Sorry, my students' steady stream of "your mom" jokes brings out my inner 14-year old. However, this is the first in my series this summer of training for the masses (see * for dummies) and the point is that your mom (or your grandmother, or your most typewriter-bound secretary) could quite easily Kubuntu (or Ubuntu, or SUSE, or whatever). In fact, some fairly straight-forward training means that the only piece of mainstream Linux that will prove difficult for the technically-challenged user will be installation.
Given that, I'm not going to cover installation in this post. Not only can it vary radically by distribution, but you wouldn't expect the little old secretary in the front office to manage hard disk partitions or reinstall Windows, so we can't reasonably expect any different for Linux. What I do want to cover is what that little old lady will need to understand when she sits down at her desk for the first time in the fall after you've gone open source over the summer. Please keep in mind the audience here (your mom, assuming she's like my mom and doesn't know the difference between MSN and Internet Explorer, but at least knows the difference between a mouse and a keyboard). Also, feel free to talk back below with helpful tips, suggestions, or thoughts on this series (e.g., dumb it down more, give the audience more credit, cover additional topics, etc.). I envision the posts in this series being used as training documents; primers for students, staff, and parents; or talking points for presentations. Let me know if you come up with any other good ways to use them. Here goes...
The first thing we need to remember is that it matters little what operating system you use. They all work in much the same way. General navigation and some basic knowledge of applications are all we need to successfully run Windows, Linux, or even Macintosh computers.
Of course some of you may be asking what an operating system is. Or more specifically, what Linux is. Linux runs your computer and gives you a method for interacting with the machine in ways that both you and the computer can understand. Linux is more broadly referred to as an operating system. Operating systems open and close documents, start programs, display information on the screen, and interpret your mouse clicks and keyboard entries. Microsoft Windows XP and Macintosh OSX are other examples of operating systems. While they all do the same things, they do them in different ways and users need to know how to get their jobs done regardless of which operating system they might be using. The operating system shouldn't be confused with applications. Applications, like Microsoft Word, Internet Explorer, and Microsoft Excel are also often called programs and help you do specific things (like write documents, surf the Internet, or create spreadsheets). The operating system, on the other hand, is what allows you to open the applications and switch between them.
One of the most important things to remember about operating systems is that certain applications will only run on certain operating systems. Thus, you can't run Microsoft Word 2007 on a Macintosh. In terms of Linux, most applications (and the operating system itself) are free. The most important applications are ready to use as soon as you turn on a computer running a Linux operating system. Others can easily be put onto your computer using tools built into the operating system (more on this in a later post).
This brings up another important point: there are lots of Linux operating systems. Just as you can buy several versions of Microsoft Windows (XP Home, XP Professional, Media Center Edition, Vista Home Basic, Vista Ultimate, etc.), there are many versions of Linux. These versions tend to be created by many different groups, people, or companies, but all share common pieces so that they can run the same applications. The most popular tend to look and feel pretty similar to users.
There is one major factor that differentiates how users interact with Linux, regardless of its exact version. Most Linux operating systems let you choose your "desktop environment." The person who sets up and maintains your computer may have chosen this for you already, but it's useful to understand what you are running. The two most popular desktop environments are KDE (the K Desktop Environment) and Gnome. More recently, another environment called XFce is also gaining some ground. New users (and their administrators) should keep in mind that it is fairly easy to switch desktop environments (and even to use all of them on the same system), so if you don't like the look or feel of one, you can try another. It may simply be best to use the same environment as others around you or the environment favored by the people who maintain your computer as they can most easily answer specific questions. For the sake of simplicity and comparison, however, I'll just provide a picture of Gnome, KDE, and Windows XP.
All of your programs are accessed through the Applications menu at the top of the screen (shown expanded). Choosing Quit from the System menu provides you with choices for shutting down your system.
All of your programs are accessed through the K menu in the lower left corner of the screen (shown expanded). Choosing Log Out here will provide you with options for turning off or restarting your computer.
All of your programs are accessed through the Start menu in the lower left corner of the screen (shown expanded). Choosing Shut Down from this menu will give you options for restarting or shutting down.
All pretty similar, all pretty easy.
Now comes the most important piece of the Linux puzzle. How do you get your job done? While your job may have many components, most of us use the computer for three main tasks:
- Productivity (creation of documents, spreadsheets, and presentations)
- Accessing the Internet
- Communication (email and instant messaging)
In Linux, regardless of version or desktop environment, the first is usually accomplished via Open Office. If you have ever used Microsoft Office or WordPerfect, Open Office should look very familiar. Open Office refers to the entire suite of applications that includes Writer (word processing), Calc (spreadsheets), and Impress (presentations). These can easily be compared to Word, Excel, and PowerPoint if you are familiar with any of them.
The Internet is accessed through any number of available web browsers. However, in Linux, the browser of choice is usually Firefox. Firefox is available for Windows and Macintosh as well; Internet Explorer (often used with Windows) is not available for Linux. It works in exactly the same manner as any other browser under any other operating system.
In terms of communication, applications are available that allow you to use AOL and Yahoo instant messengers. They, like all of your other programs, can be found in your K or Applications menu. However, versions of the instant messaging software that you can use with your web browser (see http://www.aim.com/aimexpress.adp for an example) are generally preferable anyway, so you may never need to use the specific programs.
Email is also an essential bit of communication technology. Many people are familiar with Outlook or Outlook Express for retrieving and storing their email on their computers. Many programs like Outlook are available and whoever maintains your computer can set up your accounts in one of these programs. However, as with the instant messaging applications, it is becoming increasingly advisable to simply use a "webmail" interface such as Yahoo, Hotmail, or Gmail to access and manage your email. Because these have built-in virus protection and can be accessed from any computer, you again may never need to use one of the specific email programs.
Finally, where do you save your files? In Windows, we usually save files in our My Documents folder or on our desktop. In Linux, we generally have a Home folder and a desktop. In fact, your desktop (the screen you see when no programs are open) is simply another folder within your home folder on Linux systems (it's also a folder in Windows, although it's buried a bit deeper). They function in the same way: they hold all of your stuff and you can store documents, pictures, more folders, etc., whether you keep them on your desktop or your home folder. In KDE, the folders can be accessed by clicking on the System button (right next to the K button). In Gnome, the folders are located under the Places menu (right next to the Applications drop down).
Good luck and enjoy! Talk to your system administrator for specifics of your setup and to tweak your system to suit your individual needs.