Total Computer Newbies Meet Debian: Part 1, The Install

We have all heard the horror stories of how GNU/Linux is difficult, if not almost impossible, as far as general desktop usability is concerned. In particular, there seems to be a continuous stream of gripes printed across the Internet, from Microsoft Windows users who wish, or have tried, to migrate to GNU/Linux, yet gave up in frustration. But what happens when complete computer newbies are introduced to GNU/Linux? By computer newbies, I am referring to those who have no computer experience whatsoever, in either a Windows, Mac, Linux, Unix or other environment.

I would like to introduce you to my next door neighbors, Mike & Diane, and their daughters, Mary and Carla. Mike has been self-employed for some years in his own highly successful construction business. His wife, Diane, in addition to raising their daughters, also manages all of the accounting for her husband’s business. Additionally, she is in the midst of starting her own home-based business as well. Their two absolutely adorable daughters, are 6 and 2 years old, with the oldest being in the first grade. Of the family members, Mary, the 6 year old, is the only family member who has any computer experience, using Microsoft Windows occasionally at school.

Mike and Diane approached me around two months ago, wanting help and information on a computer purchase. The computer they wished to purchase would primarily be the family computer, but would also be used for their two respective businesses. I can’t say that they had questions about hardware, as they did not know a cpu from a hard drive. They did have questions about software. Diane told me that she needed business, office, and accounting software for their businesses. They mostly wanted to know where to get a decent price on a computer system.

I worked up some numbers on computer systems from Pricewatch, using the OpenOffice spreadsheet and grabbed the Sunday ads from office and electronic retail locations, as well as computer magazine ads, so that they could compare prices on various systems. I explained how processor speed, RAM, the size and speed of the hard drive, and video card would affect performance. They were able to piece together the following system for around $700:

Athlon XP 2000 CPU @ 1.67 Ghz (Via Chipset)
512 MB of DDR RAM
Nvidia GeForce2 GTS 32MB Graphics Card
17′ LCD Flat Screen Monitor

Diane will be using this computer the most. So I explained to her what Windows is and what GNU/Linux is. She already knew that many businesses run on Microsoft programs. She asked me about the state of office and accounting software on Linux. I explained to her, as best I could, what file formats are. I told her that for word processing, OpenOffice could both read and write the Microsoft formats, and what that meant. As far as accounting, I told her about GNUCash, explaining that I knew it could import QuickBooks formats, but did not know if it could save in QuickBooks formats. She did some software reconnaissance on her own, checking prices on Microsoft Windows, Microsoft Office, and QuickBooks. Amazingly enough, in the midst of her information gathering, she met a lady at one of the office supply houses, who also was a Linux fan, and raved to her about it’s stability. Diane decided to go with GNU/Linux, having absolutely not so much as one shred of computer experience to her name.

In the midst of all of this, Mike and Diane told me that they were making arrangements to have a separate phone line installed, in order to have a phone line available to access the Internet over dial up. After all, they had (really slow) Internet access for years through the phone line with WebTV. I explained that for the same money, they could skip the phone line and get blinding fast Internet access through a cable modem. The appropriate arrangements were made.

I debated with myself which version of Linux to install for them. I am known as an OS hopper amongst my friends, to put it gently, so had numerous cds laying around, including Mandrake, Knoppix, Gentoo, NetBSD, Lunar, OpenBSD, Peanut & Slackware. (OK I have the FreeBSD install floppies here somewhere too.) I finally decided after much thought, that Debian was the only way to go. I knew there were other Linux distributions that were easier to install. I also knew Mike and Diane would not be doing the install and that Diane would only be doing occasional upgrades, which needed to be as simple and seamless as possible. Luckily, I found an old Libranet 2.0 CD, that was just itching to be installed on a brand new hard drive.

The computer and peripherals arrived, the cable modem was turned on and the Libranet CD was in the drive. Diane watched as I did the install. All of the drivers were detected and loaded without fail. We chose no tasks to install and had a freshly installed Debian Woody system with an absolute bare minimum of installed software. I wanted a basic install for two reasons:

1.I knew we were going to upgrade the system to the unstable distribution.

2.With Mike and Diane having no computer experience, I did not want them to have to choose, from exceedingly long menus, what programs to use, wanting instead for them to have only the software they needed.

Next, I explained to Diane that the entire system is configured by the files found in the /etc directory, as I opened up the apt-sources list. I edited the sources list to unstable and saved the file. I then had Diane sit at the computer and type ‘apt-get update’ and ‘apt-get dist-upgrade’ into a terminal, and explained that as long as she could type that, she could update her system. She watched in amazement as almost the entire system on her computer was updated and replaced. It struck me as very odd that she made no comments as she typed these commands into a terminal. She wasn’t scared of typing commands into a terminal, nor did she think it was unusual. She just did it and watched it work. Actually she seemed rather pleased with herself as it started working.

As Woody was aptomagically morphing into Unstable, Diane began expressing concern about the business records which would soon be on the computer. She was greatly concerned from the beginning, as she knew her two daughters would be using this computer. She wanted to make absolutely sure that her bookkeeping and customer contact work, could not, under any circumstances, be mistakenly deleted by her children (or her husband). I told her that each of them would have their own accounts and no one family member could delete or overwrite the other’s files.

Next, we installed Gnome 2.2 onto the Debian system. Now I am well aware of how the Gnome developers were flamed when Gnome 2.0 first hit, being accused of dumbing down the interface and what not. Even I didn’t like it at first, as I had configured Gnome 1.4 from here to Iraq and when Gnome 2.0 was released, a lot of that configurability was suddenly lost and I WAS NOT HAPPY, to put it as kindly as I can. Yet, this more simplified and streamlined Gnome 2.x series grew on me after awhile. It is still not as configurable, but I spend more time actually working in it now, rather than configuring each and every iota and pixel as I did in the earlier Gnome. In my opinion, Gnome was the better choice for total computer newbies who have not yet learned how to manipulate a mouse with grace, so let the flames begin. Read some of Eugenia’s past comments on the KDE Control Panel and know that I am in full agreement. I can’t tell you how much time I spent hunting down a particular setting in the KDE Control Center and did find it again for a few days. I don’t want Mike and Diane to deal with that until they know their way around the system a little better. Ultimately, desktop environments and window managers are like your children. You love each and every one of them for different reasons. Gnome was the perfect choice in this instance. There is no need for anyone to feel put off, as KDE does get installed later, for one absolutely must have feature.

With that, Diane and I wrapped up our first evening in GNU/Linux together.
As we finished, Diane said two things to me. She first mentioned that her husband’s business partner had mentioned QuickBooks’s ability to do check printing. Then she said:’Charles, I think you have bitten off more than you can chew here. How are you going to teach us how to use computers when we know nothing?’ I didn’t feel let down by that comment. I did get a little nervous at this comment though. But then I remembered the spare partition I left on Mike and Diane’s hard drive. The spare empty partition, waiting for Microsoft Windows, should the need ever arrive. Even I was still not sure if this would work for them or not.


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