Linux is the best shot at a granny proof OS in 2013.

Recently I made the decision to move my personal laptop over to Linux. Being a .net C# developer, I’ll still continue to use Windows for work purposes, however Linux is now my recreational OS of choice.

I guess in many ways it has given me a new found love for tinkering, scripting and learning new things. And good Lord, Linux offers fantastic opportunities for exploring.

I’ve been so focused on the under the hood stuff that I have all but ignored one of the best features of Linux – Linux for the basic end user aka the Granny.

So let’s just get this straight. In my mind I see computer users in terms of skill and ability in this order:

  1. Elite supreme hacker
  2. Scientific / raw low level developers  
  3. Implementers (developers) —> me
  4.  Super users
  5. Power users
  6. users
  7. grannies / basic end user

So what exactly is a granny?

When I talk about a granny, I am really talking about a user that has virtually no interest in computing. They see the device as a means to perform a certain function, and have absolutely no interest in exploring beyond that.

For example, a granny might be aware of a certain news site where they are able to read current articles or watch the odd video. Grannies have no clue what drives the web, they have never heard of technologies like flash or html or what a script is, or where web pages are stored, or what a browser is. They only know if they click or tap a certain icon it opens up this white box and from there they can see news. A lot of grannies have caught on to communication over the net, and so regularly use applications like Skype. Some even have email (most don’t), some are aware of Facebook, some aren’t.

Most grannies I’ve met aren’t stupid

They simply have no interest in computers and view the device as something that should work atomically, like a TV or a car or a vacuum cleaner. One thing is clear I’ve never met even one granny who explores any aspect outside of what they are doing with the device. This isn’t fear either, this is just complete and utter lack of interest in additional capabilities they do not need. But they can tell you when the stuff they expect to work isn’t. A lot of these grannies can tell you that their experience is slow or point out why it is frustrating.

Usher in Linux

At first glance it would seem ironic that Linux the system most suitable for tinkering would be up for my nomination for the most suitable granny proof OS. But no, let’s dig deeper.

Linux is modular. Now I have yet to find the perfect granny distribution. But let’s consider the following. Let’s say our granny needed 3 applications. Internet, Email and Skype – that’s it!

Although Linux is modular and you could most likely pull all of this off without a fluffy desktop environment. We can’t really expect our granny to be typing away in the console, now can we? So we need need at least a DE, once we consider a DE, we’re now including a mass of packages that drive the DE and the WM. But consider for example : http://www.zdnet.com/a-linux-computer-for-grandpa-and-grandma-7000000436/ – based on tiny core, so this is completely possible.

Now if we had not been lazy, and only used the exact packages we need to use Internet, Email and Skype – eg: remove all packages that aren’t required, and I mean everything! What we are left with is:

LESS STUFF = LESS CAN GO WRONG

That’s right we would have about a proficient implementation of an OS as we could possibly get in 2013. With mostly all the code sitting in native C++, save a few the browser plugins.

We could pull this off with Windows by using a visual overlay on top of explorer. However this would not be without problems, since underneath we would have full blown windows running. We could turn off some unneeded services, but the entire core OS would still be sitting there in the background.

And since computers are complex, and since things can go wrong. What we really want is :

LESS stuff, Less of everything, only the essentials. 

So it stands to reason then, that with a bit of training and a modern DE on a distribution like Ubuntu or Mint that even a  granny would be able to perform mundane computing tasks with little to no problems on Linux.

I cannot say the same for a raw Windows installation – from experience with the granny user base.

So my vote is for Linux on this one.

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18 thoughts on “Linux is the best shot at a granny proof OS in 2013.

      • You’re very welcome. I’m working on revamping the build process to improve performance, decrease the size and offer a requested installation option. You might look into the OVA image (under Virtual on SourceForge) if you are planning on VM deployment. Feel free to contact me via any of the dozen methods listed on the project Support page.

  1. Where should I start?
    1.) Look into Mono as a cross-platform C# “alternative” to .NET.
    2.) What’s the difference between a “super user” and a “power user”?
    3.) I hope you’re not implying that “the Linux OS” is written in C++; the Linux kernel and major CLI tools such as GNU coreutils are written in C.
    4.) I think you need to wrap your head around the differences between a DE and a WM.
    5.) Look into ArchLinux, Gentoo, LinuxFromScratch, or Slackware as a base.
    6.) There ARE alternatives to Skype (which btw is owned by Microsoft) – Google Video chat (Hangouts or the better legacy gmail version), Ekiga, and Pidgin has some support as well.

  2. I’ve been down this road, unfortunately it isn’t long until they want to connect their iPhone or other device that will have problems with Linux. They may want to install a hidden-object style of game, which they can’t do on Linux. For this reason, I find the best option for Grannies is Windows 7. I set the taskbar setting to ‘combine when the taskbar is full’ (otherwise they can’t understand what they’re running), and pin their most used icons to the taskbar. I’ve found that Windows 8 is too confusing for them to understand and OSX is nearly as bad, particularly when it comes to closing apps; a problem for grannies on both operating systems. As much as Linux fits in theory, I have found that it fails in practice.

  3. You are on the right track, but you have chosen the wrong Linux-based OS. Based on my experience with grannies ChromeOS is the best choice (although you need to substitute Google Hangouts for Skype). The update process is less intrusive with ChromeOS. The user never has any maintenance tasks–it’s all done in the background. Just turn it on and go!

  4. Only with the creation of SteamOS do I agree with this post. The low quantity of commercial games and music stores is a non-starter for a huge swath of the population.

  5. My Grandmothers laptop hard drive bit the dust, and because of vistas many problems (the OS it came with) and the hardware of the laptop, reinstalling without sending it back to the manufacturer would be a huge hassle and almost impossible. (it was an issue with the native scsi drivers vista was packaged with). So instead i harvested a new drive from one of my old laptops, loaded a stripped down ubuntu install, and boom, 7 years later not a single problem. All she does is brows the internet. I have seen over 200 browsers open at once, and all she needs to do is reboot if she gets stuck. And because of the great stability, i only have to update it once a year or so.

  6. Hi!

    Great article! However, after several years of Linux wandering around, it still lacks easy install also easy running way of life. And no, Ubuntu is too slow for medium hardware that it’s not an improvement vs Windows.

    For the mid-user it’s worse: lack of stable apps for advanced RAW pictures or video editors is still a major issue. Besides if you have some specific hardware like a specific laptop you will stamp to the console sooner than later.

    However I’ll till try Linux’s distros from time to time after finally finding the right one for myself.

    Kind regards,
    Francisco

  7. Perhaps you’d consider changing the word “granny”, or at least picking a different one in future?

    There is a real problem in technology whereby the demographic break-down is nothing like that of wider society. This is a self-sustaining situation, where it’s acceptable to use “grannies” to mean “non-technical or ignorant users” because there are very few grandmothers active in GNU/Linux circles. I’d say that definition goes a long way towards making them feel unwelcome, and perpetuates that state of affairs.

    See also:
    http://geekfeminism.wikia.com/wiki/So_simple,_your_mother_could_do_it

  8. I miss one more user category

    BFU
    it is kind of a local abreviation but it fits. It is usualy translated as Bloody F*cking User or just BrainFree User.
    This describes users who think they are proffesionals and can do whatever they want on the computer, which makes a hell of a day for sysadmins or sometimes the whole IT department. So it is an user who clicks on every atachement, falls for any phishing and if anything goes wrong(and he does his worst to fix it first) he picks up the phone(sends and email/IM/whatever) and calls IT saying “It is broken.”

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