Originally Published: Tuesday, 21 September 1999 Author: Sydney Weidman
Published to: featured_articles/Featured Articles Page: 1/1 - [Printable]

Mom 'n' Pop: The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test for Linux

Linux has a lot going for it. It allows, even encourages, people to participate the computing experience. Linux is a workhorse -- it refuses to quit even under circumstances that would deep-six some other operating systems. Linux is esteemed for its flexibility and robustness. And Linux is educational. I've been using Linux for about two and a half years and I've learned something new every single day and continue to do so. I would probably have given up my com-"putrid" science studies if it weren't for the faint hope that one day people will be more interested in getting things done than in getting rich, and Linux is the symbol of that hope. If this praise sounds excessive, that's because I'm about to make a few choice cuts....

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Linux has a lot going for it. It allows, even encourages, people to participate the computing experience. Linux is a workhorse -- it refuses to quit even under circumstances that would deep-six some other operating systems. Linux is esteemed for its flexibility and robustness. And Linux is educational. I've been using Linux for about two and a half years and I've learned something new every single day and continue to do so. I would probably have given up my com-"putrid" science studies if it weren't for the faint hope that one day people will be more interested in getting things done than in getting rich, and Linux is the symbol of that hope. If this praise sounds excessive, that's because I'm about to make a few choice cuts.

Be forewarned: what I am about to say has nothing to do with Linux's technical qualities, or the mission which inspires the likes of Richard Stallman and the Free Software Foundation. It's more like the view of the cheap, sleazy, used car salesman. The question I ask myself is this: How can I convince more people how great Linux is? I want to start breaking down barriers -- preaching to the converted just isn't enough. When I imagine the toughest possible customers for a Linux sales pitch, it's not the Windows NT sysadmin or the management types. No, instead I imagine trying to sell Linux to an octogenarian. Or to a 5 year old.

Linux speaks effortlessly to the souls of programmers and systems people. Even an MCSE will admit that in many cases Linux would be far easier to manage (and more fun) than Windows NT. But to the vast majority of people, Linux means jack squat. I don't mean that in a negative way. Linux makes no effort to reach out to ordinary people; it doesn't try to meet them half way. On a psychological level, this is where the battle for the future of computing will be waged -- in the sandbox and on the front porch. And yet I'm confident that GNU/Linux will win that battle. But to do so, the Free Software community must make some concessions to those who are not singularly obsessed with computers as an end in themselves. The motivation for this is not rooted in cheerleading, jingoism or underdog worship. It's springs from the observation that most technology is amoral and sometimes it's downright evil. The high-tech angel seems to pass over the disenfranchised as if they didn't exist. Linux can change that. Maybe.

Generating good will, social cohesion and camaraderie is not just a utopian dream -- it's crucial to Linux's success. Linux exists only because some people think it is Good and Right to share knowledge. The moment contributors sense that the social purpose of Linux has been compromised, they will go somewhere else. And that will be the end of that.

So Mom 'n' Pop have as much to do with the survival of Linux as Linus Torvalds.

Thus it came to pass that I stood ringing the doorbell at my parent's house one Saturday a few weeks ago, as a travelling salesman -- a Willy Loman coming in out of the cold, immense wasteland of the twenty-first century and reaching back into a sepia-toned past for some warmth.

My father has never owned or used a computer in his nearly seventy years on this planet. He is still working as a pediatrician and serves as chairman of a special committee for the College of Physicians and Surgeons. It is this latter appointment which has forced him to start thinking about using a computer. By coincidence, as if Fate had ordained it, my sister had decided to get rid of her old Pentium Pro. She had shipped it to my parents' house and it had arrived several days before my visit, neatly packed in Air Canada crates.

Faster than you could say Microsoft, I dashed out to pick up a copy of Red Hat 6.0.

Installing Red Hat was an absolute breeze since I didn't have to worry about existing partitions or data. As a computer user my Dad was starting from a clean slate in more ways than one.

Using Gnome and Enlightenment to lumber around in Linux is kind of fun, but strange error messages like "Are you sure you want to delete file RH23fdslkjfei?" made it quite daunting. I kept thinking of Steve Jobs' now famous criticism of Microsoft's products as culture-less. This computer wasn't speaking my dad's language.

There were lots of encouraging signs, though. As I was showing my Dad how to get around in Linux, it was kind of refreshing not to have to answer questions like "Why do I have to mount and unmount my drives?" or "Why do I have to log in to my own computer?". Neophytes' expectations are far more elastic than those of seasoned Gateseans. If you explain these things in the context of Linux's design as a multi-user operating system, people will just nod and understand. Unless they know just enough to be dangerous.

He was really excited to discover that he could play opera CD's while he was working. And he'd never heard of a DVD, so it was no big deal that he couldn't play one.

We even got a PPP connection working, but my dad couldn't possibly have set it up on his own.

On balance, I'd say score one for Linux.

My mother was another story. After a long career as an arts administrator, my mother has decided to go back to school to renew her pharmacy degree. She has been a computer user for several years and has grown accustomed to her Windows 95 and Office 97. She had truckloads of address book entries from Sidekick that she hoped to import. She had existing documents in Word 97 and WordPerfect that she wanted to be able to view and edit. And she had a large quantity of e-mail sitting in a Eudora mailbox which she expected to be preserved.

The first problem I tackled was the e-mail. I suspected that I should just be able to copy the eudora .mbx files right into Netscape's mail folder. As it turned out I was right. All I had to do was to create a folder in netscape messenger that had the same name as the .mbx file (renamed to oldmail) and voila -- all the mail was there for mom's perusal.

The next problem was the Sidekick files. I had never looked at Sidekick data files, but it turns out that they are just delimited text flatfile databases. Armed with that knowledge, it was a snap to import the Sidekick data into StarOffice and create a little address book interface for her to view and edit the data. When I get around to it, I'll try importing the calendar data into GnomeCal.

The really painful part of my mother's descent into Linux userhood was her Epson Stylus Color printer. I had checked the Printing-HOWTO database which had the Epson Stylus Color listed as working perfectly using the UniPrint driver. Unfortunately, everything I printed was a mess. Every fourth line of text was printed twice on the same line offset horizontally by about two inches. This was, of course, illegible and not acceptable performance. I played with the driver settings and ghostscript for several days without success. Although she didn't say so, I could tell my mother wasn't happy with the Linux experiment. I didn't feel right about putting her schoolwork in jeopardy just because of my fanaticism. "All right," I said, "I'll come back tomorrow and put Windows 95 back on your computer."

I was just about to concede defeat when it occurred to me that it might be worth trying to print from WordPerfect rather than from ghostscript, since WordPerfect shipped with its own printer drivers or filters.

I installed WordPerfect 8 on her machine, selected the Epson Stylus Color printer from the print dialog and lo, a page full of perfectly formatted ink-jet text and color pictures issued forth from the loins of the printer. I said a silent prayer of thanks to Michael Cowpland.

Linux was out of the fire -- for now.

Sydney Weidman is a researcher into the social aspects of technology. He lives in Winnipeg and studies Business Computing at the University of Winnipeg. You can reach him at weidmans@mbnet.mb.ca or visit his webpage at http://www.mbnet.mb.ca/~weidmans.





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