were very computer savvy, but even the not very computer savvy users had little trouble with the system once they got going.

What am I leading to? The idea behind it all.

The idea was to make it as absolutely simple as possible while not dumbing it down to the point of non-functionality. This is best reflected in their choice of mail client, Pine. Pine is a "nice" email client that is easy to use, has extensive online help, and in their default configuration it works very well for most people. This is, in my opinion, the major goal you should have for this setup.

How does this apply to you?

You should strive to make it as simple as possible. Don't give them Gnome or KDE, they probably don't really need it. Don't give them something like twm either, unless you want to customize it. You could give them WindowMaker with dock icons to launch a web browser, email client, word processor, etc. You would have to customize the WindowMaker root menu a bit to remove a lot of the stuff they won't use. As an alternative to WindowMaker, you could try fvwm95 if they are familiar with Windows. It will shorten the learning curve a bit.

For an email client, I'd suggest Pine in an xterm. Seriously. In an xterm, Pine can have mouse support so that they can still point and click to their heart's content, plus it really isn't all that bad of a program once you configure it to your liking. It can be configured to open URLs in the web browser of your choice, which could be a good thing.

If you really, truly want a graphical email client, I'd suggest avoiding anything complex. You don't need an email/calendar/task list/journal/whatever like MS Outlook, you need an email or email/news client like Outlook Express. I know we're talking about Unix programs, I'm only using those as examples of the kind of functionality you should aim for. For a concrete suggestion, I'll throw tkrat into the mix. I used this for a while - it was really nice, but kind of quirky.

For a web browser, I'd suggest an old version of Netscape. The old ones are usually more stable. You could also go for Mozilla, but I think that is overkill. If you use WindowMaker, they will be able to click the dock icon as much as they want but it will only launch one copy of it. FreeBSD uses something called netscape-wrapper to make the launching of Netscape a lot saner (ie, if you have Netscape open and run 'netscape http://blah/' it will open a new window instead of a warning dialog), you may wish to consider using this program in conjunction with Netscape.

If you want a newsreader, I can honestly say I haven't found one for X that I like. Pan looks good, so does Knews, but I use slrn in an xterm.

If you want ICQ for them, I have to recommend Licq. This is the best ICQ client I've found for Unix.

For a word processor, well, that gets tough. My initial impression of StarOffice is that it is too quirky, complex, and just plain weird. I didn't like it. For my word processing needs, I still use Word on a Windows machine. WordPerfect for Linux looks ok but doesn't seem nearly as nice as Word for Windows. Beyond that, I have no experience in this area. You could try getting an old version of Word (say Word 6.0 or Word 95) to run under Wine. I think this is pretty sick, but it might be the best solution. I really don't know what the state of the various word processors for Unix is though, so I can't offer anything more concrete.

Other stuff

Someone else suggested that there is a lot of stuff that comes standard with Linux that you probably don't need. The example I remember seeing was SSH. I would recommend leaving this in just so that if anything breaks you can fix it without having to leave your place. If you make this into a distribution, you should definately have this for whoever will be maintaining the system.

Now that this has almost become a complete article in its own right, enjoy! Hope that helps.
-- Dave

OT: Word processor experiences (none / 0) (#56)
by johnzo on Thu Jan 04, 2001 at 08:31:39 PM EST

I'm just starting to use my Linux-Mandrake desktop machine now, and lemme tell you, I *loathe* WordPerfect 2000. It has crashed often on me, repeatedly, and with no warning. Foosh. Application gone. Backup file has zero-length. Kiss yer ass goodbye. I have exorcised it from my hard drive and chalked up the $99 sticker price to experience.

I want to blame the fact that it's not a native Linux app, but rather a Wine one, but that'd be too easy. In any case, I decided to try StarOffice 5.2, and I kinda liked it. Granted, it's bloated, and I hate the way that subwindows like the fileselector and thesaurus want to be entirely contained within the primary window, but once I got used to it, it worked fine for me. And it was very stable -- no crashes.

I'd love to see the Star evolve past the hubris of their original we-are-a-complete-environment attitude, and break out all of its components into separate apps.

Haven't tried Applix yet, although I will; if I was willing to spend the $120 on WordPerfect, I can definitely pony up $50 for Applix.


[ Parent ]

MomBSD (2.00 / 1) (#51)
by seebs on Thu Jan 04, 2001 at 05:28:31 PM EST

I set up my mom's laptop to run NetBSD. It doesn't always work, but that's mostly hardware problems ("modem doesn't respond"), not software trouble.

It's been a lot easier to support than Windows would.

Why no Macintosh? (4.00 / 1) (#55)
by johnzo on Thu Jan 04, 2001 at 08:15:52 PM EST

Macs are dead-simple, come in one-piece units with cute colours, and can exchange most files with PCs, given the right software. Why not a Mac for your mom? I'm thinking that next Christmas my mom's gonna get an Imac, or whatever the equivalent is that Apple is selling then.

Thing with Linux -- what happens when mom buys a cool digital camera or other such accessory that hasn't got drivers, or has experimental drivers? Granted, this is less of an issue than it was, but still...

Don't get me wrong; I love Linux. Its ultimate openness totally feeds the control freak in me. I call my desktop Mandrake box as the ultimate expression of self. But I don't think that Mom is ready for the Linux experience yet.

(no disrespect intended to all the hotshot hacker moms out there who are happily reporting the bugs they've encountered on their dual-Duron 2.3.99-prerelease / XFree4.0 / KDE2 machines :)


Why not GNU/Linux? (none / 0) (#60)
by mdavids on Sun Jan 07, 2001 at 07:40:43 PM EST

I've been thinking about "Mums and Dads" for some time. (No, I'm not suggesting procreation lowers your intelligence, just your free time.)

I loathe Windows and MS Office for practical as well as principled reasons. If you try guiding a complete newbie through their first Windows experience, you'll find it's not as intuitive as we've been led to believe. And MS Office is a disgrace. This interface is attrociously cluttered and the WYSIWYG paradigm leads to bad habits (document layout using the spacebar, and so on) and the "I just clicked one button and now the whole thing is screwed up" syndrome that another post refered to.

I agree that Lyx has the right approach in this regard, but it depends on a non-free library (libforms), which presents a problem for zealots like myself.

I've had misgivings about the direction some of the GNU/Linux GUI work has been taking (ie. towards Windows), and found this quote from an interview with Eben Moglen resonated with me.

What I saw in the Xerox PARC technology was the caveman interface, you point and you grunt. A massive winding down, regressing away from language, in order to address the technological nervousness of the user. Users wanted to be infantilized, to return to a pre-linguistic condition in the using of computers, and the Xerox PARC technology's primary advantage was that it allowed users to address computers in a pre-linguistic way. This was to my mind a terribly socially retrograde thing to do, and I have not changed my mind about that.

For a technophile the consequenses of too much "point and grunt" are pretty obvious; for instance your command-line literacy atrophies, and that shell script which you could have knocked up in seconds to save you minutes is now beyond you.

For the casual user who is never going to want to write a shell script the downside is less apparent, but no less debilitating. I know people who have used Windows for years who are frightened and bewildered every time they sit in front of their computer. This is almost inevitable in an environment which discourages learning how things work. You cannot interact with your work in the flexible and sophisticated way we are used to elsewhwere in your experience.

Now I'm not saying that an Xterm is the magic cure for this, just pointing out that the Windows interface carries with it a cost that you may not see if you are just concerned with getting users up and running with the minimum of effort. A shallow learning curve may mean that people just don't learn, and the "friendly" environment remains perpetually foreign and hostile.

So if you're prepared to sit down with someone and teach them something about how their computer works before throwing them in the deep end, and Windows compatability is not a major issue, there is no reason why you shouldn't go with GNU/Linux. You'll probably find that after a few months, your Mum and Dad will be much more comfortable with their computer than their Windows-using peers.

For people who are used to working with Windows, the transition to another operating system will cause some grief. For my part, I switched to GNU/Linux after a couple of years playing with Perl under Windows, so I knew there was at least one friendly face over in that foreign territory. You may want to see if there are Windows ports of the apps you want in your distro, so you can ease your parents over. I'm starting to compile a catalogue of high-quality free software for Windows, which is at too early a stage to help you, but if anybody want to help me out on this (plead, plead) I'd be grateful.

BTW: apps (none / 0) (#61)
by mdavids on Sun Jan 07, 2001 at 08:15:08 PM EST


Open Office (was Star Office) is fat and horrible, and tries to be it's own operating system, so you can hardly call it a Linux application. Defines it's own file format in XML, which is a welcome development, but otherwise is just as awful as MS Office. May benefit from being carved up into Bonobo components, but this is probably wishful thinking.

AbiWord may be good one day, but it too suffers from being an MS-Office clone. It's small and light, but that may be because half of the features haven't been implemented yet.

Web Browsing:

I wish some people would get a life, instead of just bad-mouthing Mozilla all day. Yes it's taken a long while to get useable, yes it's now cluttered with all sorts of undesirable bells and whistles, yes it's as bloated as any other browser. But frankly, it's the best graphical browser around in terms of standards compliance (still not quite there, though), and as easy to use as any other.

If your hardware really can't handle Mozilla, you may have to go for Netscape 3.x, or if you don't mind text-mode, Links (not Lynx). I can't say it often enough: Links is a really beautiful thing. Does tables, frames, multiple concurrent downloads, even cookies.


Spruce is nice. Clean interface with no garbage getting in the way. Apparently designed to emulate the features of Pine, so you may find it a good mix of the features of Pine and the prettiness of Gtk.

[ Parent ]
Good Enough for Mom and Dad | 61 comments (51 topical, 10 editorial, 0 hidden)
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