It’s time to face it: Linux is not coming to the desktop. Ever.

While it was great fun trying to convert my mother to Ubuntu, this experiment ended up in a complete failure. Linux is not ready for the desktop, and never will be, too.

After I installed Ubuntu, she did give it a few tries. However, as can be expected when one gets to know a new operating system, she was not immediately at home at her new system. For example, as she was used to from Outlook, she expected new emails to automatically appear in her inbox, while Evolution expected her to click a button. Sure, Evolution can probably be configured to check for new emails automatically, but what did she know?

The problem was not that she found the way Ubuntu did things better or worse than the way Windows did it. No, the biggest hurdle was that she did not at once know how to do what she wanted to do. And instead of asking me how to perform certain actions, she quickly rebooted into Windows to do whatever she wanted to do.

As time passed by, she would no longer even bother booting into Ubuntu – she’d rather go straight to trusted ol’ Windows. Occasionally, she’d use Ubuntu per my request. However, not having used it regularly, she’d already forgot how to receive new emails, giving her yet more reason not to boot into Ubuntu next time. I’ve now reached a point where I no longer even bother trying to make her give Ubuntu another shot, as I know it is not really voluntary anymore.

So, Ubuntu is not the promised Linux distribution that will bring open source to the desktop. However, I do not think this is because Ubuntu is not good enough. Heck, even if Microsoft were still shipping Windows ME Ubuntu would not conquer the world.

On the other hand, I am sure that in a few years, my mother will have shelled out a lot of money to purchase Windows Vista and a computer that can handle it. In fact, she will even get to learn how to use it.

Why? Because Windows Vista will be forced upon her. Heck, she, and most “normal consumers” with her, never expected anything else! In a while, a lot of her applications will no longer work on Windows XP (e.g. virus scanners), and even Windows XP itself will no longer be supported. She will start receiving .docx documents that she cannot open in XP. Slowly but steadily, Windows Vista will be shoved up her throat.

When that happens, the easiest step to take is to buy a new computer. With Vista. Without her data. It probably is a lot of work to transfer all her documents, and I have already decided that I won’t be the one to do that. However, data or no data, she will be using Vista.

She will also have to put up with the quirks of Vista like she does with XP’s now and didn’t with Ubuntu’s. She will get to learn how to retrieve her newest emails and she will learn to click the Windows logo in the bottom left-hand corner instead of the “Start” button.

Bottom line: most people, including my mother, are not going to switch operating systems unless they have no other choice. It’s just more effort than their computer is worth to them, which they’d rather solve by coughing up a lot of money. Better functionality is not desired as their current setup just “works” (i.e. it does what they have learned to expect it to do), and ideological superiority is not worth the effort either.

I will keep maintaining the Ubuntu installation on my mother’s computer, though. When her Windows XP installation starts to deteriorate and she is thinking about buying a new computer, she might use Ubuntu as a temporary solution until she bought herself a new system. And perhaps, just perhaps, she will like it so much that she will abandon the idea of a new pc for a few more years.

Besides, a friend from my football team approached me of his own accord, asking which Linux distribution I’d recommend to him as he’d like to give one a spin. I recommended Ubuntu, but 7.10 did not work for him due of some graphics driver problem with which I cannot help him either. However, he is willing to try again in two months, when 8.04 is released. There still is hope 🙂

In reply to comments

The following comment by byrningbunny is a very accurate illustration of my conclusions:

Vinno, the old do want to learn new things. A few generations ago, we were the ones that pushed the production of desktop pcs, video games and personal apps. (Not to mention your bosses who created the departments and some of the companies you work for.) I think he’s on to something here. I’ve been interested in changing for years (enough so that I clicked on this link), but my experience with Windows has been so fraught with frustration that the idea of trying something new, with which I’ve had no experience, and with which I have little prospect of support if my computer doesn’t work properly, is clearly enough to keep me from making the move.

Who really has time to do the research and discover all of this info? And why would they? What would prompt them to do so? Honestly, Linux has never been presented to the general populus. It’s a techie secret and I’m guessing you all enjoy that. Step outside for a sec and reread these comments from an “old person’s” perspective. A dual-boot OS?!! Really. How many of your parents have any need to know that is even possible? It sounds very condescending. So now imagine you are a non-techie, old person who needs support. You don’t know the correct terminology and the first question anyone ever asks you is, “is it plugged in?” How anxious would you be to join in the fray?

I’m just saying . . .

This article also resulted in a few comments, the general gist of which I am a bit disappointed in. They mostly seemed to be motivated by a personal preference for a certain Linux distribution. I’ve tried to reason why I thought Ubuntu has not convinced my mother, and concluded that this is a problem with any Linux distribution, or every operating system that is not Windows, for that matter.

Also, I do not appreciate comments about my intellectual capacity. Thanks.

Anyway, I’ve replied to all the points made that I read up till now:

To all those who are saying I should’ve used a different distribution: you didn’t get the point. I can repeat this experiment for ever if I were to use all Linux distributions/BSDs. It wouldn’t have mattered, my mother wouldn’t be convinced.

Perhaps KDE might be more familiar with the menu in the bottom left, but it is still greatly different. It wasn’t just the email retrieval problem – she also didn’t know were to find her documents, etc. All other operating systems are just inherently different.

Plus I think that you are judging by one user experience whether the Linux desktop is ready or not. That’s just rubbish man – talking crazy here.
It’s all about habit. People are creatures of habit.
Your mom was probably using M$ Windows for all of her life. Its not that easy to just switch to Linux a long time Windows user. And believe me Linux is ready it is the Windows users who are not ready because of their monolithic minds

Exactly. Even if Linux is “ready”, it’s not coming to “the” desktop. Right as it says in the title.

If you are trying to push an operating system on someone, you could at least find out how to freaking open mails automatically in a program and help them out with it. How hard would that be?

Yes, I have supported my mother helping her to do things as much as possible. However, this meant that she first had to call me (if I even was around), which means waiting, which she didn’t want to do. I did a lot of configuration, I really did, and you can read about that in the previous posts.

Also, I wasn’t really trying to “push it on her”. In the beginning, she seemed open to the idea, so that’s how it started.

Technology is still new, the old wont want to learn new stuff but few generations and we all will be using linux.

A few generations and we won’t even be using computers the way we do today 😉

In fact, I’m really wondering how I’m going to keep up once I’m 50 years old 😛

My mom uses only Linux. SuSE 10.1, because that was what I was using at the time. She had used Windows 98 for FreeCell and the Internet. She enjoys more games on Linux and uses Thunderbird and Firefox. I’ll be back home for her 80th birthday this summer and will set up a web-cam and ssh so I can log in remote to add new features and games. Her PC is dual boot but she never uses Windows.

But that’s not really average, is it? Most people nowadays (or at least, here in the Netherlands) are used to Windows XP, being the only system they have ever used. It’s vendor lock-in that is hurting Linux’s uptake.

Also since your article was about ubuntu wouldnt it have been more accurate to title it “ubuntus not coming to the desktop ever” rather than linux.

No. In the article I’ve clearly outlined why I think Ubuntu did not manage to convince my mother, and it wasn’t because of it being Ubuntu. It was because it wasn’t Windows, because it wasn’t forced upon her. This holds true for all Linux distributions.

Unfortunately, what you said is true: Most people will default to their familiar OS/technology. That’s why we still have fax. But hopefully, that’ll decrease more and more, and the barriers become more broken down.

I hope so too 🙂

Just one question: Why did you want your mother to use linux? If she is fine with using Windows it’s allright. You’re talking about OS not religion. There’s nothing wrong with using Windows. People are used to and that’s OK. They probably even like the danger of viruses and wasting time for systemadminastration like defragging etc.

If you really wanted to make her switch to linux you would have had to talk to her: About FOSS, Restriction, Community, Security etc.

I did. I tried to make her use Ubuntu because she was open to the idea in the first place. Unfortunately, she has changed her mind now that she knows the effort it requires. Apparently, even if she might like the ideology behind open source, she does not think it is worth it.

However, rest assured that I will keep stressing the moral advantages of open source 😉

About those cheap computers…

A few people have pointed out that Linux might still enter homes through being pre-installed on cheap PC’s, and I have to admit that that does sound viable. In a few years, this might be a way that my mother still gets to use Linux.

When people buy a cheap computer, they are expecting to have to invest a bit more effort and thus might be willing to get to know their new system. The danger is that the experience on these low-end machines will be associated with the operating system, thus making them unwilling to run it on their high-end machines. But let’s not be pessimistic and assume their is a bright future for Linux ahead 😉


About screen resolutions, email, scanning and themes

A few days in, my mother still isn’t convinced of the superiority of Ubuntu.

In my previous post I explained that I could not enable Compiz because Nvidia’s restricted driver only allowed screen resolutions up to 1024×768.
However, it appears that my mother complained about the resolution being too high! My brother, even though he suffers Linuxphobia, easily found how to change it so my mother is now running at a ridiculously low resolution 😉
In any case, this allowed me to enable Compiz. I did so without telling her – and so far, she doesn’t seem to have noticed. I’m sure it’ll at that little extra touch to the experience though.
Meanwhile, ikkefc3 left a very helpful comment, so it now it possible to use a higher resolution, were my mother to want that.

Then my mother also had a question about receiving new emails in Evolution – new emails wouldn’t land in her inbox automatically like it did in Outlook Express. I told her I’d come to help her in a sec, but when I arrived she had already found out by herself she just needed to push she Verzenden/Ontvangen- (Send/Receive-) button. Very cool.
I suggested that there surely would be an option in Evolution’s settings so it would also check automatically, but she said it was fine this way too.

As I mentioned in my first post I was afraid that the Epson DX8450 scanner/printer-combination might not fully work. Since there wasn’t any printer ink left I haven’t been able to test that, but scanning indeed did not work.
However, using a forum post on the Ubuntu Forums by user wflu I managed to install the drivers recommended by Epson and scanning now works. Quite likely, printing will also work without a problem.

So what’s next? Well, I’m planning to look for a better GTK theme together with my mother, because I agree with her that the default one is just too bulky. Together with Compiz, most, if not everything, configured and everything working right now, I’d say that Ubuntu might have become quite appealing. Let’s hope my mother agrees 🙂

The first steps: problems with setting up Ubuntu

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 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 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, 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…


If this post is difficult to read, that’s because I started writing it before the installation and finished it today. And because I was a bit frustrated, but you’ll read about that…

So here I am, starting off with the Ubuntu installation on my mother’s PC.

As I described in The Partition Table I want to resize her current Windows partition in order to make room for a /boot partition.

Since I was not sure whether Ubuntu’s partition resizing in the installer (after “Manual partitioning”) would also keep existing data safe, I’d decided to play safe and resize it with an application explicitly meant for the task. In Windows, since that’s what already was installed, and I also figured that would be the safest bet when trying to resize and NTFS partition.

So I did a search and found guide on “Resizing An Existing Partition On A Single Hard Drive”. That guide recommended Acronis Disk Director Suite. That application unfortunately wasn’t open source (hey, it’s a Windows application – what d’you expect?) but I figured I’d give it a try. It was a 15-day trial (a trial, how long has it been since I encountered those…) but since I just needed it for this one job, that didn’t really matter.

During this little adventure back in the Windows world, for me, Ubuntu had already won. As I said, the Acronis Disk Director Suite, apart from having a painfully long name, was just a free trial. What struck me the most, however, was the installation. I already knew that installation in Windows isn’t as easy as it is in Ubuntu, but the following screen was really awful:

(Oh, and the checkbox at the bottom was checked by default)

I certainly hope I haven’t delivered my mother some spyware, as I notice I’ve become a bit careless in the Linux world 😉

Then the installation file for the application was bigger than the application itself, and after I had completed the installation, I received the following screen:

But of course, I shouldn’t be judging Windows – my mother should. So, I fired up Acronis…

Now I was really getting tired. OK, a reboot then. After the reboot the application finally worked, so I went on an configured it to resize the main partition. However, when I wanted it to apply the changes I made, I got the following:


OK, if I couldn’t do it in Windows, I’d do it using the installer and assume that the developers have taken enough care to make sure it won’t erase data, comforted a bit by Ubuntu’s partitioning guide.

My problems weren’t over yet, however. The external hard drive, an HP Personal Media Drive, didn’t get recognized at first. After a lot of reviews I figured I’d try connecting it to my own computer. As soon as I did that, Xubuntu presented me with an error message saying the drive had been unmounted incorrectly, and gave me a terminal command I could use to mount it again.

When I entered that command, I could correctly mount the drive on my own computer, so I unmounted it again and put it back in the in-built slot in my mother’s HP computer. No luck again. So I took it back to my own computer yet again, where I was told gain that it had been shut down incorrectly. After having executed the command again, I decided that this time, I would not put it in the slot HP made in the computer for its own external hard drives, but instead, I’d connect it through a USB cable like I did on my own computer.

Luckily, this worked. Now came the easy part: Ubuntu’s installation. I’m happy to be able to say that Ubuntu’s installer successfully chopped off 500 MB of the Windows partition to install /boot on, and that it also successfully installed onto the external hard drive.

After the installation, I encountered a few problems during configuration, and my mother encountered a few problems during use, but I’ll save that for the next post 😉

The partition table

With a bit of help from Sjors I devised the following partition table for my mother’s computer.

First of all, there’s the main hard drive that Windows is currently installed on. Resizing the NTFS partition using Ubuntu’s installer, I’ll make another, ext3, partition for /boot of 500MB, which might be bigger than needed, but it’s not like she can’t miss that space…

Then there’s the external 160GB hard drive which will be fully used for Ubuntu. I’ll create an ext3 partition of 30GB to store /, a swap-partition of 10 GB (yes, that is more than enough, too) and I’ll fill up the rest with an ext3 partition for /home.

The reasoning behind the /boot partition on the first hard drive is that it can now safely boot even when the external hard drive is disconnected, and if something would go wrong with the other Linux partitions, it would still be able to boot Windows.

Then there’s the /home partition. This might save me a lot of headaches – when there’s a problem I can do a fresh installation of Ubuntu without erasing all documents and settings my mother created. Of course, were this situation ever to occur it would be really shameful for Ubuntu, but on the other hand, it’s a plus that this is possible. And of course, another situation where it would be useful is when I want to install a newer version, though it might cause problems with outdated configuration files.

Of course, if anyone has any further suggestions for the partition table they are more than welcome. Let’s hope everything works out as expected tomorrow…

There’s good news and bad news

I was reading through the Ubuntu wiki in order to be fully prepared to install a dual-boot system, when I read the following:

Most systems which are delivered with Windows already installed also come with some sort of recovery or re-installation disk. There is a recent tendency for companies to try to save money and not ship such a disk. Instead, they provide you a hidden partition on which there is a recovery tool and an image of the pre-installed system.

So I enquired with my mother whether she had such a CD, and she pointed me at a box containing everything related to her computer. And shockingly, indeed there was no CD anywhere to be found! I can’t actually believe HP did not provide her with this CD – after all, she paid for Windows when she bought the computer, and therefore is fully entitled to the installation/recovery CD.

However, looking for the CD, I did find something else: a 160 GB external hard drive!

That really is good news, as it will make the installation of Ubuntu a lot easier. Instead of having to free a partition on her current hard drive (which I was already defragmenting) I can now just completely wipe the external one.

The only thing I might experience troubles with is the Master Boot Record – my mother does not have a floppy drive and I’m not exactly sure what consequence it might have to wipe Windows’ MBR.

I’ve planned tomorrow to be the big day – the day on which I’ll do the actual installation. Stay tuned!

The Ubuntu Experiment

This isn’t the regular granny-test – this time, we’ll put Ubuntu’s famous user-friendliness to the test the right way.

In this experiment, Ubuntu will face Windows, but it’s going to be a fair game. This means that I will not customise Ubuntu to make it easier to use – no, it will come exactly as-is.

Ubuntu screenshotAll of this wouldn’t be possible without my dear mother. She is a fairly typical computer user. She does basic things like reading her email and browsing the web, but now and then tries some more advanced things like installing Google Earth. Most important, however, is the fact that she is open-minded towards another operating system.

The version we will be starting off with is 7.10 (“Gutsy Gibbon”), as that is the most recent one at the time of writing. Of course, it will be interesting to see if she would like to user newer versions as they get released.

I will install Ubuntu Restricted Extras and the Medibuntu packages (with which I have no experience at all). Why do I do that?
Well, the reason Ubuntu cannot include these restricted packages is because they cannot include licence fees in the price (there is no price), and because they are not (fully) open source.
Now, when Ubuntu would come pre-installed on computers, the license fees could easily be included in the price. Furthermore, as we are not testing which operating system is better ideologically (we know that already, don’t we?), we are testing which operating system is better functionally – therefore I feel comfortable enabling non-open source software. For the same reason, I will also enable any Restricted Drivers available.

Why Ubuntu?

One of the reasons I chose Ubuntu, is because I think it is one of the user-friendliest distributions out there. The main reason, however, is because I use Xubuntu so it’s easiest for me to help, just as my brothers can help her with Windows problems.
So why don’t I give her Xubuntu? After all, being an Ubuntu derivative, Xubuntu’s goal is to be user-friendly too. Well, basically it is because I believe Xubuntu’s (or rather: Xfce’s) target audience is a bit different. Xfce is better for people who like to tweak their system more while still retaining speed and sane defaults, putting it somewhere in between KDE and GNOME. For those people (me), I still believe Xubuntu is extremely user-friendly.

Why my mother?

My mother has recently been complaining about her Windows XP computer becoming too slow. To my great surprise and delight, when I jokingly suggested installing Ubuntu on her computer next to Windows, she agreed. She is the perfect test candidate as she is quite the average adult computer user, not a gamer and, well, my mother! This means I’m there to help her (I’m still in high school, so I live with my mother) whenever she encounters problems. Furthermore, I’m there to write down her experiences and problems so we can finally really see whether Ubuntu has become as good as or better than Windows.

What about my bias?

Of course, being a great open source-proponent, I’ve got a great bias towards making Ubuntu a success. Of course, I liked reading yet another granny-test and see Ubuntu coming out as the clear winner, however, I was always disappointed by the amount of work that had to be put in before Ubuntu was a success. Therefore, I’ll really try to fairly document the experiences, and to honest admit it when Ubuntu isn’t up to the task. Then Windows-proponents can always point towards this blog when someone claims Ubuntu to be better than Windows functionally – until the next release, that is 😉
But of course, when Ubuntu turns out to be a success for my mother, I will make sure that everybody gets to hear it, and I will of course use this blog as proof 🙂

The future

Well, obviously this makes for a great New Year’s resolution, and I truly hope this will turn out to be a success. Of course, all suggestions (e.g. are there any other preparations I should take?) are welcome, as is feedback. I hope I do not run into severe hardware problems, as that is not my speciality (she has just bought an Epson scanner/printer combination, so my fingers are crossed…), therefore I hope I will find a lot of knowledgeable readers. All in all I’m extremely excited, and I hope you’ll all follow along (you can subscribe to my RSS feed or get notified of new posts by email).

Oh, and did I mention that my twelve-year-old sister has agreed to me putting Rockbox on her mp3-player? Linux’ momentum certainly is growing 🙂

Finally, I would like to point out that the content of this blog is licensed under a CC-BY-SA license, so feel free to copy this and later posts as long as you link back here 🙂