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Old 02-23-2005, 10:57 PM   #1
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Introducing newcomers to Linux -- my thoughts

My thoughts on the whole Linux - Windows - Linux issue after all these debates that we have seen at LQ is very clear and focussed. You see, a lot of us assume so many things about Windows users that there is often a frustration that blows over when trying to convert or de-convert (whichever side you belong to).

I recently did an installation of Linux on my uncle's computer and I have certainly learned a lot about those non-technical users of Windows whom many in the Linux community often spew contempt at. We often think of Windows users as dumb and unintelligent (though many of us may not explicitly say so, this is often implied in the discussions that we see at Here are my ideas and thoughts on introducing Linux to a non-technical person (newbie might not be the right word for this because Windows users are not newbies to computers as such). It requires patience and perseverance.

First step: Get to know their hardware

This should always be your first step. If you are going to do a Linux installation on a friend's machine, be prepared. It can sometimes be frustrating to get to know other people's hardware and I have experienced my fair share of frustration in this. Ask for the manuals that came with their PC. Or ask permission to use their machine for a while to familiarize yourself with their hardware. Nothing can be more frustrating than installing Linux on their machines and then finding out that it cannot detect their printer, cannot play their MP3 files or cannot detect their video card or cannot detect their network devices. Many "normal" people don't have the latest and greatest hardware, so many of them may have on-board sound, graphics and ethernet. If you cannot get to see their motherboard manual, then at least find out the model of their PC and do some research on the internet. Persevere and you shall succeed!

Second step: Check their hard disk for unpartitioned space

Unless you are giving them a Live CD, you must check their hard disk for unpartitioned space. Never ask someone whether they have "free space" in their hard disk. Most of them will say "yes". They will also ask you why you cannot install Linux in Windows C:. This again takes some explanation, but you can do it. It is not tough to introduce them to the concept of filesystems. Again, the strategy to use here is to tell them that

"Linux will not work on Windows C: because Linux has its own filesystem like FAT32 and NTFS. But Linux is a different system, so it is incompatible with the Windows Filesystem."

This explanation should be sufficient. If you go too much in depth to explain the concept of partitions and file systems, they will be confused. Never confuse your potential convert. This is very important. Again they will say: "I have C: D: and E:. Can you remove my D: and install Linux there?" Again, you must explain that D: and E: are nothing but extended Windows partitions and are not available for Linux. Never take the risk of rendering a system unbootable. They may have stored important program files in D:. If the worst comes to worst, ask them to get a new hard disk. Disk prices are not that expensive these days and even an 80 GB drive can be picked up for a song.

Check those CDs!!

Finally you have prepared their system for Linux. You have unpartitioned space where you can install Linux. Now the fun part begins. First of all, before you start off on your venture, always check your CDs for corruption. Yes. That's right. Check those disks! A corrupt CD in the middle of an installation is one of the most embarassing things that can happen to you. Again, taking a backup of their system is a good idea, but it's generally difficult because they might not have a CD writer.

Carrying a Live CD that works with you when you go out to install Linux is a great idea too. I recommend Knoppix because, though slow to boot on older machines (and even on some newer ones), it works. Final check: see if you have your Linux CDs and Live CD. See if they have their Windows CD also handy. You never know, it might be handy. I have had experience in rendering a system unbootable and your potential convert will not like that! Be careful. It doesn't hurt to be well prepared.

Choosing a distro you're comfortable with

Again, must be fairly obvious. But I know that I tried to install Debian on my nephew's machine when I was still new to it. I had a hell of a problem to get it to work. Again, being unprepared was a very frustrating experience. Never try a distro you haven't used at least for six months. Fedora is a good choice if their machine is fairly new.

Another tip is to install KDE as their DE and not Gnome. I tried to install Ubuntu on my uncle's machine and it was a big failure because:
  • I was uncomfortable with Gnome myself.
  • KDE can be configured to behave like Windows.
  • KDE just has a lot more GUI tools than Gnome.

I know that a lot of Gnome fans will disagree here, but hey! If you are confident with Gnome, why not try it? I still say, go with KDE because that's the desktop environment that newcomers to Linux will easily take to. The first time you install Linux on their machine, do a full install (without the server components of course). It's always safer and won't cost you anything (except disk space). If disk space is really at a premium, then install only KDE and not Gnome.

Another tip of course, is to install GRUB as their bootloader rather than LILO if you have the choice. Personally I haven't used LILO since the old days of RedHat 6.2 and I don't plan on using it again. GRUB just feels a lot more configurable and flexible. Then again, LILO fans may disagree, but in my experience "GRUB just works!" and you can at least be sure that Linux and Windows will boot normally after you complete the installation.

Don't promise them the moon!

Why on earth would you do that unless you're so desperate to make a convert? No. Avoid making promises. Be optimistic but not overconfident. Never assume that something will work because you're confident that it will. Linux has a nasty way of sometimes bringing you back to earth when you're flying on cloud nine. Very frustrating if something doesn't work and can be embarrassing too.

On the other hand, if you'd said -- "Your sound card *should* work in Linux. But I really must check that out. I'm not sure" you won't be embarrassed. Your potential convert will also understand: after all, we're all humans and we all make mistakes. Just because we know Linux, it doesn't mean that Linux will dance to our tunes. Also tell them about drivers and why the manufacturers of hardware don't provide Linux drivers. Explain to them patiently that since Linux is not a popular OS (read non-mainstream) that most vendors just ignore Linux. That's why it is difficult to configure hardware to work in Linux. Again, most people *will* understand. You don't need to defend Linux heavily. Just quote facts, not opinions.

Another tip is to be familiar with command-line tools -- sometimes they can really help. Oh! But you knew that already, dont you?

The First Boot and potential pitfalls

OK, now you've installed Linux successfully on their machine. You can know show off the brand new Linux boot-loader! At this point, just make sure that both Windows and Linux boot without a problem.

Fine? Ok, now you've booted into Linux. If you're really lucky (or you use a distro that will configure X automatically without a problem) you'll see KDE load up. Again, don't be embarrassed if their monitor goes blank and loses signal. It could be as simple as a refresh frequency setting in XF86Config or xorg.conf or an unsupported monitor resolution.

Now take my advice: Never run xf86config or xorgconfig. Go and edit the file yourself. This is the quickest and easiest way to make sure that Linux will load up X at startup. Most likely your potential convert will not have a monitor manual, so you must choose failsafe refresh rates and resolution. If theirs is a 17" monitor, it would be safe to initially try a setting of 1024*768 at 60 Hz. On 15" monitors, 800*600 at 75 Hz is your safest bet. You can always change these values later on. For now use safe values and use the "vesa" driver if they have an on-board graphics card.

Now the hard work -- teaching them Linux

This is the most important and possibly the toughest aspect of making a convert. Now depending on the person, there are different ways to teach them Linux.

Never attempt to teach a non-technical person the intricacies of the command line. Don't even think about it. While non-technical people are not dummies, they aren't experts either. Command line (apart from the basic dir, ls and other commands) is not going to help them. They will not need it.

Which brings me to my next part: be prepared to spend some time with them and teach them the basic apps and working of Linux. Create a user account for them (don't leave it all to root). Introduce them to KDE and all its wonderful apps. Be prepared to spend long hours in getting their system to work. Don't abandon them in case of problems. Be prepared to visit their place often because they're going to need all your help with problems in Linux. You must show this committment otherwise they're never going to choose "Linux" when the boot-loader next appears.

If all this sounds like hard work, it is. But the worst thing you can do is to install Linux on their machine and never visit their home again. It doesn't give Linux a good name when you cannot spend some time doing some post-install work.

Again, never introduce them to wine. This can be bad, really bad. wine has a nasty habit of crashing on you ever so often. That's the whole reason you did a dual-boot, didn't you? Tell them that Windows apps won't work in Linux because the *.EXE format is specific to Windows. Never fall into the trap of trying to make Linux more attractive to them by telling them that "Windows apps will work on Linux!" This is a pitfall that can come back to haunt you. Also introducing them to wine at this early stage will just confuse them all the more and detract them from what Linux really is -- an independent OS that is totally separate from Windows.

Finally a few small things you can do to enhance Linux for them:
  • Install short-cuts on the desktop for apps like web browser, text editor, word-processor and the dial-up connection (if they have dial-up internet) or network connection (if they have DSL or cable).
  • Allow their system to mount their Windows drives. This is optional, but some people will ask you if they can access their "Windows" files. Again, do not promise them (unless they're still using FAT32, NTFS drivers needs to be compiled into the kernel or as modules and write-support is still experimental) but be cautiously optimistic. Try it, but if it doesn't work, don't break your head over it.
  • Configure their e-mail clients -- evolution is my first choice, but you can also try mozilla mail. Configure the firewall to autostart on boot.


A few final words, if I may:
  • Don't raise their expectations of Linux. Just allow Linux to grow on them.
  • Accept initial failures. Don't be frustrated. Getting Linux to work on other people's machines can be sometimes bafflingly frustrating.
  • Do your homework on getting to know their hardware.
  • Stop talking so much.
  • Be prepared for *a lot* of post-install work. If you don't have the time always, you can say so. But don't neglect them for a long time. They'll slowly drift back to Windows.
  • Most likely they won't be using Linux except occasionally. Most people's work will still be tied to Windows because of being tied to specific software and so on. Just let them be. Forcing Linux upon them will drive them back to Windows even faster.

Finally, in conclusion, just be happy that you've made yet another contribution to the Linux community. Though you might not have made a full convert, you've still made somebody totally new to Linux familiar with the OS. They will surely tell their friends about Linux and the word will spread.

Patience is the key!
Old 02-26-2005, 03:32 PM   #2
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very nice.

oops.. I forgot: don't over use the emoticons

there I go again!




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