Yes, my grandma can run Ubuntu Linux

Can a normal, average person use Ubuntu? You bet.

Grandma hacks Ubuntu

Last week Lenovo lent me one of its X61 ThinkPad laptops so that I could give Ubuntu Linux a try. Having had a bad experience with Novell's SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop a few years ago, I had sworn off desktop Linux and determined not to return.

A week into a new trial with Ubuntu Linux, however, it's clear that desktop Linux has come a long way. I found it extremely easy to use, including when I had to install a program (Skype) that wasn't included in the supported applications list. This is an operating system that my grandma could (and, in fact, did) use .

This isn't to say that my week with Ubuntu Linux was uneventful. I had a few struggles, which I'll detail below. These struggles, however, were almost entirely due to running Ubuntu on unsupported hardware, and not any fault of Ubuntu (or Linux) itself.

Hairdressers run Ubuntu, too

But first, the good. If you're familiar with Windows, running Ubuntu Linux is a breeze. In fact, my biggest complaint with Ubuntu is that it feels too much like Windows. I use a Mac precisely to get away from the utilitarian ugliness of Windows. Finding it in Linux didn't endear Ubuntu to me.

But for most people, this will be a Very Good Thing, given that it will mean a significantly lower learning curve.

To test how hard it is for an average user to find their way around Ubuntu, I had my grandmother (top right) and the lady who cuts my hair (above left) give it a try. I set them down in front of it and asked them to perform certain functions:

You need to write a letter to a friend. Will you start the application that manages this and start working on the letter?

You need to sell something on eBay. Please find the browser, upload pictures of the item for sale, and post it.

Installing Skype

In every case, it took them just seconds to figure out where to go in Ubuntu to accomplish the task. Neither one complained about using OpenOffice (I didn't tell them it wasn't Microsoft Office, and they didn't seem to notice a difference), nor about using Firefox instead of Internet Explorer. They had work to do and the operating system and applications didn't get in their way at all.

In fact, what I found perhaps most impressive was how easily Ubuntu recognized my camera and imported the pictures. I'm used to this simplicity with Mac OS X, but I was shocked (really) to see the system walk us through the importation and management of images. For a desktop to appeal to the mainstream, it simply must be able to do this. I also had video on my camera (a Canon PowerShot SD1000) and Ubuntu imported and played it with ease.

This ease continued when I installed Skype. Going "off-piste" was what drove me away from desktop Linux several years ago, but this time it was as easy as installing an application on Windows or Mac OS X. Double-click on the installation file and...done (See above right).

In this and other ways, Ubuntu demonstrated that it is clearly ready for mainstream desktop adoption. I would have no qualms about recommending Ubuntu to grandmas and other normal people everywhere, people with no love of the command line.

My first (but not last) error message

With that said, my Ubuntu experience wasn't flawless. As noted, most of these problems stemmed from running it on excellent, but unsupported hardware (Lenovo's X61 ThinkPad). Whenever I'd put the computer to sleep it would wake to a dim screen that I'd have to CTRL-ALT-F1 / CTRL-ALT-F7 to fix (and I only learned about this workaround through the generous assistance of someone in the comments section of my first post on Ubuntu).

I'm good at self-support, so I immediately went to Google to find the answer to the brightness problem. Two hours later, I was in my own little corner of Linux Hell. I was told to add lines to certain files (/usr/share/hal/fdi/information/10freedesktop/20-video-quirk-pm-lenovo.fdi) on my hard drive. I tried from the command line, and then by browsing my file system. Despite having root access on the machine, it kept telling me I had insufficient permissions to make the change.

Ultimately, I gave up.

I tried to change the appearance of the desktop (System:Preferences:Appearance:Visual Effects), but got the error show directly above (left). To be fair, I get random error messages occasionally on Windows or Mac OS X, so the fact that Ubuntu throws them up, too, isn't a deal breaker. The difficulty, however, is that there's precious little assistance available if things go wrong, as most people are Windows drones or Mac OS X people. Yes, there's always Google (i.e., others out on the 'Net), but I was directed to go to the command line so often via this route that I just can't see most people being able to resolve their issues in this way.

All in all, however, I am very impressed with Ubuntu. It still has a ways to go to match Mac OS X in elegance and simplicity, but if I had to choose between Windows and Linux today, there wouldn't be a contest. It would be Linux every time.

Given that 95 percent of the world still wastes away in Windows land, this is a good situation for Ubuntu. The learning curve required to switch from Windows to Linux is all of 10 seconds long. My grandma did it. The lady who cuts my hair did it. Neither one of them is an expert with computers.

In fact, as I was testing my grandma's ability to use Ubuntu she kept saying,

Matt, you're just trying to get me to look dumb. I'm not smart enough to use computers .

To this I responded, "Grandma, that's exactly the point. You shouldn't have to be 'smart' to use a computer. The computer should be smart enough to let anyone use it and benefit from it."

After ripping out a few emails, browsing the web, writing some letters, etc. on Ubuntu Linux, I'm confident in saying that Ubuntu is smart enough for the myriad of average people like you, my grandma, and I.

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Tech Culture
About the author

    Matt Asay is chief operating officer at Canonical, the company behind the Ubuntu Linux operating system. Prior to Canonical, Matt was general manager of the Americas division and vice president of business development at Alfresco, an open-source applications company. Matt brings a decade of in-the-trenches open-source business and legal experience to The Open Road, with an emphasis on emerging open-source business strategies and opportunities. He is a member of the CNET Blog Network and is not an employee of CNET. You can follow Matt on Twitter @mjasay.

     

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