My mom is a Linux-using grandma who travels a lot. Recently she required medical attention while in another city, and wound up in hospital for several weeks. I felt very sorry for her. Yes, for the medical concerns, of course, but also because she was cut off from the internet.
Even her brother, my octogenarian uncle, has finally retired his opinion that the internet is no more than a passing fad, and has gotten wired. It’s just not optional anymore. Imagine how frustrating it must be for the last holdouts being told to “google it,” or “visit our website for more information,” or to hear of the great deals to be had online now that the Canadian dollar is worth more than its American counterpart (though you wouldn’t know it to look at prices in Canada’s brick and mortar stores).
And yet, in spite of how wired as a population we have become, the hospital had only two computers for patient use, and Mom couldn’t figure out how to use them to send email. I’m not sure what the problem was, since she’s comfortable using her ISP’s webmail, but apparently these two machines were hopeless. Her one connection to the outside world was her mobile phone, and she learned the very valuable lesson to never travel without the adapter to recharge it.
Shortly after her release and return home, I visited and brought a MacBook for her, since it seemed to be something she should have if she’s going to be getting herself trapped in hospitals for weeks at a time. Being in hospital is about the closest most of us will come to being in prison, and expecting them to adequately accommodate our networking needs may be unwise.
I was also thinking that it was about time to upgrade her old machine, and that the MacBook could serve as a replacement. Prior to leaving, I set up things I knew she would want, such as Firefox and NeoOffice (an OS X fork of OpenOffice.org), then, while there, got a wireless router set up so she could use the MacBook anywhere in the house, and made sure it would be easy for her to connect peripherals. The trackpad that comes with the MacBook is not a joy to learn. I know people who, after weeks of practice, have come to manage well enough, but I can’t see ever preferring it or the MacBook keyboard to a real mouse and real keyboard, especially if working for more than 20 minutes.
While she thought the MacBook was very cool, she made clear that she had absolutely no intention of switching from Linux (Fedora 7). After messing with OS X myself, experimenting with it, and setting up the thing, I could sympathize with that position. About the only things the MacBook has over Fedora for the “average user” are portability, and, in Mom’s case, better printer support. Every now and then Fedora doesn’t seem to recognize her USB laser printer and requires a reboot, whereas the printer and the MacBook were fast friends the moment I plugged in the printer’s USB cable.
In anticipation of the switch, however, I installed VMWare‘s Fusion, their virtual machine application for OS X. Some time ago I posted about running multiple operating systems in virtual machines, and at that time suspected that a company called Parallels might be more on the ball than VMWare with regard to the home market. My encounter with Fusion has changed my mind about that. I had tried Parallels, but the virtual machine I created couldn’t boot the Fedora 7 install DVD. Fusion, on the other hand, didn’t even require physical media; its virtual machine was perfectly happy to boot from the disk image I had created the boot dvd from. I have never seen a faster Linux install, and VMWare is even matching the $79.99 price for Parallel’s similar offering.
My idea had been that if Mom wanted to switch, she could still use Linux in a virtual machine for anything there wasn’t a suitable Mac equivalent for, as well as import her old email in the event that the Mac email application couldn’t. That turned out not to be an issue, however, since she wasn’t going to switch. I offered to at least install Windows XP into a virtual machine for her, but she asked, “What would I need that for?” Indeed.
So the lesson I learned is that if you switch the average computer user (someone who doesn’t need AutoCad, multimedia authoring, or commercial computer games) to Linux, then come back a few years later offering to switch them to OS X, it’s probably not going to happen. Even an offer to augment them with Windows as an add-on in a virtual machine may be declined. Linux, it turns out, is all they need.
Which is a revelation. I had wondered for awhile there if OS X might not be a threat to Linux, but now I’m not so sure. If it is a threat, it’s not because of the operating system itself, but rather the very neat packaging that Apple does. The MacBook really is a sweet little package and could be regarded as all the computer you really need. Just go into an Apple store with a wheelbarrow full of cash and you can leave with a lighter wheelbarrow and a sweet machine with an excellent OS pre-installed. Or you can download an excellent OS (Kubuntu, superior even to Fedora, IMO) for free, for which there exists loads of excellent free software, but you have to install it yourself (not really that difficult if you don’t want to dual boot — just download an image, burn it, boot it on the machine you want to install it on, and follow the prompts).
If it was a choice between Windows or OS X, that would be a real no brainer, but Linux vs. OS X is a much tougher call. Obviously we tend to be biased towards the devil we know than the devils we know not of, but in getting to know the OS X devil I found it to be a bit of a dumb blond compared to Kubuntu, especially with regard to two things in particular: codecs and mandated dvd impairments.
When OS X runs across a multimedia file that it doesn’t have the codec to play, it doesn’t know what to do, so it asks you what program you want to use to open it. Kubuntu, on the other hand, may recognize the problem for what it is, say it doesn’t have a codec to play Windows Media files, then offer to install the relevant codec from the internet for you. Very smart.
What I’m calling mandated dvd impairments are rules with regard to dvd which have no technological reason to be, sometimes also referred to as faulty by design. This includes enforcement of region codes and inability to skip things like FBI warnings. Linux dvd players tend to be somewhat contemptuous of mandated dvd impairments, whereas Apple, being itself a corporation, plays by the corporations’ rules. Consequently, leaving Windows for OS X would be a little like jumping out of the frying pan into a much nicer sauce pan on low heat. Clearly an improvement, but if you want to escape the whole corporate control thing, Linux would be without doubt the superior choice. This isn’t simply a matter of philosophy, it directly impacts how the dvd application works and who knows what else. If you believe that “informati
on wants to be free,” you may prefer to go with the OS least likely to attempt to constrain it.
Yes, next trip out I’ll upgrade Mom to Kubuntu on better commodity PC hardware. The desktop will look pretty much the same so it will appear to be the devil she knows, but smarter, stronger, and hopefully it will get along with the printer just as well as OS X. As for the MacBook, she’s looking forward to traveling with it, and I wouldn’t be surprised if she winds up using it with iPhoto which is a very friendly digital photo manager/enhancer, a nice complement to a digital camera when traveling.
Perhaps that’s how it should be. Leave to the desktop the serious work, and let the laptop be the auxiliary for traveling. Instead of being tempted by the power of the little things to replace the desktop, just be thankful for that power on the road. Or in a hospital bed.