If you’re reading articles other than this one here on The Linux Critic, you are probably technical on a level which other people have noticed, i.e., you get asked by the occasional relative to provide assistance with technology, be it “hey, help me get my new printer working”, “HELP! WINDOWS WON’T BOOT!”, or even “I’m buying a laptop, which one should I get?”.
I have a few thoughts on that subject, mostly brought up by a recent experience, and I thought I’d do a writeup to share them with others.
Jean’s cry for help
My Aunt Jean has an older computer for which I have provided support in the past. What kind of support, you ask? You know. Sure you do. Windows XP support. “My computer has been running slower and slower lately, could you take a look at it?” and “Sound stopped working!” and “I think I may have a virus”.
I also installed a second hard drive in the machine, just to provide a bit more space for Jean to expand for photos and music and other files. But that’s the only hardware I ever touched on this box.
Well, last week I got an email from Jean (which she sent me from work) asking me to come out to their house and take a look at her computer, because now it won’t even boot.
My Aunt Jean and Uncle Bob live about an hour’s drive away, so it’s a bit of a time investment, but as I’m not currently employed, I agreed to come out there and take a look. However, I let Jean know that if this was a Windows issue, I’d like to strongly encourage her to give “something else” a try as an alternative, just to avoid so many problems going forward. She said she was open to alternatives, having grown pretty tired of the same problems over and over in Windows, so I had her email me a list of applications she uses in Windows to see how feasible it was.
Jean’s primary concern was one that made me smile. “I’m not tied to any particular application, but I really like Mozilla Firefox. Can it run Firefox?”. Considering that the “something else alternative” of which I was speaking was Ubuntu, I let her know that running Firefox wouldn’t be a problem.
So I drove out there and took a look, and as it turns out, the old dinosaur of a machine had a fried power supply, and based on some of the other symptoms I was seeing, possibly something wrong with the motherboard too. I recommended to Jean that she look into getting a new computer, and explained that it simply wasn’t worth keeping this old one alive anymore, given its age and the normal end-of-life of several key components that — even if the power supply were replaced — would still be already here.
Jean wasn’t too surprised by this, given the computer’s age, but she did have a backup plan. Her son’s old laptop (a 4 year old Acer) was in her possession since he didn’t need it anymore, and while it wasn’t currently functional, all it needed was a new power adaptor and a new battery (since the old one wouldn’t hold a charge longer than 20 minutes or so).
My new policy towards providing computer support for friends and relatives
I told Jean that I’d be happy to provide support going forward on that laptop if she got it running with the new adaptor, but I let her know that it’d be a heck of a lot easier for me to support Ubuntu on it than Windows XP, and she didn’t seem concerned about that. As long as it works, it doesn’t matter. Now, Jean’s non-technical, but I had no doubt that she could easily do what she needed to do, as far as personal computing goes, with Ubuntu.
I had my own laptop along, so I pulled out an Ubuntu 9.04 CD and booted from it so that I could show her. I gave her some basic instruction on what would need to be done, and what to expect and where to find things once she had it installed (once she got the old laptop up and running with a new power adaptor) and I left the Ubuntu CD with her when I went home.
That’s right, kids. I left a non-technical Windows user with an Ubuntu CD and said “so long, have fun!”.
Okay, so I’m not that cruel. I told her to give me a call once she’s ready to install and felt she needed any help. She called me yesterday and I walked her through changing the boot device order in the BIOS of the laptop and had her boot off the Ubuntu CD in live CD mode to make sure sound and network worked okay, and I then just had her click “install”.
Once the install routine started, she let me go and let me know that she’d call me back if she needed any more help.
She did call me back, but only to let me know that everything went just fine, everything worked, and she was doing okay.
Thoughts on this
I look at this from two perspectives, one being a utilitarian perspective, and the other a purely selfish one.
The utilitarian perspective
Utilitarian-wise, Jean had experienced many problems with her old computer that were (I’m quite sure to all of you reading this) very, very tired and familiar problems that come simply as a “fact of life” with running Windows XP. Jean was all too seasoned a veteran at dealing with viruses, problematic patches and service packs, spyware and adware, and just all-around poor performance, regardless of how old the machine was.
Jean also knew that this simply was the expected norm in the Windows world, and she knew that even under the best of circumstances, with a fresh, fully-patched and antivirus protected Windows XP setup, she could expect viruses, spyware, and other problems as an inevitable part of using her computer.
On top of all of that, Jean expressed to me that she was simply getting tired of Windows XP in general, tired of how things were done, tired of how it looked, and was definitely welcoming a change in user paradigms.
With what I would call “minimal instruction”, Jean installed Ubuntu on her laptop. My instruction came in the form of walking her through changing her BIOS so that it could boot from the Ubuntu CD — something with which most users would need some help — but she did the rest on her own.
She installed it, had it up and running, and was doing things online (as evidenced by her triumphant Facebook update on the subject) within minutes of finishing the new setup. All this from a non-technical end user.
Not that I lack faith in Jean’s technical abilities, but I don’t think that would have been the case had she been trying to install Windows XP. She’d have had drivers to contend with, configuring network, then literally HOURS of patches to contend with.
And this is assuming of course that she even got through the installation process, which isn’t exactly very user friendly compared to Ubuntu’s.
So she was able to install and configure Ubuntu… but not only that, she’s USING Ubuntu. She can easily adapt to it, and even welcomed the change, which, while not as common an attitude as I’d like to see, is a refreshing one.
The selfish perspective
The selfish angle I have with this change in her computing habits comes from providing support. I informed Jean that I’d happily provide support for her going forward in Ubuntu, but it wouldn’t be what she’s used to.
Most of her “support” will consist of “how do I” questions, rather than “HELP! THIS IS BROKEN!”. And there wouldn’t be any more of the “can you come by for the bi-annual cleanup operation because my computer is starting to run really slow again” requests. There won’t be anything like antivirus needed, nor any spyware countermeasures. Things will just work. Which means I am providing less overall support in the end.
There is a third aspect to this, a philosophical one. Jean is just one more user who has broken away from the chains of Windows lock-in, and has taken a big step toward a much brighter future where computing is concerned.
While I expect there WILL be some stumbling blocks along the way — there always are when it comes to such a big change in userland — I also expect that down the road, Jean won’t be looking back once she genuinely appreciates how much easier it is to do things in Ubuntu as compared to Windows, and how much less headache and frustration there is in the Linux world in general when one doesn’t have to deal with all the baggage that comes with Microsoft’s approach to everything.
My new policy of “I’ll support you in technology on the condition that you move toward Linux” might sound like it’s a bit heavy-handed. But it accomplishes one main thing: it ensures that if I am providing computer support for friends and relatives, it is on terms that I find a lot more agreeable than with the years of Windows support I’ve provided.
Because the alternative is that those friends and relatives seek support elsewhere (which of course means I’m off the hook), which might sound cruel of me, but if any of you have had to do this, you’d understand the predicament. Better still, you’d understand the frustration of fixing the same problems, again and again, involved with Windows, and see the puzzling phenomenon of those same users continuing to cling to Windows despite the trouble, headache and expense involved in doing so.
Not everyone is going to be as receptive to Linux as my Aunt Jean was; on the contrary, I think where Jean saw lots of opportunity for a new way of doing things, most people react with “OMG THIS IS DIFFERENT! PUT WINDOWS BACK!”, and that’s to be expected. But I think the important thing is to stick to your guns, and keep to that bargain. You’ll find that in doing so, those technically challenged friends and relatives will either be easily-supported converts, or will no longer bother you with Windows problems that need to be constantly untangled.
And isn’t that the goal anyway?