dad’s ubuntu experience

of course
mom and dad love rick steve

Recently, I performed some over-the-phone tech support to get my Dad going on Ubuntu, and thought sharing that experience might be interesting.

A little bit of background: Dad is 62 years old, technical but not necessarily computer savvy (chemical engineer), has always used Windows, and English is his second language. He was able to purchase a laptop hard drive from Newegg and install it himself, and was able to download the Lucid ISO and burn it in Windows on his own with a minimum of instruction from me.

Kudos to the folks who wrote the Ubuntu download page especially the section that has screenshots of how to burn an ISO in Windows. Dad’s first attempt went poorly, but then he went back and actually followed the instructions and his second attempt was successful.

Up until this point, I was simply sending him emails with pointers on how to get going, but then he ran into a little problem with his wireless, so he called me on the phone.

I googled his [older] computer model and discovered to my dismay that it had a Broadcom wifi chip in it, which mean messing around with proprietary firmware.

I had him go to System -> Administration -> Hardware Drivers but for some odd reason, jockey (?) simply said “no proprietary drivers are in use on this system”. There was no way to ask it to scan the system and guess whether a proprietary driver might be needed or not.

I don’t know how normal people would have resolved this issue, but in my case, I told him how to open the terminal prompt, and then I sent him an email of some apt-get commands to copy and paste. After he’d installed bcmwl-kernel-source, jockey detected a proprietary driver and said it was enabled.

At this point, the story should have ended, but he still wasn’t seeing any wireless APs in the gnome-nm applet. Half an hour later, I guessed that the physical rfkill switch for his wireless radio was in the “off” position; once he moved it to “on”, life was good again.

Some other observations:

  • he couldn’t figure out how to reboot the machine. I guess the icon wasn’t obvious to him.
  • after we installed the proprietary broadcom firmware package, upon reboot, there was a little text message in a bubble that said “In order to use your computer properly, you need to…” and then the message disappeared before he had a chance to read it fully. I think it was a dialogue from jockey, but the point is that he didn’t have time to read whatever it was before it disappeared.
  • upon re-opening jockey, the big message about “restricted” drivers, vendor support only, etc. caused him great concern before I told him just to ignore it.
  • once wireless was working, he opened Firefox. Then, he wanted to maximize the window, but couldn’t figure out how to do that. We figured out he wasn’t looking in the correct location for the button, but once he found the controls, it was obvious to click the “up” arrow instead of the “down” arrow.
  • at one point, he wanted me to just remote control his computer. He’s familiar with IT folks at his company using NetMeeting to remote his machine. We ship a “remote desktop” option, but it only works if your machines are on the same subnet. I ended up having him install TeamViewer, which worked quite well. Since many of us support our less savvy friends and family, I think having a remote control option that works across the internet at large would be a killer feature.
  • he had already played around with OpenOffice before this support call, and had a question lined up for me — he saw the nice PDF export icon in the Writer toolbar, and wanted to know how he could pay money to enable that feature. When I told him that OO.o could indeed export as PDF for free, he was shocked and ecstatic. I think folks on the other side of the chasm are quite concerned about creating PDFs, and the fact that we can do it for free is another killer feature. Perhaps it could be highlighted as one of the callouts during the installation process.
  • he had also already discovered our version of Minesweeper but scoffed at how easy it was. He wanted to know how to get the advanced version. In gnomine’s preferences, changing the size of the grid is labeled “Field Size” with “Small”, “Medium”, “Large”, and “Custom” as the options. I told him to select “Large” and he didn’t trust me that it would actually do it until he actually saw the size of the grid increase. My takeaway is that this wording is poor, and could be made way more friendly, especially for folks looking for familiarity coming from a Windows environment.

Those are all the notes I managed to scribble down over the course of our phone call.

I guess there are bugs, papercuts, and wishlist features in there, but I’ll hold off on filing Launchpad bugs unless others think it would actually be useful or not.