wIndependence Essay: Why Aren't All Our Moms Running Linux?
by Dave Berton (July 11, 2002)
Original article at Desktop Linux

This is a serious question, so don't laugh. I used to get phone calls about once a week, on average; it's my mom, telling me that 'my computer is running out of virtual memory' or 'my email keeps beeping at me' or 'I can't read this document' or (the best one) 'my computer is -broken-'. I knew that, at the time, she was of course not running Linux. Then, one day, listening to yet another complaint, it hit me. Why aren't all our moms running Linux on their computers?

In case you don't know what Linux is, here's a clue for you. Linux is a free Unix-type operating system for your mom's computer. Now, what does this mean exactly? More importantly, what does this mean for your mom?

Linux is extremely powerful. Consider the average Linux desktop. It could appear in one of many thousands of shapes, colors, sizes or flavors, all of them fully customizable. It would typically have many applications, each one carefully tailored to perform a particular task, all running simultaneously (but don't fear: the Linux kernel will ensure that every ounce of power in the computer is brought into play, allowing each of the applications the freedom to get their tasks done).

Now, consider the average mom. They are normally bright, attentive and patient (after all, they raised -you-, now didn't they). Moms can do many things at the same time, switching between work and play, between the computer and helping you with your homework, all without missing a step. Often, they will use computers to get a lot of this work (or play) done.

Tragically, Linux on the desktop is extremely underutilized, specifically amongst the mom population. Why is this happening? Well, typically, computers are bought with a default operating system other than Linux. These default systems tend to be slow, crammed with unwanted advertising, have ongoing maintenance problems, are susceptible to viruses or other attacks, degrade in performance, have trouble handling more than a handful of tasks, and generally seem to do everything possible to make mom's life (and by extension, my life) harder. However, like the setup menu in your TV, it -is- the default, and it's what most moms would simply take for granted, never thinking there was Another Way.

So, I am here to finally tell the moms of the world: you can trash the default operating system, replace it with Linux, and have the full power and reach of your computer, finally, in your hands. No more error messages, no more advertisements, no more sending your personal information to 'register' your machine with some giant corporation, no more lost work, lost time, lost minds. Once you make the switch, you'll wonder how you ever got this far driving behind the wheel of that old clunker.

Now, of course I wouldn't instruct you to perform this little operation if I hadn't already done it myself. I consider my mom an average non-technical computer user -- she requires a web browser, a word processor and an email client. These are just a few of the things a computer can do for users, so considering that Linux can do so much -more- than that, I knew it would more than suffice for my mom. In the event she wanted to delve into some serious computer graphics, or run regression tests for the latest gcc snapshot, she certainly could, but at least the basics are there for her -- and really, that is all she is interested in at the moment. OK, then.

She has a Duron 800MHz, with a generic network card, a CD-ROM, and some tiny speakers. To make quick work of it, I went out and picked up an extra hard drive (20GB) rather than fool around with the partitions used by the default operating system. This provided a clean slate for the Linux system, and also provided a Plan B in case the new HD was faulty.

The drives were swapped in about ten minutes (four of which were spent cleaning out three inches of dust bunnies that had overwhelmed the motherboard since the last time the case was opened). Next, I popped in a Debian install CD (if you are going to upgrade the operating system, you might as well upgrade it All The Way), and let it run.

I felt like a chicken pecking my way through all the defaults until I finally had all the packages copied over (took about twenty minutes of installing to get to the point of a login prompt). A few more commands brought down security updates, the X Window System, as well as a few applications I knew my mom would need. There were many choices for a desktop; I selected KDE, which has reasonable defaults and coherent functionality as a work environment.

She needed a web browser, so I plonked mozilla down. Email was handled by KMail (part of KDE) and word processing was left to OpenOffice. The real work of the installation was in making sure that the sound and network modules were loaded by the kernel on startup, and making sure the old hard drive was mounted properly so that my mom could get at her old documents (conveniently, KMail imported all her old email messages for me). Once that was configured, I called my mom back into the room to let her have at it. Total upgrade time: two hours. Total cost: $70 for the extra HD. Total value: priceless.

So -- why aren't all our moms running Linux on their computers? The answer, sadly, is: you. (Well, either you, or some other geek unwilling to swap a hard drive and then sit through a Linux install.) Just go get it done. Pick up the phone, call your mom, and 'borrow' her machine for a few hours. Let her know you care.