How I helped my mom switch from Windows to Linux

With Linux, novice users will gain a smooth, polished desktop experience with a multitude of familiar applications.
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The Large Hadron Collider is powered by Linux. Laptops on the International Space Station run on Linux. So do Instagram and Nest thermostats. Recently, we watched Ingenuity fly over Mars, an amazing robo-copter driven by… Linux! It's yet more proof of how flexible and versatile this operating system can be.

But now, the really big news. It's official. Linux can handle Mom and Dad just as well!

The story

About a year ago, I decided to migrate my mom to Linux. A year has passed, so it's time for retrospection and conclusions.

Like most of us, I'm officially Mom's Computer Admin. Mom is a lovely lady in her late 60s—a real sweetheart. Mom's computer skills are basic. Mom's computer needs are basic, too. Read the internets, send email, type text, browse and edit photos, play videos and music, call family and friends on Skype or Signal.

Until last year, she was using a Windows laptop, old but not too bad. Then one day, through deceit, threats, and obnoxious popups, Microsoft finally made her click that dreaded "UPGRADE TO WINDOWS 10" button.

My life as Mom's Computer Admin quickly turned into hell with her desperate calls for help. Why does everything look so different? Where is my app menu? What, this pile of tiles is now my app menu? Why is the computer so slow? Why does it restart daily for updates, just when I need to use it?! Why is something (she meant the hard drive) making noise all the time? What is it actually doing all the time?

And how would I know that without any ability to look into the source code?

I considered rolling back the upgrade. But with Windows 7 reaching end-of-life soon, I feared the worst: Without security updates, Mom's computer would soon become a member of countless bot networks, mining cryptocurrencies, mailing spam, and launching vicious DDOS attacks on the vital infrastructure of entire countries. And I'd be the one to clean this mess—every weekend.

Linux to the rescue

With nothing to lose, I decided to migrate her to Linux. I made "the move" five years ago and have never been happier. It surely wouldn't do harm to try it with her.

Mom was happy when I declared to fix her problems once and for all. What she didn't know is that she would become the crucial part of a year-long scientific experiment named: "Can Mom survive Linux?"

And so, one day in February 2020, I arrived from faraway Dublin with a seven-year-old Lenovo Yoga 13, which had similar specs but a much nicer screen and half the weight. After some deliberations and testing various Linux distributions on VirtualBox, I decided on the Zorin OS distribution, proudly made in Ireland. My choice was driven by the following factors:

  • It's based on Ubuntu Linux, with which I'm most familiar.
  • It closely resembles Windows 7, being carefully designed with Windows refugees in mind.
  • It feels lightweight, simple, and sufficiently conservative for Mom. No shiny macOS Big Sur glitz anywhere around!

System installation

I installed the operating system my usual way, with the /home folder on a dedicated partition to keep Mom's Stuff safe in the unlikely case of system reinstallation. It's my old trick that makes late-night distro-hopping much easier.

During installation, I chose Polish as the user interface (UI) language. Just like me, Mom is Polish to the bone. No worries, Linux seems to support every possible language, including Klingon.

Then, I installed the following applications to cover Mom's needs:

  • Skype
  • Signal for Desktop
  • Google Chrome browser
  • Geary email client
  • gThumb for photo viewing and editing
  • VLC for playing video and music
  • Softmaker Office for text editing and spreadsheets

Notice how there's no antivirus on the list. Yay!

An hour later, her Zorin OS box was ready and loaded with applications.

System configuration

I made myself Mom's Computer Admin by doing the following:

  • Created an admin account for myself
  • Turned Mom's account into non-admin
  • Installed the ssh daemon for remote unattended access
  • Added the machine to my Hamachi VPN: This way, I can securely connect via ssh without opening port 22 on the router. Hamachi is a VPN service by LogMeIn. An old-school VPN, I mean. Intended not for running Netflix from another country but for connecting computers into a secure network over the internet.
  • Enabled Uncomplicated Firewall ( ufw) and allowed ssh traffic
  • Installed AnyDesk for logging in to the desktop

With this, I have secure ssh access to Mom's laptop. I can perform periodic maintenance via shell without Mom even noticing anything. That's because Linux normally does not require a reboot after completed updates; what a miracle, how's that even possible?

Can Mom survive Linux?

Without the slightest doubt!

When I showed Mom her new PC, she did ask why this new Windows looked different again. I had to reveal that this is not Windows at all, but Linux, and explain why we all love Linux. But she picked it up quickly. The classic Zorin OS desktop is very much like her old Windows 7. I watched her find her way through the system and launch her familiar applications with ease.

She immediately noticed how much faster the computer starts and how much better it performs.

She's been asking me when I will do the usual computer cleanup so that it doesn't become slow again. I've explained that, with her average use, it won't be needed. Linux simply doesn't rot on its own as Windows does. So far, this has been true. Her PC runs as smooth and fast as on day one.

Every now and then, I ask how she feels about her new computer. She invariably answers that she's happy with it. Everything works smoothly. The computer doesn't get busy for no reason. No more interrupting her with Very Important Updates. And the menu is where it should always be. She's comfortable with her usual applications in this entirely new environment.

Over the year, I've logged in remotely a few times to run routine package upgrades. I've logged in with AnyDesk twice. Once, when Mom asked whether photos from an inserted SD card could be imported automatically into the ~/Pictures folder, and preferably into folders named by dates. Yes, gThumb can easily be made to do that with a bit of Bash. Another time, I logged in to add frequently used websites as desktop icons.

And this has been all of my effort as Mom's Linux Admin so far! At this pace, I could be Mom's Computer Admin to 50 other moms!

Summary

I hope that my story will inspire you to think about migrating to Linux. In the past, we considered Linux to be too difficult for casual users. But today I believe that the opposite is true. The less proficient computer users are, the more reasons they have to migrate to Linux!

With Linux, novice users will gain a smooth, polished desktop experience with a multitude of familiar applications. They will be much safer than on any other popular computing platform. And helping them with remote access has never been easier and more secure!

Disclaimer: This article is not promoting any of the described products, services, or vendors. I don't have any commercial interest nor associations with them. I'm not trying to suggest that these products or services are best for you, nor promising that your experience will be the same.


This article originally appeared on Let's Debug It and is reused with permission.

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Software Engineer, Technology Enthusiast, Photographer. Hi, I'm a software engineer passionately building software since 20+ years. My experience in software development goes from personal pet projects to mission-critical enterprise applications for the likes of MasterCard, Citibank, Qualcomm or Bank of America.

9 Comments

Some years ago, without warning, I switched my wife's computer from Windows to Linux (Fedora Core). I was ready for lots of complaints about "where's this?" and "how do I do this?", but surprisingly, she just rather seamlessly made the switch, with no complaints at all.
One thing that did surprise me sometime later was when Fedora switched the default boot process to "rhgb quiet", where all the serial boot messages are no longer seen, and you just get a blank screen or graphic to look at while booting goes on. She complained about the loss of all the little messages that fly by as the system boots -- not that she understood them, but I think it was comforting to know that something was happening during the boot process.

Zorin OS, So cool ??. It comes with lots of educational packages and simpler interface like Win7. Zorin OS 9 is my favorite one, that was my beginning point of Linux journey (2013 )

Great article. I didn't realize the Zorin OS is from Ireland. I switch everyone to Linux that I can. It's the best option for most people but especially seniors.

Well done!

I switched my Mom over to Linux almost ten years ago when Vista ended mainstream support. She's never looked back.

I had been trying since the early 2000's, when I abandoned Windows forever after one BSOD too many. The showstopper was Quicken (*ugh*). That was non-negotiable. So I kept trying her quicken edition via WINE every year or so.

Push came to shove in Summer 2012 after Vista went EOL. I insisted it was time to change as running unsupported Windows is just too dangerous. I suggested her two best options were to get an Apple so she could (for a price) have ready local support, or we could try upgrading to Linux at no cost and little risk. I did leave the window open for Windows, but let her know I wouldn't be able to help much as I hadn't used it for almost a decade, and hadn't used Win7 at all. She liked the Apples, but felt a little snubbed by the Apple Store staff at the time (she was 76 years old) and was reluctant to spend the large amount of money they wanted. So Linux it was!

I installed whatever Xubuntu was current at the time onto her fairly-high-spec tower PC. Everything just worked, no surprise. I turned her loose on it and she loved it. Most everything was where she expected it to be and worked the way she was used to, and it all worked faster too. Her ancient Quicken even finally worked with the latest WINE, except for the connectivity features (which she never used, and that I consider phone-home anti-features).

A few days later we also upgraded her older Dell "kitchen computer" to Xubuntu Linux. Again everything just worked, and she loved how much faster it was. I set up both machines so I could administer them remotely.

Today both PCs have been replaced with modern mini form factor machines. She's still running the latest Xubuntu on both and still loving it. She is the envy of all her octogenarian friends!

I switched my mother's in law computer from windows XP to Lubuntu. Only she doesn't know she is using linux ;-)

My parents had an interval with PCLinux when their old laptop reached EOL for Windows XP. Fun and games finding and then helping my dad install non-free firmware for wifi, without the aid of ssh or AnyDesk. Only thing I could not find a driver for was the SD card reader. They moved back to Windows with a new laptop but managed to avoid Vista and 8 completely.

Moved the missus (just a touch younger than your Mum!) to Linux a while back... She complained that it was too "different" for a while, so moved her back to Windows.
A while later she decided that Linux was not too different, after all, and "better" to use, so back to (Ubuntu 20.04), and since have had very few complaints!
Just easier to use, as well as easier to support!!

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