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Even my mother can run Linux
90 points by ntnsndr 72 days ago | hide | past | web | 70 comments | favorite
My mother, voluntarily and expertly, is now using Ubuntu Linux on her computer. The computer is a 2007 ThinkPad my uncle had lying around. Unlike her 2007 MacBook running MacOS, which is now incapable of updating enough to run modern browsers, her Linux rig is totally up to date and runs beautifully.

I really dislike feeding the stereotype according to which a young man referring to "my mother" presumes that an older woman must have technology skills that are edging around zero. In this case, however, the stereotype fits. My mother is brilliant, earned a PhD in medieval lingusitics, held a significant position at a major national cultural institution, and inspired me from a young age to be a blazing fast typist. She's not a computer whiz by choice, because she rightly decided that becoming one was not worth her time. As a result, she has no interest wasting her life, as I do mine, by learning new programs or hacking around on the command line. For similar reasons, when her MacBook started breaking, she went to the Apple Store to replace it, but then returned it out of disgust for the commercialism of it all. So she asked me to set her up on an old computer running Linux. Today, we talked through how to use email on Thunderbird, and with a little bit of help she was able to get the old computer, full of nothing but community-created software, to meet her needs beautifully.

So, at risk of feeding the stereotype, it's true: Even my mother can run Linux.




My parents are both ~60 y/o and run Ubuntu since roughly 5 years. I gave them a crash course over the course of 3 days and my mother took notes on all the things that she uses daily - spread sheets, word documents, images, browser, Skype etc..

I've set up dynamic DNS and a few other things so I can help them if something goes wrong as we live 12000 km apart. After a year I realized that none of them ever asked me anything. So I asked my dad "Why do you never contact me to help with the computer?". He responded: "Well, everything just runs!".

Before, with Windows, I can't even count the time I've spent fixing their laptop.


I put my parents on Xubuntu about the same time (more of an experiment that I didn't think would work). I showed mom around for 10 minutes, put a few shortcuts on the desktop, told her it was like Windows, and left. They adapted surprisingly well. Issues became few and far between. I'm still surprised the HP printer/scanner works as well as it does (out of the box!).

It turns out that Linux in general is mom-proof, and can handle email, web browsing, and solitare extremely well. Mom loves the gnome-games games; she has always liked Mahjong, and was amazed that there are that many varieties of solitare! I put them on Mint for about two years, but they're back on Xubuntu.

Another bonus, malware and unsolicited "Windows support" calls are largely, if not completely, ineffective.


Hmm, my parents have a Win 7, I set their account to user level and gave a few lessons on security and in the last 4 years I didn't have any complains (except once with the printer which turned out to be because of a bad USB cable), so go figure, I guess you just didn't know how to properly set up a Windows system for basic users.


Strong story


I'm responsible for my sister, my mother, 6 coworkers and 13 friends running Arch on their hardware, in various personalized configurations that took me maybe 30 minutes each. I can push out updates and flag new software for installation within seconds if they ask me for it and so far, I have not had one serious complaint. Some use Libreoffice for their private stuff, some appstream Office directly into a X window. Oh you don't like GNOME? Let me install Xfce. It's perfect if certain use cases apply. My sister has had hers for 6 years and counting, uses it for web browsing exclusively and only complains when she cant execute nickelback.mp3.exe.


> I can push out updates and flag new software for installation within seconds if they ask me for it

This seems cool. Can you please tell me how you do it? Some links that I can use to read up on it will do.


I'm sorry for not replying earlier :) Really, in theory this is very easy. You need a command and control channel, but one that is secured and not abusable. In the first years, I used a CRON job that would pull the configuration files off a load balanced domain. Now, I've upgraded to a self made encrypted P2P version which I really do not want to talk about. However, even if I were to die in a horrible accident, all systems would remain like they are in good condition. This is, like someone mentioned, due to custom repositories that repond to each client uniquely, like someone here suggested. There's no magic to be found here :)


What's the reason behind choosing Arch, which is definitely not a common distributions for new users? Is it that you are experienced in it and able to customize to their needs easily, as you talk about customization in your post?


I suspect that yes it is Arch because that is what he himself uses. Note the passage about being able to push updates and new software soon after being asked. That suggests he can SSH into each install as needed to absolve them of admining the installs themselves.

Effectively their computers have become voice controlled appliances, with the voice command parser being Redirectleft...


Or just a custom pacman repository? As far as I remember, packages in official Arch repositories are constantly updated. If you update your system in the morning, then there will be new updates in the evening. So it kind of makes sense to have a custom repo.


I'm sorry for not replying earlier :) Really, in theory this is very easy. You need a command and control channel, but one that is secured and not abusable. In the first years, I used a CRON job that would pull the configuration files off a load balanced domain. Now, I've upgraded to a self made encrypted P2P version which I really do not want to talk about. However, even if I were to die in a horrible accident, all systems would remain like they are in good condition. This is, like you mentioned, due to custom repositories that repond to each client uniquely. There's no magic to be found here :)


That's a beautiful story congrats. The problems usually lie further down the road. When she gets a new printer, will she be able to enable the scanner without messing with the command line? If she's not able to get the printer going, will the support, be it a friend's daughter/son or even professional computer support in the neighbourhood, be able to help her or go like "I'm sorry madam, this is an operating system we don't support" and so on and so forth. That can get really tiresome after a while, so you end up fighting the OS vs working with it.

That is the problem with Linux. Of course it's getting better and better but it's not where OSX or Windows is by any means.


Actually you'll find that most printers and scanners work OOTB on Linux today with minimal configuration using only GUIs. Do you actually use Linux?


My mother purchased a special all-in-one unit (brother MFC-8910DW) for the purpose of printing very large PDF files with mixed legal and letter pages. On windows, Adobe Reader + the printer driver handle selecting which paper tray to pull from depending on the page dimensions in the PDF. But on MacOS and Linux, I had no such luck (using both the built in PDF viewers and Adobe Reader). I am unsure if this is a cups feature that is missing from the driver, or some other limitation. Otherwise, the unit's basic functionality worked fine(though I have the scanner set up so it emails a PDF file using the printer's built in SMTP client). I was really hoping to get my parents on Linux but between this issue and a program that my dad uses that doesn't run on wine, I (for the time being) left them on Windows 7. (I had both of them go out and buy new laptops in the last year or two since both prefer 17" screen sizes, which seem to be going by the wayside and Windows 7, which was getting harder to find computers with win7 oem licenses.)


People do not use 'most printers and scanners'. They want to use that one printer/scanner thing they recently bought, and has only printer drivers available for Linux on the manufacturer's page.

Had a problem with this quite recently, and solved it by buying a new device. And, since, as you said, a lot of them work on Linux with minimal setup needed, I was able to buy it without any issues. But this does not mean that the problem does not exist.


Seconded. I bought an HP printer/scanner only months before moving my parent's desktop to Ubuntu. No frills standard print dialogs and GNOME Simple Scan always work without issue. I'm still surprised as hell (5+ years later) that it works as well as it does, and I didn't do anything to make it happen.


The situation with printers and scanners is very much a result of the manufacturers' managements' being old school and thinking that because they use Windows that it is the only OS out there.

The solution is to do the research first and only buy what has been verified to work with your flavour of Linux. In many cases, you can simply buy a slightly older product off eBay (or similar).

Personally, when shopping I will ask after Linux support and when the salesperson can't help, I explain that I will only consider the product if it is guaranteed to work. It's a quixotic crusade.


> "I'm sorry madam, this is an operating system we don't support"

On the other side, old hardware can get a new lease of life thanks to linux.

I have an old scanner (>10y) still working fine 'out of the box' on linux. My brother wanted to borrow it to use it on his laptop, but the scanner is not supported anymore on recent windows.

Also old low-specs computers which were running winXP at first, can still be useful with up to date linux (browsing internet, reading email, using libreoffice, printing documents, listening music, some people don't need much more).


Yeah - Linux is way in front - I only run Windoze when forced, like last week buying a HTC Vive with no linux support, and boy is it a slow PITA pain after linux.

I could have downloaded an entire linux distro and installed in the time it took to do just one Win10 update the other evening.

Don't get me started, my dad is almost 80 and never paid for a micro$oft license in his life, he used to teach maths and computing at the local university, he started with punchcards, PDP8/11 and VMS and never liked windoze and for good reason.


Notice how you didn't answer any of the parent's points.


Actually, I did, responding to the last line:

"That is the problem with Linux. Of course it's getting better and better but it's not where OSX or Windows is by any means."


That wasn't a particular point the parent had -- just his general conclusion. He listed several pain points none of which was addressed.


I bet you are regarded as fun at parties.


Windoze? micro$oft?

Is this 90s Slashdot?


It's retro chic.


Last time the family installed a printer it was a Samsung networked all in one thingy that worked with CUPS basically out of the box. That said, so far the only "scanning" that happens seems to be to use it as a copier.


>without messing with the command line Why is this required? It's not like people had trouble with the command line in the MS-DOS days. Personally I think people being afraid of the command line is just a matter of cultural dogma, not the command line being actually difficult.


"The command line" (i.e. text-based user interfaces) are not the problem - I'd say the problem is more the specific way windows and nix shells are structured: You get minimal feedback, yet there is an enormous amount of complexity hidden behind the commands. A lot of that stuff is* difficult.

Right out of my head, I could think of the following skills you need to actively learn to put the command line to use:

- tracking a lot of state in your head as opposed to have all state changes directly reflected on the screen.

- memorizing known commands, flags and microsyntaxes (this is not helped by the essay-like writing style of many manpages and the fact that many commands introduce their own auxiliary concepts that you need to understand before you can use the command)

- finding the appropiate new command for a task you want to do

- memorizing interaction between commands (and the shell) to correctly use pipes, quoting and nested commands (find -exec etc)

- "knowing what you are doing". Many commands are built with the explicit assumption that they are to be used by experts only: If such a command is used wrongly, the consequences can be dire.

A GUI provides significant assistance for all of those tasks and provides opportunities for explorative learning. A command line could do the same but in practice doesn't.


> Personally I think people being afraid of the command line is just a matter of cultural dogma, not the command line being actually difficult.

I disagree. My 2-year old niece can barely spell correctly but she is able to select the cartoons she likes on youtube using an iPad. How old do you think she'd be until she figures out how to list files in a dir using the cli?

Mind you, no one ever taught her how to use the iPad, she just did.


That's valid, but only for illiterates. I don't see how this applies to anyone beyond the age of 10 or so - I know I ditched Windows at the age of 12, at least, and English isn't even my native language.


In the end, complaints about Linux boils down to "i can't apply Windows (or Mac) rote gestures on this". In particular with regards to "admin" tasks, that from personal experience they rarely attempt on those platforms anyways.

Instead they grab the neighborhood geek (or should i say nerd, geeks seems to be too cloud oriented these days) and pay with cookies or beer (depending on age of said geek).

What seems to be going on is a mixed message of "hard to admin" and "don't need to admin" (aka "just works" in Mac speak). Meaning that it is rarely if ever about day to day "usage", but rather about being able to admin their own system.

And frankly i think Linux have a leg up there, as things are actually documented and in plain sight (at least until Freedesktop stuff and, their fetish for using dbus for everything, gets their panties in a twist). With Windows and Mac is it all too often some closed up blob going bad, involving magic incantations found in some forum or blob somewhere.


> In the end, complaints about Linux boils down to "i can't apply Windows (or Mac) rote gestures on this".

Would that it were so simple.

Unfortunately, there is also "I can't comfortably use my printer/scanner on this". Some manufacturers still don't provide Linux drivers for their devices.

My mother uses Linux too, quite happy with it, but I had to buy her a new printer.

EDIT: a thing I might add here is that I think that for the older generation, a pre-configured Linux desktop can give them that Win95-98-XP experience they want. Familiarity, as you said, is a key factor, and the Metro UI can be much more difficult to get used to for people that put a lot of effort in getting familiar with the 95-XP UI paradigm they used for the last 20 years.


Some, but not all. Also a new Printer/Scanner that is supported by Linux is a lot cheaper than a new computer to run Windows 10 (and will always work with Linux, unlike a printer/scanner that "currently" works on Windows). I use Windows and Linux at home but I've moved my Mum to Ubuntu as I had less worries about her getting taken over with Malware or RansomWare. Only issue we've had is the photo management isn't as smooth but she's used to it now.


Much like others in here, I gave my mother an ultimatum. I was so sick of maintaining Windows that I gave her the option of running Linux, or she could have Windows but I wouldn't support it (ergo, she'd have to pay a technician).

After her old Acer Aspire One fell apart, I bought her a cheap Compaq 15" laptop on Amazon for Xmas in 2014 and installed Mint on it. Since, as is common these days, she uses a web browser more than anything, it was easy to teach her how to connect it to wifi and launch Firefox. Since then, I've heard zero complaints or requests for help. Linux JustWorks. I think she's come to like the Cinnamon GUI as much as I do, too.

I also tried to get my sister to switch - she is a lot fussier, I got a huge amount of resistance switching her to Win7 after XP went EOL since she prefers the GUI. The difference here is that she uses a tablet PC (not a Surface, the original spinning-screen + pen-based digitizer laptop style machine) which she uses for drawing and artwork. To give her credit, she relented and gave Mint a go for a week, with an XP skin on it (which was pretty accurate, all things considered). Unfortunately she couldn't get used to GIMP and there were lots of hardware issues, in addition to old Windows games that wouldn't run under Wine, so reluctantly I put her back on Windows. Still, she at least tried it.

These days, Mint is my go-to. The Win7-inspired GUI is pretty easy to get Windows-only people to learn, and it's up to date and reliable. As their Windows PCs slow down and the OS degrades (I stil swear Windows has a built-in timer for this purpose), I find that my family members are so keen to have working PCs that they don't particularly care what OS it runs, so long as they can find the web browser. I nearly Mint-ified my uncle's old well-abused Acer laptop, until we discovered that nuking the Acer crapware made it usable again.

Linux on laptops has come a long way, much further I think than any other OS.


Seems kinda silly, anyone literate can be taught the basics pretty easily. Grandfathers and Grandmothers just require a bit of basics to get the basics of web browsing. Before you know it they are attaching their cameras to send out photos to friends and families.

My preferred setup is a dirt cheap chromebox, like the Asus for $150 or so. Add 2 4GB dimms and install ubuntu LTS. Drag off all the crap icons for amazon search, libreoffice, etc. Set it to automatically login. Make sure the browser icon is easy to find.

I would spend some time saying that never give their credit card to anyone without talking to you. Or print them out a whitelist with a red circle around what to check for, like https://www.amazon.com or whatever vendors you trust.


My grandpa,now 89, has been running Ubuntu on an old computer for more than ten years(I remember it was 5.04 or something). No viruses, no malware. He uses Picasa for photos, Firefox for online email and news browsing, with a 150% font. Many apps and websites are non-elderly-friendly -- they break when using a larger font. His eyesight is getting poorer recently and uses Facetime on his iPad instead. Maintenance is usually because he forgot to pay the network bills, although these ten years I have upgraded both the hardware and OS multiple times. My grandma sometimes complains that he is addicted to the computer and tells me don't come to fix the computer. But grandpa will harass me every day with phone calls until I come :)


I don't know if it's just me or is everyone these days talking about dumping their iMac and switching to Linux?


It's just the HN bubble [1]. Apple's Mac sales actually increased in Q4 2016 compared to Q4 2015, amid further stagnation in the PC industry:

http://www.gartner.com/newsroom/id/3568420

Since the MacBook with Touchbar has only been available since somewhere in November, the new MacBooks are apparently selling quite well.

[1] Though it results in some nice threads that are so surreal that they must be parody:

https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=13379509

(I mean, no one can possibly suggest to a professional Photoshop user that the solution to the lack of support for non-destructive editing is: 'make a copy of a layer before you change it' or 'use git'? :))


I've been a Mac user through and through, since 2004. Switched from Linux back then. I've been using Linux but only on servers and VMs since then, as well. Just not as my daily driver.

I got the 2016 MBP w/Touchbar. I've been plagued with the GPU issues, and the crappy battery life. Add to that issues with PDF corruption, because of Apple's screwing with the frameworks.

It's starting to feel like Apple doesn't care about anything other than iOS devices.

When I buy  stuff for myself, I get the highest-spec model, every time. I never want to come up short, if I need the power/storage. $4300 and change on the latest one.

I just ordered one of the new Dell XPS 15" laptops. Again, same thing. The high-end model. More powerful CPU, twice the RAM, better graphices, but half the storage. $1600 less for the Dell.

Starting to think Dell makes a better "Macbook" than Apple. We'll see. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯


It's just hype here. Maybe somebody should write a new "Why I dumped Linux and switched to Mac" ;)


I think it's people talking about dumping their MacBook Pro more so than iMac.


I made a low-power system and installed Debian on it for my girlfriend's mother some time in 2002-2003, who is in her seventies. She's mostly moved on to a Macbook Air by now though. She's an intelligent person and really wants to stay up-to-date on technology, to keep her brain occupied. It's having the "will" to do something that matters, not the age or gender. I don't mind stereotypes, there's usually some truth to most of them, but let us also keep in mind people can break out of them at any time.


My mom and dad run Ubuntu too, without even knowing it is not Windows. It was an easy transition since they never had the chance to fully adopt any OS out there. Hence, they are able to manage all of them, when they are shown how to launch the browser. I'm using a Macbook, there is another Windows notebook at home. All feel the same to them, they say. They believe the UI differences are due to my or my sister's choice of theme.


Nice, I'd like to do the same thing for my mother in law, she mostly browses the web and import pictures and prints stuff from time to time. But then there is this one thing, she used special software to print photo-albums which does not run on Linux. As a result has a very slow Win 10 PC which frustrates more than helps her. Maybe I can just buy her an ssd...


Have you tried running said softare under a recent version of wine or crossover (a semi-commercial version of wine)? Rather a lot of stuff works flawlessly.


It seems more and more that the actual operating system is mattering less for casual users, which is a big plus for Linux. Pretty much anything you need to do on a computer can be done through the web browser now. As long as it can run Firefox decently the hardware/OS doesn't matter much.


Here's a question. Currently I hate Macs (for the expense), and Windows (for a number of reasons having to do with the OS).

But I have been questioning what the best flavor of linux to set up someone who has little to no "technology skills", on. Does anyone have a good recommendation?


I've been choosing Xubuntu for the following reasons:

- It's based on Ubuntu

- It runs better on old machines than Unity or Genome Ubuntu "flavors"

- I can easily customize the TaskBar/Dock/"Start Menu" to feel like Windows or Mac OS depending where the user is migrating from.

I've seen some friends go with Manjaro or Mint, but I think they both end up raising more "support" questions than Xubuntu (I have no examples at mind now to substantiate why though)

PS: If the user is migrating from Win XP also consider Lubuntu


Xubuntu is my distro of choice, for those reasons. One cannot understate the usefulness of the Ubuntu base; it makes the whole ecosystem that much more useful and maintainable. I even use it on newer machines, just for the speed. I switched to Mint for a while, but when I tried Xubuntu again, they were using wisker-menu by default. So I mapped the windows key to it, so I could press it and start typing names of programs, just like Windows (a UI feature they nailed).


I'm a huge fan of elementary OS (https://elementary.io/).

It's based on Ubuntu, so you have all of the normal resources that come with one of the most popular distros, but I think elementary is much sleeker.

I wanted something that I wouldn't hate to look at, but didn't have to spend a lot of time configuring to get there. I definitely found that in elementary OS, and I've been a happy user for around 2 years now.


I'd say Ubuntu simply because of it's popularity, most of the problems have been fixed or can be simply googled and solution is usually in the first result.


Xubuntu is great even for people who have a lot of technology skills. I spend most of my time on macOS and Windows, but I do run a bunch of VMs and have a personal Linux laptop. I have been trying this and that, and always end up installing Xubuntu which just works.


Fedora, openSUSE or Ubuntu. Can't really go wrong with any of them. All have graphical installers that'll set you up with no drama, all support a wide variety of hardware, and they're the 'standard' distros that pretty much any and all software runs on.

This may be slightly unpopular, but Ubuntu's Unity interface is probably the easiest for a newbie. It has a big dock with big buttons, the search feature is accessible, and it has a relatively tame look. Gnome shell is my favourite, but things are hidden and windows are always flying around. KDE has too many options - too much opportunity for newbies to get confused or to mess something up and not know how to fix it.


>Fedora, openSUSE or Ubuntu. Can't really go wrong with any of them.

Yes. The experience will be the same: you'll have issues sooner or later, and someone on a forum will tell you, why didn't you use one of the other two, or some alternative distro.


There isn't that much difference. But I'd pick something in the top 2-3 most popular. That way (once you show them) they can easily google their problem and likely find a web page and a youtube video to show them.

I picked ubuntu LTS because it's popular, fairly straight forward, and supported for 5 years. Change can be confusing and it's nice to minimize it and have long enough so you can plan when to upgrade instead of having things randomly change every 6-9 months.

Set autologin, get rid of icons you don't need, and set them up a default homepage and some useful links. I recommend showing them a webmail instead of a mail client which tends to be more complex.

Go over basic safety (one password per site), never giving a credit card number out (or only to trusted sites over ssl). If there's a local LUG (linux user group) it might be worth mentioning.

If they want my help I enable remote ssh (with passwords disabled) and put my key on it. That way I can fix things, see their screen, etc.


Ubuntu is great for me. Easy to set up, didn't have to command line anything to set stuff up (not that I shy away from terminals at all) (you might have to touch a terminal during install if you have a device that Ubuntu doesn't include a driver for out of the box), it's got some cohesive design, and it works for software development and gaming for me.

There's some variants of it that are pretty popular (and use the same software repos but have different desktop environments installed and configured by default), though I half-jokingly wonder if at least some of the popularity of them are from people not wanting to be seen as just settling down on the "noob distro".


As I mentioned in my post, Mint (or the Cinnamon GUI in general) is very Win7-inspired and easy to teach to someone who's only used Windows in the past. I personally run Ubuntu LTS with Cinnamon on my own laptop (since I needed a newer kernel than Mint provides), before that I used standard Mint. Since it's Ubuntu underneath, it has the same amount of supported software.

I used to use Xubuntu, which is a cracking OS with a GUI comparable to Gnome 2, but I came to like the Cinnamon GUI more than XFCE.


Xubuntu - beautiful, clean and simple, and none of the bloat and weirdness of vanilla Ubuntu.


My 9 old kid also using Ubuntu 16 on my old 10 years ibm laptop.

its magic , i carry USB disk with Ubuntu installation every where to save old laptops ...


What does she use it for? Does she organize and print her photo collection, edit some short home movies, write a blog? Or is it just a pure Netflix, email and Facebook machine?


But you should totally buy her a new computer for her next birthday. 10 year laptop is a turd no matter what you put on it.


A 10 year old laptop probably has a Core 2 Duo. Put an SSD in it, maybe max out the RAM, and its just as fast and useful as a new machine for a casual user.


that's a bold state, i mean it means linux is now equal to windows its even safe to use by parents, thats an engineering achievement


Nice. Technology has been improved alot


Great! Thanks for sharing.


Just don't expect wi-fi to work consistently


Anecdotally, I find the Linux wifi stack to be less of a hassle than Mac's for decently supported hardware. I had all kinds of random wifi issues on my MBP. Had to disable and reenable the interface or reboot.


Everybody who uses an Android phone or a ChromeBook is also using Linux. It really is about the GUI that the average user interacts with.


Technically yes. But then it's very obvious that this is not what this discussion is about.


Since Android devices, Roku and many other consumer products are based on Linux, yes... everyone can run Linux, sometimes even unknowingly.




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