In the Linux comfort zone...

In the Linux comfort zone...

When I go to visit my mother (as I will be doing shortly) I feel like tearing my hair out. "Oh," I hear you say, "one of THOSE stories". But no, it's not. She lets me enjoy my usual sleeping habits, lets me put my shoes on the couch, and eat whatever I want. But there is one huge difference between my house and her house, and for the two weeks a year that I stay with her there is just one point of tension. I'll set the scene:

"Mum", I'll say from the couch of her small apartment, "Would it be okay if I use the computer?" "Of course!" My mother will exclaim (hey, she only sees me twice a year, so she's pretty enthusiastic). "I'll just get it out."

Now what you should understand by this statement is that her apartment is VERY SMALL, and while there are visitors it is nigh impossible for the good computer (which is a laptop anyway) to have a permanent resting place. So she'll pull out her new laptop, put it on the table, plug in the cords, boot it up, and dial up. All this leaves me feeling alert, but not alarmed. My set up at home involves desks and accessories and monitors and wireless whatnots and broadband and it's all on twenty four-seven just in case I have the desire to, say, google myself at 3AM. (It hasn't happened yet. BUT IT MIGHT!) Basically, I am used to mooching over to the computer any time I want. But all that's okay. Until she's set it all up, logged in, does whatever she does and then announces that the computer is ready. And then I sit down and encounter...

Windows XP. Riiigggghhhtt. It's okay, I think to myself. I can do this. I've used all the Windows versions since 3.1. I tentatively peer at the screen. It doesn't feel very friendly. I point and click on the Internet Explorer icon. It's slow loading - I start imagining all the filthy little viruses I could potentially be contracting and I feel like washing my metaphorical hands. IE loads up and I want to load all my regular web pages so I can be in touch with the outside world... and I can't open tabs. Where is my firefox? Where are my friendly little icons? Where are all the bits I just know how to do? Where?

That's the problem. I use Ubuntu at home. And I love it. Put me in front of a Windows machine and I get a bit nervy. My breathing becomes laboured. And my mother accuses me of being hungover, when I'm really just suffering withdrawal symptoms.

And then I try to make a very important point to my mother. Again.

"Mum." I'll say. "You know, I really think you'd be happier with free software. Seriously. You have no idea how much better you'll feel. I have a live CD in my bag. You could just..."

"No." Insists my mother. "You don't understand, Bridget, that the major problem free software advocates have to combat is the inertia of people like me," she'll announce smugly. "People who KNOW free software is an excellent alternative. But just don't want to change. Because we have to learn a whole new system."

What she doesn't get is that I feel the same when I have to use her computer. It's all about what you're used to. I was used to Windows. Now I'm used to Ubuntu (and it really didn't take long!) and I find using Windows very tiring. Even if there weren't all the cons about using Windows, I wouldn't change back. I have the same inertia as my mother, but in the opposite direction. And so we've been at this impasse for some time.

So really, we all just need to hop out of our comfort zones and try something new. When I get there this time, I've decided to install Firefox, just casually, and leave it there... who knows, she might even learn to love it like I do.



Mauro Bieg's picture
Submitted by Mauro Bieg on

Wonderful post! I know exactly what you're talking about.
I mean, I couldn't live without a computer all day on and broadband. What if I want to answer a small question and Wikipedia isn't near? What if I want quickly to write some thoughts down - paper?!- what century are we living in? I'd never be able to find that piece of text again, but on my hard disk it's save and searchable. When I see people who don't look at their computer as an integrated bodypart as I do, touching the mouse as if it were alien, thinking which icon to click on, slowly typing letter for letter while looking at the keyboard - for a long time I couldn't understand how it could be so difficult to get used to something new.

But I guess it's the same thing about all changes or switches; from paper to Computer, from IE to Firefox, from Windows to GNU/Linux (and always vice versa) - a change isn't primarily something we humans like that much, even if we're convinced that it might be worth it. So we just have to tell us over and over again that we should give us a push and hop out in new waters. And probably the best trick to get used to the new stuff is not using the old one. As we GNU/Linux advocates always say: "Just try to use GNU/Linux one month without using Windows and you'll see that you can do everything on GNU/Linux too." Maybe that's true for some other things too.

Gianluca Pignalberi's picture

That's a matter of lucky. My mother no longer uses computers. She only used one when we switched to Euro and, since I programmed the application she needed under Linux (C/GTK), she learnt how to use Linux (Mandrake) as everybody learn how to use Windows.
But now, ask my mama to change her washing machine...

Terry Hancock's picture

My Mom and Dad have been "early adopters" of a lot of technologies, and my Mom took to Linux fairly well. Although the price for this is that I have to be her system administrator -- she doesn't even want to know the root password, even though I keep slipping her little pieces of paper with it written down.

She has some definite frustrations though, and goes back to her old Windows machine for some things, like Excel. I showed her Gnumeric, but it has some missing features relative to Excel (which I sure never would've noticed, but my Mom's a power spreadsheet user), such as allowing cel styles to be driven by the data contained in them. Some of the other spreadsheets do have this feature, so I may have screwed up by showing her Gnumeric instead of, say, OpenOffice Calc.

Also, due partly to my ineptitude with her Windows 98SE, I'm not able to properly use Samba, so she still can't print or share files between the two computers. It's so frustrating -- I think I've got the server set up perfectly (that took 15 minutes), but I don't know how file or printer sharing works in Windows!. After many hours of poking around in Network Neighborhood, I'm no wiser about it. And I just don't get over there often enough, so the problem has sat unsolved for months.

PenguinPete's picture

While I have been a life-long geek and a Linux user for a decade, my family lagged behind. I use Linux on my home office machine but the rest of the family kept with Windows on the general-use machine. Tired of being in-house 24/7 tech-support for Windows ("Da-a-ad! A virus is eating the DLL files!" "Honey, what does illegal exception mean again?"), first I casually installed FOSS ports of apps on the Windows machine one at a time. The curious eventually investigated. Next I slapped a second cheap hard-drive on it and installed Red Hat on the second drive, making it a dual-boot, and showed everyone how to switch back and forth. I stepped back for a couple of years and let the whole household slowly learn at their own pace.

When I checked one night and discovered the Linux install reported continuous uptime over 6 months, I knew at last the entire household was weaned. We've been Windows-(and problem)-free ever since. Bonus points if you have young kids in the house. Kids take to Linux like ants to a picnic (gee, could the thousands of free games be part of that?), and thereafter will cheerfully lead the adults to computer salvation.

The other way is to make a gift of a live CD (Knoppix 5.0 just released, and I plan to review it as "Linux in Silk Pajamas". This is one *luxurious* distro!). Give it away with a casual shrug and the remark "Play with it whenever you feel like it." Left to their own devices, even the stubbornest will eventually get at least curious and play with it at idle moments.

Author information

Bridget Kulakauskas's picture


Bridget has a degree in Sociology and English and a keen interest in the social implications of technology. She has two websites: Illiterarty and The Top 10 Everything. She also handles accounts and administration for Free Software Magazine.