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February 8, 2008

Tech, G.P.: Linux experiment is going my way


Well, it's the middle of winter, I don't ski any more, and even the dogs are yawning with boredom.

My kids have grown up and moved out on their own, so it's pretty quiet around here, for the most part.

I've plenty of time to putter around doing whatever I want after work, since I gave up my business about a year ago. So, what should I do?

Picture me with a glass of brandy near the keyboard, a slight wry smile coming to my face and my fingertips together near my chin as I begin to form a plan.

Maybe it's time to experiment on my wife ...

Now, don't get all wound up. It's not a mad scientist kind of thing, or anything you're likely to find on a less-than-mainstream Internet site.

It's an idea I've been toying with for a while, and now might be a good time to do it.

I've been wanting to confirm a theory that I've held for a while now, that the Linux operating system has progressed enough to be usable by "regular" computer users.

For those of you who don't know what Linux is, picture a run-of-the-mill PC, and then think of Windows, which runs on it. Windows is the operating system of the computer.

A PC needs to have an operating system to do anything, but that operating system doesn't necessarily have to be Windows.

Linux is also a PC operating system, but it's not Windows. It's a different operating system.

It does essentially the same function, but it's not made by Microsoft, and therefore is not subject to all of Microsoft's licensing requirements, quirks and costs.

For years, the holy grail for Linux enthusiasts has been to see it replace Windows. Realistically, that's not likely to happen any time soon, but there has been steady incremental improvement.

Geeks like me have been using it for a long time, but the ability to do this kind of thing is one of the definitions of geekiness.

My hypothesis is that it may be good enough now for a computer novice, or someone who doesn't have the slightest interest in geeky things, to be able to use it.

It happens that my better half falls into the second category.

When it comes to computers, she just wants to accomplish what she has to, then get on with her life. She doesn't care a whit about technical stuff, she just wants to accomplish her tasks. Mainly, she uses e-mail, surfs the Web, and occasionally types up something to distribute at her school (she's a teacher).

Actually, this story unfolds over several months. I planted the seed one day last year, casually mentioning that I wanted to use her for an experiment. I figured if there was resistance, I'd just forget it. I'm not dumb.

It didn't get the rise that I expected, so I considered myself past the first hurdle.

I waited a- few weeks and mentioned it again, this time explaining what I wanted to do. I told her I would put together a computer for her with a different operating system on it, and I wanted to see how she got along with it.

Maybe the idea of the convenience of her own computer appealed to her enough to mitigate any difficulty she might have learning what she had to. She had no objection, as long as I would show her what to do.

I think she was more concerned with where it would go, and how it would fit on her sewing desk than anything else. I just let her make those logistical decisions. I even said she could use my new LCD monitor, as it was thinner, and I'd go back to using the big old CRT one.

Everything seemed to be going my way. So I started doing the research on which Linux distribution (there are many) to use, and what pieces out of my computer boneyard to put together for it.

I downloaded the latest versions of Mandriva, Ubuntu and Fedora Linux, installed and played around with each of them on a computer made of spare parts I found in the cellar.

I think any of the distributions I tried would have been fine, but I decided on Fedora.

I wanted my experiment to be as generic as I could make it, and Fedora is descended from Red Hat, which has for years been the biggest name in Linux.

I set the computer up to use our network printers and fileserver, so she wouldn't lose access to them. I also copied her e-mail from the Windows computer to the Linux machine. Luckily, she uses Thunderbird for e-mail, which runs on both Windows and Linux, so that wasn't hard.

Now it was ready. I sat her down and showed her how it worked, which took all of about 15 minutes.

She tried it on her own, with a little coaching, and found it seemed she could do what she wanted to. She'd give it a try and see what happened.

After that, I kind of pulled back and left her on her own. I didn't hear from her about the computer for a couple days, until she wanted to type something on the word processor.

``Where are the typefaces I used to have?'' That was the big question. There were a couple favorites that she had collected on the other computer, and she missed them.

I thought that if that was the biggest complaint she had, she wasn't doing too badly. Nevertheless, as a dutiful husband, I installed the fonts on her Linux box.

Then I waited some more. The quiet on the Linux computer front was deafening for the next several weeks. Finally, as she hadn't said anything about her computer use, I brought the subject up.

``How are you doing using the Linux computer?" I asked one evening. ``Have you been using it?''

``Yeah, every day," she answered. "I guess it's OK. If I have any questions, I'll just ask you."

So that's my story and I'm sticking to it. She seems to have adjusted to it surprisingly well, and easily.

There has only been one time when she went back to the Windows computer, and it was only because I forgot to put an icon on her desktop for a particular program. She forgot how to start it up using the menus.

It happened that I was still in bed, so instead of waking me up to ask me, she just moved over to the other seat and used that machine.

Could I have asked for anything more? I should have been a scientist. My hypothesis was proved to my satisfaction, and I got to sleep late on a Sunday morning, to boot. Life is good. So is my wife for putting up with me.

Bruce Endries is former systems manager at The Daily Star. He can be reached by e-mail at techgp@dailystarmail.com.