Is Linux right for your mother?

Is Linux right for your mother?

One of the advantages of Apple Macintosh computers is that simply by not being Windows, they are immune to the plague of malware (malicious software) that constantly strikes at Windows based machines. Linux has this advantage too, plus it's cheaper. A computer running Linux can cost around a fifth as much as a Mac (more on this later).

The classic knock on Linux, when compared to Windows and Macs, has always been that it was harder to use, and indeed it was. But release after release it kept getting easier. How easy is it, now, for a Windows user to move to Linux? According to one blogger, it's easy enough for his mother. See Why My Mom Can Use Ubuntu.

My consulting practice puts me in contact with people with little computer experience, some who struggle just to use Windows, let alone deal with the care and feeding of anti-virus and anti-spyware software. Linux offers the opportunity to use an operating system where the user doesn't need to to deal with anti-anything software.

Mandriva Linux running Firefox (Click for full size)

Another advantage that Linux has over a Macintosh is that many versions ("distro" is the nerd term) can run from a bootable CD. That is, you can run Linux on a computer that doesn't even have a hard drive. For one of my clients, a couple of senior citizens, this was just what the doctor ordered.

I was called because their copy of Windows 2000 was terribly infected with malware. But the machine was old, and since removing malware can be a time consuming and ultimately fruitless endeavor, we opted not to bother. Buying a new computer however, takes time and they really needed email. Linux to the resue.

Like any good computer nerd, I travel with a Linux Live CD (a copy of Linux on a bootable CD) in my little black bag. After booting their machine using Knoppix all that was needed was a quick introduction to Firefox. They were familiar with webmail, so Firefox was all they needed. Knoppix never had a problem automatically detecting their broadband modem and connecting to the Internet. To my amazement, they chose to live with Knoppix for months before eventually buying a new Windows computer.


There is however a big difference between using Linux and it's initial setup, which can be much too difficult.

For example, I recently installed Ubuntu Linux on a computer connected to a KVM switch. The switch probably got in the way of Ubuntu detecting the monitor and the system booted using a 640x480 screen resolution. Making matters worse, the GUI interface wouldn't change the resolution. I searched around the Internet for solutions but found nothing simple enough for a non-Linux expert (me) to deal with.

The mom in the story got her computer with Ubuntu Linux pre-configured by someone expert enough in the matter who "... set up the few codecs, a proprietary video driver, a quick EasyUbuntu...". Not to mention installing mom's printer, software to replace Microsoft Publisher and, hopefully, a firewall.

But once it's installed, the learning curve going from Windows XP to Linux is probably about the same as going from Windows XP to Vista. Ironically, the time and effort Microsoft put into the Vista user interface just plays into the hands of Apple and Linux.

20 Percent

My earlier claim that Linux can cost 20% as much as a Macintosh, assumes not only getting the operating system for free, but also running it on an old computer. The ability to run on a wide variety of hardware is a big advantage of Linux compared to Macs.

At what passes for press time in the blogging world, was selling a refurbished IBM NetVista desktop computer with a Pentium 4 processor running at 1.8GHz, 512megabytes of ram, a 40 gigabyte hard drive and no operating system for $105 (plus tax and shipping). It can't read DVDs and the USB ports are probably version 1, but it's capable of running a current version of Linux. In all, CompGeeks is selling twenty seven Pentium 4 based machines for under $200. This is not an endorsement of CompGeeks. I'm just using them as an example of a retailer selling old, refurbished computers capable of running Linux.

If you feel more comfortable dealing with a major computer manufacturer, the clearance section of HP's website offers refurbished machines with a one year warranty. Today they offered a handful of HP DX2250 machines for under $300. For example, a machine with 512 megabytes of ram and an 80 gigabyte hard drive could have been had for $223 (plus tax and shipping).


Finding software for a new operating system that is equivalent to the software you already use, is obviously critical to any changeover. Some obvious Linux choices are Firefox for web browsing, Thunderbird for email and Open Office for word processing, spreadsheets, drawing, presentations and database. Adobe has a version of their Acrobat Reader for Linux. They also offer Flash v9, but it is only supported on two versions of Linux. All this software is free.

For the more adventurous, some Windows applications can be run directly on Linux. The first time I tried this it seemed like magic. Just today I learned of the free IEs 4 Linux which lets you run Internet Explorer version 6 on Linux, for the few websites that require IE. Wine is a step up, it lets you run dozens of Windows applications on Linux. Wine is included in some versions of Linux, but it can always be downloaded and installed if need be. Wine is free, and forms the foundation for the commercial Crossover Office which specializes in running Microsoft Office under Linux.

But what if you (or your mother) needs to run a Windows program that is not supported by Wine or Crossover Office?

A big plus for the new Intel based Macs is that they can run both the Mac OS X and Windows side by side using virtual machine software from either Parallels or VMware. This lets you run any Windows application on a Macintosh. Linux can do this too.

Today, VMware sells Fusion for the Mac for $60, but a $20 mail-in rebate reduces that, eventually, to $40. Parallels sells their Mac based virtual machine program (Parallels Desktop 3.0 for Mac) for $80.

Linux users have two very different choices. They can get the free VMware player to run existing virtual machines, but, unlike the Mac products, the VMware player can not create new virtual machines. For this, VMware offers their full featured Workstation product. However, VMware Workstation is expensive ($190 to download, $210 in a box) and the intended audience is techies.

Running virtual machines under Linux requires additional horsepower and likely rules out the cheap computers mentioned above. VMware says their Workstation product only needs 512 megabytes of RAM, but doubling this is probably the better way to go.


If you're going to move your mother off Windows, be aware that the big downside to Linux is technical support. This is an area where Apple excels, their technical support is constantly rated the best in the industry. Free versions of Linux, like all free software, come without technical support.

If your mom doesn't know a computer nerd, she can opt for a commercial version of Linux (typically selling for $50 to $100) that includes tech support. Or, you can buy her a computer with Linux pre-installed.

If you want to learn more, there is a Linux vs. Windows comparison on my personal web site.

Update: October 7, 2007. Major revision to the software topic.

About the author

    Michael Horowitz wrote his first computer program in 1973 and has been a computer nerd ever since. He spent more than 20 years working in an IBM mainframe (MVS) environment. He has worked in the research and development group of a large Wall Street financial company, and has been a technical writer for a mainframe software company.

    He teaches a large range of self-developed classes, the underlying theme being Defensive Computing. Michael is an independent computer consultant, working with small businesses and the self-employed. He can be heard weekly on The Personal Computer Show on WBAI.




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