I hate Ubuntu, but my mother-in-law loves it

Summary:Ubuntu's Unity GUI isn't my speed. But that doesn't matter for the majority of end-users.

For the last several days, I've been using Ubuntu's "Precise Pangolin" 12.04 release on my primary Linux workstation.

Mark Shuttleworth, CEO of Canonical, insisted I try it again after my last tirade, in which I laid out my list of grievances against the Unity UI that has been part of the operating system for over a year, and made its first appearance in Ubuntu 11.04, the "Natty Narwhal".

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It's not often a billionaire makes personal requests of me, so when they do, I listen.

I was going to write an article about why I felt that very little in Ubuntu had actually changed since my previous tirade. You still can't move the Unity bar, the confusing menu contexts are still exactly the same as they were, and there are still some issues with doing distribution upgrades. Fine.

Steven J. Vaughn-Nichols has already told you about all the nifty feature set improvements and all the under the hood updated goodness. I'm not going to write about any of that junk because it would just be repetitive.

[UPDATE: Want a UI resembling old-school Ubuntu GNOME back? Enter "sudo apt-get install gnome-session-fallback" from a terminal prompt, and choose "GNOME Classic" at signon. Thanks to reader "Lennie" for the tip!]

Frankly, besides the "They still didn't fix what I asked them to fix" part, I would normally have very little to say about this release at all. It's a very incremental improvement in terms of the actual UI, with updated packages and a newer kernel.

I was just about to write that article, but then...

Ring Ring. Wife answers the phone.

"Umm, Jay?" my wife calls out to me about a minute later, from beyond the interstellar void that is my office.

"Yes?"

"My mother is on the phone, and she says she thinks her AOL email is compromised because one of her friends got one of those things from her that says she's in London and lost all her credit cards and she needs to send her money. And she's getting all kinds of weird corrupted hard drive scary messages on the screen."

"That sounds like a virus to me."

"Yeah, and she completely lost her wireless connectivity on her Windows laptop and the Chromebook."

"Did you have her reboot the router?"

"Yeah. Still can't see the SSID."

"Then the router is screwed up too. It's four years old, we might as well replace it."

I knew of course what was in store for me that day. It meant picking up a new router at Radio Shack, heading down to my Mother-in-Law's house, a good 45 minutes drive away, and then having to de-louse her Windows PC.

And that probably also meant a complete re-install of Windows. Multi-hour time sink, best-case scenario. I don't know how she got a virus, because it had Windows Defender and Microsoft Security Essentials on it. My guess is she got hit with some kind of phishing attack that installed malware on her PC that somehow escaped detection.

The dead Netgear router was an odd coincidence, but I won't rule out some sort of attack on the appliance itself.

And I knew that it was likely that the computer was going to get compromised again, and the next time it happened, I probably wouldn't be living so close by anymore. Low ongoing maintenance of her computing environment was going to be key.

You see, I just signed a contract on my house in New Jersey and within the next few months, I'll be a resident of Florida. Yeah, you heard me, Florida. That's a bit of a hike the next time she has a serious computer problem. I figured out what it would cost, and it will actually be cheaper to send her a new laptop.

I thought about it for a couple of minutes and realized that my Mother-In-Law didn't actually need Windows.

She already uses the Chromebook for 80 percent of what she uses a computer for -- browsing the web, using her email, managing her investment portfolio on Scotttrade, and using her real estate agency's multiple listing service. And she uses Google Docs and LibreOffice to write the occasional letter.

The only thing she uses her Windows 7 laptop for that's different than what the Chromebook can do is print and scan.

So I burned a CD copy of Ubuntu Precise Pangolin 12.04, stopped by after work at Radio Shack and picked up a Cisco Linksys EA2700, and headed over to mom's.

After plugging in the new router and backing up mom's data onto a portable hard drive, and running a CLAMAV scan against it using my Redhat Linux laptop to ensure the files weren't infected, I installed Ubuntu fresh and let it completely overwrite her Windows computer.

When dealing with computer viruses, it's best to nuke it from orbit.

As usual, the Ubuntu install was a breeze. 25 minutes later I had a blank desktop. I pulled extra icons off the Unity taskbar she didn't need to play with and put a few on that she would need instead, such as the Simple Scan utility.

I plugged the portable hard drive in with her data and copied all the files to her Documents folder. Data migration, done.

I installed Chrome stable, which when logged in with my Mother-in-law's account automatically re-synchronized her bookmarks and history from the Cloud. I put an icon for it on the Unity bar, and that took care of most of what she needed to get back up and running.

I removed Firefox from the Unity bar since she wouldn't be using it.

Network detection of her EPSON Workforce 600 all-in-one was a breeze using Ubuntu's Printing utility, and I literally had to do nothing to get the scanning function to work, as it was auto-detected by the operating system.

Next, I migrated her AOL email to GMail. Once that was complete, all I had to do is show her how to launch Chrome and use GMail and the Simple Scan utility. Total training time, about 30 minutes, and most of it was GMail instruction.

My Mother-in-law is happy since she's up and running again. Her PC performance is excellent, and now it's practically maintenance-free with the exception of her having to accept the occasional Ubuntu updates. Say whatever you want about the lack of quality commercial apps on Linux -- it's impervious to Windows malware.

For this particular end-user, given her usage parameters, she doesn't need Windows or even a Mac. Ubuntu is an ideal solution.

And yeah, I still hate the way Unity is currently implemented. But that doesn't matter -- it's fine for the majority of end-users out there, and for my anxiety and acid reflux, it's a godsend.

Have you migrated a family member over to Ubuntu or another Linux OS? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

Topics: Open Source, Browser, Google, Mobility

About

Jason Perlow, Sr. Technology Editor at ZDNet is a technologist with over two decades of experience with integrating large heterogeneous multi-vendor computing environments in Fortune 500 companies. Jason is currently a Partner Technology Strategist with Microsoft Corp. His expressed views do not necessarily represent those of his employer... Full Bio

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