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Archive for February, 2011

The Best OS for my Parents?

Posted by Patrick on February 12, 2011

source [1]

Five or six years ago, I gave my parents one of my old iBook G4 laptop (running OS 10.3) to replace the (very) old desktop computer (running Windows 95) I had given them years before that.  Despite Apple bragging about their OS being the most user-friendly, the switch wasn’t all that easy because change is just… well… uncomfortable.  With OS X having a new version out about every two years, my parents successfully went through two major upgrades without too much trouble (10.5 being the last to support the PPC architecture).  Granted, I was the one doing the actual upgrading, and making sure that everything worked “like before”, but they were the ones having to get used to things not being quite the way they used to be.

I believe the tension between keeping up with change and having things the way one is used to having them is a key issue for many people who are not comfortable with computers.  How would the ideal OS solve that problem?  And which is closest to solving it so far?

People like my parents want computers to just work, of course, but more specifically what they need is:

  1. A computer already set up and customized to their specific needs and tastes.
  2. A computer that takes care of updating everything continuously in one coherent way.
  3. An easy way to share new programs with others without breaking the law.

Realistically, I think the only way to satisfy the first point is for kids like me to help out their parents from time to time, which is fine.  I don’t mind going through an extra upgrade every two years and cleaning things up a bit on my folks’ computer.  But every time I did, I also had to provide a bit of tech (and moral) support to help them deal with the new features.  Again, I don’t personally mind, but I know they do, which brings me to the second point.

The ideal computer should always be updating (and upgrading) its programs so that all the changes are spread out over time and divided into smaller chunks.  With a two-year release period, different versions of OS X definitely feel different from one another.  Ubuntu splits this difference into four with its six-month release periods, but upgrading twice a year is four times more annoying for me than once every two years.  Linux Mint Debian Edition (LMDE) [2] tackles that problem excellently with its continuous updates/upgrades.  The OS automatically and uniformly updates itself and every single program I’ve got installed on it, at the exception of a few java programs and custom scripts I’ve got running.  Knowing that my OS and all my programs will always be up-to-date without my having to do anything–ever again–is extremely satisfying.   And from a usability perspective, the small, incremental changes that LMDE goes through are almost unnoticeable.  I think this is the type of OS my parents would really like in a long run.

Windows and OS X users have a habit of swapping files and sharing cool new programs with each other (often with their crackware).  Sharing is natural, we all get that.  With its simply Software manager, GNU/Linux systems like LMDE allow this sharing to be freely, easily (and legally) done.   The Software Manager lists, categorizes and indexes thousands of programs, packages, and drivers and makes them available for installation with a few simple clicks (and an internet connection).  Sharing a program with someone else, then, is as easy as simply telling them what to try.  And of course, all of these are automatically and constantly being updated by the system.  Why would anyone want to do it any other way?!

I’ve been toying with various distributions of GNU/Linux for quite a few years now.  When Ubuntu 10.04 came out almost a year ago, I felt that it was finally as user-friendly as OS X.  Now, on top of that usability (which only got better), LMDE also solves the problem of introducing too much change all at once after upgrades.  It is by far the best OS I’ve used so far.

It used to be that GNU/Linux could only be used by geeks, while non-techies were left with the default options: Windows or OS X.  Since LMDE, I really believe the table has turned.  There is still room for improvement, of course.  For example, the installation process is not as smooth as the main Linux Mint distribution (which is based on Ubuntu), and restricted drivers are not as easy to install either.  However, once properly installed and configured, it is extremely user-friendly and completely carefree.

I guess when I buy my next computer, my parents will inherit my GNU/Linux laptop and go through their last major OS upgrade.

Update (July 5, 2011): Looks like they’re fine tuning this balance by introducing the option to have monthly updates that have been tested by the community instead of just the continuous, untested updates, which may break things. [3]  This still retains the biggest advantage of never having to upgrade the entire OS all at once.

Links

  1. MS-DOS 5 Upgrade, a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from 29158681@N00’s photostream
  2. LinuxMint Debian, <http://www.linuxmint.com/download_lmde.php>
  3. Introducing Update Packs in Linux Mint Debian,
    <http://blog.linuxmint.com/?p=1781>

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