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UserLinux: Taking "Grandma" as the Use Case

UserLinux: Taking "Grandma" as the Use Case

Grandma doesn't know much about computers, but she really enjoys collecting pictures of the family, and keeping in touch via e-mail. In fact, she is so comfortable now with e-mail, that she doesn't call each time to make sure we got it. Her "Web surfing" consists of placing an occasional order at Oh, and she does use Word for Windows to write a newsletter for her church group. She does not use any advanced features of Word, so switching her to OpenOffice is not a problem.

Grandma's computer is an old 486 with 12MB memory running Windows 95. It takes forever to start, and hangs frequently, resulting in calls to Kristin, her niece and family computer expert. Kristin is an engineer at a small company that has Debian installed on a few of their computers. She is the one who wrote those handy little cards for Grandma - how to start the computer, how to print a picture, etc.

Kristin is considering replacing Grandma's computer with another "hand-me-down", a Pentium II with 64MB memory. She would really like an alternative to the Windows/Intel upgrade treadmill, but having struggled 3 days to install Debian on this old Pentium, she is thinking maybe the only solution is still a new computer with Windows pre-installed.

Kristin's boyfriend works at a computer store in Tucson that has a lot of old computers that won't run the latest version of Windows. He is watching Kristin's experiment with great interest, thinking of repeating it on a larger scale, using computers that would otherwise go to the dumpster.

Grandma needs a computer which is stable and secure and allows her to send and receive email, print pictures, and visit a few Web sites. We need to cut the number of "service calls", because Kristin lives 100 miles from Grandma.

More specifically, this computer should have:

  1. Low cost. If we can use a hand-me-down, that would be great.
  2. Easy setup. Kristin has no problem using a command-line install program like the one that comes with Red Hat, but she doesn't have time to locate and study all the scattered docs on Linux install programs. She also has no time to search for missing files, or debug a package that has files with incompatible versions, or which installs files in the wrong place. Also, she has no time to research the huge number of available programs. Where choices must be made, she needs a simple, unbiased summary of the top recommendations in each category. It should take her no more than 5 minutes to decide between Gnome and KDE. Hints: She doesn't care about the licensing issues, and Grandma is already familiar with Windows, so she will probably chose one with that look and feel.
  3. A rock-solid OS that doesn't crash or hang. The Windows 95, 98 series is out. Windows XP is good enough.
  4. Simple procedures to do the few things Grandma needs, including recovery when a program hangs.
  5. Enough power to start in less than a minute and load a document in less than 30 seconds.
  6. Good security. No chance anyone can hack into her computer from the Internet. Virus protection, minimum spam, and absolutely no pornography.
  7. Remote administration, so Kristin can log in over a phone line and correct occasional problems. We need a simple command like 'rpm –Va' to verify the entire installation.

[This first appeared in the UserLinux Wiki at, January 2, 2004]


More Stories By Dave MacQuigg

Dave MacQuigg is an IC Design Engineer with a new mission - to develop a simple, open-source platform for circuit designers to use all the tools they need for design entry, simulation, and analysis. His chosen language for this platform is Python, because he wants to make it easy for non-programmers to jump in and fix problems or add features as the needs arise. He is also teaching a circuit-design laboratory at the University of Arizona

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Most Recent Comments
curse 01/10/04 01:13:43 PM EST

as Microsoft force you to upgrade, so does the linux dists, as hard as it is to run win XP on an old computer, as hard it is to run the latest Mandrake/RedHat/Suse/Debian/slack/whatever linux dist, perhaps go and look at an older dist. RedHat 5 or something from the same time. It'll have all the features your GrandMa need

hgh9mrp 01/08/04 08:21:16 AM EST

The use case of "Grandma" is a good one, but Grandma's prior knowledge as a Windows user has already made her computer literate. UserLinux should take a good look at Sun's Java Desktop System, Knoppix, and MandrakeMove for three good examples of easy-to-install-and-use Linux distributions that will all run (a little slow - more horsepower is always better) on the specified system requirements.

James Stewart 01/08/04 05:02:32 AM EST

Grandma is perfect. If it's good for her it's good for everyone. The biggest problem with computers is that they're designed for computer users...

Don't forget the user who doesn't know where to click to close panels or the timing for double clicks etc etc.

Personally I'd adore instant startup and NO rebooting - life's too short...

Johnny Wantsbetter 01/08/04 03:52:29 AM EST

If you ask me, this sounds like your children's Grandma. But, if anyone bothered to ask her, she would probably like EVERYTHING to look the same as what she is using now because in essence you are not really doing anything for her. You are only making life easier for Kristin.

One day, the most important thing is the business user and licensing issues and the next day it's Grandma. The same user interface for powerusers and grandmas. Another Fairy Tale - gimme a break!

All this Use Case means is watering down everything to make it look like 10 year old M$. Now if you make look like Apple 2010 instead of Microsoft 1990, maybe even Grandma would want to switch.

Craig 01/07/04 11:21:33 PM EST

Why doesn't "easy to use" come into it? Like, my grandma hasn't used any sort of computer... so a simplified interface is needed too.

wawadave 01/07/04 10:36:21 PM EST

i have been trying linux on a home built pc and i,m still learning many new things. i have found haveig a second running computer comes in handy to use linux google for troble shooting problems.
have a nice day

Bob Jones 01/07/04 08:22:55 PM EST

I bought a Linare PC from for $199 as a second PC for my home...

I upgraded with extra 256 MB RAM for faster speed.
Its excellent for the good old and for young kids :-)



James LaRue 01/07/04 05:26:08 PM EST

An upgrade of RAM and Knoppix sounds good to me. But here's a blast from the past: GeoWorks. It became "New Deal Office" at some point, and I'm not sure of its exact status these days. But it fits the criteria. It actually ran on a 486, with 2 megs. It's fully graphical, has a full office suite, Internet access, premptive multitasking, etc. Wonderful fonts, great printing, a breeze to set up. Brand new, I think the whole deal cost $70 or so. I used it for years, and loved it.

sgtrock 01/07/04 02:13:16 PM EST

Knoppix with almost any WM except Gnome or KDE will work just fine on either box. 64 MB is just too small to meet the startup times for apps, tho. Throw some RAM in that old P2!

winjimmy 01/07/04 01:41:12 PM EST

I'd rather see Grandma keep her 486. Maybe upgrade the RAM a bit, though. Why can't she? Why can't Linux work on old machines like that? Maybe she should stick with Win 95: it does what she needs, she's not on broadband so security's not a huge issue. The Linux community seems to be supporting, at least tacitly, the hardware upgrade treadmill M$ started - but without getting the benefits M$ got from vendors. Seems rather silly to me. C'mon, take the challenge! Add 32 MB RAM to Grandma's machine and get Linux on there, you dolt!

chemicalscum 01/07/04 09:41:34 AM EST

"Knoppix will do everything grandma wants, but 64MB won't cut it. 128 will."
Install Knoppix and apt-get xfce4

should work in 64 MB

Tony 01/07/04 09:20:37 AM EST

quote"" rock-solid OS that doesn't crash or hang. The Windows 95, 98 series is out. Windows XP is good enough. ""

I wouldn't bet my cheese on that.
Xp does a lot of crashing, but my win98-lite on my old pentium hadn't a crash for a year. yeah, a year !

pericles 01/07/04 08:59:49 AM EST

I haven't used it in a while but she should check out Lycoris. It doesn't come with a lot of apps but the basic stuff - image viewer, browser, ssh server are there. There might be a gimp binary for this distro if the basic image viewer doesn't cut it. The folks at are quite friendly and helpful.

As with the previous post, 128Mb of RAM is better than 64Mb but you can drop about $30 for a stick of 256Mb.

Doug Bostrom 01/07/04 08:41:38 AM EST

Knoppix will do everything grandma wants, but 64MB won't cut it. 128 will.

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