Free Agent: Linux for Grandma, Part 2
As I explained in my last column, I've got a mission: to bring the Web to my grandmother. She's a computer novice who's going to have a nitro-burnin' IBM Thinkpad pulling the Internet out of the air so she can sit out on her patio and e-mail me about how lovely the weather is down south. The Thinkpad will be running Linux, so when I visit her, I won't have to spend time clearing adware and spyware and viruses from her machine. And she won't care what operating system the notebook is running, which is fine with me. She shouldn't have to think about her operating system--that's my job.
I switched from Red Hat to Mandrake Linux on my machines shortly after Mandrake's distribution first hit the Internet in 1999. At that time, Mandrake basically took Red Hat's product, applied several bug fixes and assorted tweaks, added the KDE desktop, and called it Mandrake Linux. (In case you're wondering, all this was perfectly legal. The software is Free.)
At that time, KDE was light-years ahead of Gnome from a "what can you do with it?" perspective, mainly because the KDE team had a big head start. So, for a newbie, choosing Mandrake over Red Hat was a bit of a slam-dunk.
But that was then. Now, if you're in the market for a friendly Linux desktop, you've got Lycoris, Mandrake, SuSE, and Xandros to look at, and those are just the big players. You've also got Lindows to consider, if you're into the idea of paying up each year for the privilege of downloading software (much of it Free) from the Lindows Click-N-Run Warehouse.
Now, what's right for Grandma?
It's the Interface, Stupid
The best way to pick a distribution for a novice, as it turns out, is to work backwards. What do I want Grandma to see when her PC boots up?
Thanks to the wonderful Garnome project, I've been playing around with prereleases of Gnome 2.6, and I think I have found a user interface that Grandma can love. (Garnome provides an automated means of downloading and compiling development versions of the Gnome desktop. You turn it loose and it spends the next several hours alternatively sucking up your bandwidth and then your CPU usage as it pulls down more and more code and compiles it for use on your system. If all is well, when the process is done--perhaps the next morning--you log in to a fresh, new Gnome.)
As I've said, Grandma has zero experience with PCs. Every single concept that gets introduced to her is going to be new, so the easier those concepts are to digest, the better; the more related to the real world that Grandma has known for the better part of a century, the better. I don't ever want her to hear the words "hierarchical file system." But she can handle putting files into folders. So I want an interface that provides the most pure, consistent, unadulterated files-and-folders experience I can find.
Enter Gnome version 2.6, which went gold this week. In this release, Nautilus, the Gnome file manager, has been reworked to adhere to a user interface paradigm known as "spatial orientation." What this means is that in Gnome 2.6, by default, Nautilus works and behaves a lot like the classic Macintosh Finder. (A well-known article on this topic over at Ars Technica, pointing out how Apple dropped spatial orientation in the Mac OS X, was instrumental in sparking the new work on Nautilus.)
Microsoft Windows XP and earlier versions of Gnome take a browser-like approach to file management: Folder windows have Forward and Back buttons, as well as an address field that can be changed to bring up the contents of a different folder. As you navigate through your file system, everything happens in that one window. Nautilus's windows have lost their address field in Gnome 2.6, and as you drill down through your folder tree, each folder appears in its own window. For a power user, this may feel like a step backward, which is why Nautilus's old "file browsing" mode is retained as an option in Gnome 2.6.
But as I've played around with the new Nautilus, I've come to realize how much sense it might make to Grandma. Every folder window unfailingly retains the shape, size, and position you give it. For all intents and purposes, the window is the folder. Grandma is never going to learn about "opening a file manager" to "navigate her way" to her documents. They are all going to live in plain view in folders on her desktop. And when she opens them, there won't be any surprises.
Nautilus 2.6 also brings the concept of "Places" to the Gnome desktop. Every folder window has a Places menu, listing frequently used system folders like Home, Computer, Templates, and Trash; clicking an entry opens up that folder. The Places menu also has an entry for CD Creator, which leads you to Nautilus's built-in CD burning utility.
I like this Places idea--it provides an omnipresent means of quickly getting to important stuff. Or at least, it takes a first step in that direction. It's too bad the folders in the Places menu don't appear in the new Open and Save As dialog boxes that debut across all Gnome apps in version 2.6. A consistent approach to file navigation would have been nice.
Giving Grandma the Cutting Edge
If the plan is to give Grandma a super-spatial Gnome 2.6 desktop, then I either have to wait for a distribution to include it, or compile it on my own. If I go the former route, then Grandma is likely to become a Mandrake user just like me, because Mandrake tends to be the most bleeding-edge of all the mainstream distributions and will doubtless be the first with Gnome 2.6. When Gnome 2.4 was released last fall, Mandrake quickly included it in version 9.2 of its distribution. SuSE, in contrast, has just added Gnome 2.4 with its recent 9.1 release.
Mandrake 10.0 has just entered its "Community" (aka "public testing") release and will be finalized in two months; it is the first of the major distributions to include the new Linux kernel, now in version 2.6. And boy, is my Mandrake 10.0 box speedy and responsive. The kernel geeks promised us a noticeable performance boost with version 2.6, and anecdotally I can say they've delivered. The responsiveness of the system is much improved--especially when there is a lot going on.
Is Mandrake 10.0 perfect? Not by any stretch. Its printer configurator is a nightmare, and its font-handling tool has been partially broken for several releases now. And--woe is me!--Gnome 2.6 is not part of Mandrake 10.0. I'm either stuck with waiting for the next release (which will likely come next fall) or with compiling it myself; and thus far, I'm unable to get Garnome to work on a Mandrake 10.0 box.
Plenty of work remains to be done; but I have seen Grandma's future, and it is Gnome 2.6. Think I'm nuts? Have suggestions for how to set Grandma up right? Send me some e-mail. I'll provide another update on the Linux for Grandma project in my next column. Till then, be as Free as you can.