So, with Ubuntu installed, I went on to configure a basic setup for my mother, and see if she could find her way around the first time she gave it a try.
The first problem I encountered was that her wireless connection did not work, even though it had worked in the LiveCD. I tried configuring it both through NetworkManager and through network-admin, but none of them worked. A problem like this could really be a showstopper if one would not have a wired connection, as my mother has.
The next thing I did was enabling all Ubuntu repositories, installing Ubuntu Restricted Extras, installing all the updates and installing a firewall. There was a problem with Flash, that has been lingering about for way too long. Luckily, a workaround was available.
My mother did not really trust the absence of a virus scanner, even after I told her that there is close to no risk to encounter a virus. And even if she’d encounter one, it’d be quite difficult for it to do anything. If she really persists, however, I guess I’ll just install a virus scanner to comfort her. In fact, I might just try and see if she manages to install one by herself, which she couldn’t do on Windows.
She also asked me whether she could have an icon on her desktop to read her email. Though I’d prefer it if she had figured that out by herself (she hadn’t played around with Ubuntu yet), I dragged the Evolution menu item onto her desktop. The icon was too small for a desktop icon, which I had to solve using “Strech icon” from the context menu. It’s things like that that make an OS feel “rough”.
I decided I’d try to make Ubuntu more attractive by enabling Compiz. This required the activation of a restricted driver, the NVIDIA accelerated graphics driver for newer cards. After enabling this driver, however, Ubuntu could only use a resolution of 1024×768, which was too low for her monitor. I tried to select another graphics card in the Screens and Graphics application, which resulted in the screen being distorted so much that it was impossible to see and do anything. That can’t really be blamed on Ubuntu, because it is quite stupid for me to be selecting a graphics card that was not present…
Luckily, the Screens and Graphics application is smart enough to make backups of
/etc/xorg.conf before changing it, so on the command line I managed to restore the original version upon which everything worked again.
However, I had to disable the restricted driver, as the resolution was really too low, and without that driver, Compiz could not be enabled. Too bad.
Then, with all the configuration done, it was time for my mother to try out Ubuntu. I left her alone to see how far she’d get alone, but within seconds she already called for me because she could not login. I told her her username had to be all lowercase, after which it worked, but I suppose gdm could’ve lowercased her username automatically. Or perhaps clicking her username in a list of users would’ve been best… Like you can in Windows.
The first thing my mother mentioned, was how much she liked the chocolate-wallpaper that is Ubuntu’s default. She liked the Ubuntu theme a lot less though, we’ll see if she starts looking to set a new one herself or whether I have to help her. She also used a different theme in Windows, but hadn’t set that up herself.
What my mother did not like, and what I hadn’t expected myself, was how little was actually translated to Dutch. Though the English language has its charms, our native language, Dutch, is beautiful too, so it would be nice if it would be usable in Dutch.
However, it turned out that the Dutch translation team was not to be blamed, because for some reason Dutch language support wasn’t fully installed. The Language Support application quickly fixed this. However, things like that obviously aren’t supposed to happen.
One innovative tool that is included in Ubuntu’s installer is MigrationAssistance, which can copy over documents and settings from other installed operating systems. It leaves much to be desired, however. Apart from the lack of updates (it still only supports Windows XP) it also didn’t work like it should. Firstly, it copied all files to English folders (Documents, Music, etc.) even though it ought to copy them to their Dutch equivalents (Documenten, Muziek, etc.).
The biggest problem, however, was that it only copied half of her documents. As half of her documents weren’t really useful, I deleted the folders Ubuntu had automatically created, and make symbolic links to her documents folder on her Windows hard drive. Not only does this solve the problem of her not being able to reach all her documents, it also made sure that the documents on her Windows installation are always synchronized with those on her Ubuntu installation.
Then my mother asked me if she could also access her archived emails. Since Outlook Express had removed all her emails from the server, I could not fetch them, so she had to reboot into Windows. I later tried to figure out whether it was possible to export her emails from Outlook into Evolution, but unfortunately, Outlook saves the emails in some proprietary format which could not be easily exported. In the end, I did manage to retrieve her emails, but it was a cumbersome process, involving installing Thunderbird twice and painstakingly recreating all her folders manually in Evolution.
Another thing my mother missed was auto-capitalization in OpenOffice.org. Even though I regard it a bad habit not to type capital letters yourself, especially with her being a teacher, I decided to shove aside my own moral objections and see if I could configure OpenOffice.org to do that. Luckily, it was a simple configuration option, so now my mother can indulge in her auto-capitalization habits again.
While I was configuring OpenOffice.org, I figured I’d also set it to save in Microsoft Word 97/2000/XP .doc format. I am really passionate about open standards, and would very much have preferred her to be able to use the OpenDocument format, however, I cannot really ask her to ask her collegues to install a free word processor every time she needs to email them a document.
All in all, there were still quite a few problems in getting started with Ubuntu. The wireless connection, the Flash plugin, the Evolution icon, the lowercase username, the language, the restricted driver, all problems that Ubuntu needs work on. Do note, though, that apart from the wireless connection and the restricted driver, these are all minor problems (the language would have been correctly installed if Ubuntu would be pre-installed on her computer). Other problems, like those with MigrationAssistance and the access to old email, are only present because she is moving away from a Windows installation. Had Ubuntu been the only operating system on a new computer, she would not have to deal with lost documents and emails.
Therefore, I think we can reach a preliminary conclusion: when someone wants to switch to Ubuntu from Windows, there is definitely a need for someone to help ease the transition and solve problems with the migration. Therefore, I will no longer encourage people to switch to Ubuntu; no, I will offer them my help in case they would like to give it a try.
However, the question remains whether Ubuntu can take on Windows as a consumer operating system pre-installed on computers. Had Ubuntu had the same market share as Windows, driver support for the wireless and graphics cards would not have been a problem, leaving only minor issues, just like Windows has them, to be dealt with. In the coming period, we’re going to see whether my mother can also find her way around Ubuntu…