$200 computers

So, I went down to visit my sister the other day. When I called to ask if they were going to be there they informed me that it was a good thing I called. Her grandmother had been using an old computer for her to use for school and email, which crapped the bucket.

Grandma goes to the store to see about replacing the computer with something inexpensive. Really inexpensive. Cheapest thing you’ve got that can check email and browse the Web. I’ve got the monitor, printer, everything, I just need the PC.

The KMart store clerk looks around and shows off the $600 or so PC, which was not in her target price range. After a bit more asking the clerk goes, “Well, we do have 1 machine in the back. Every store has only gotten one, but it’s only $200.

She asks to see it, and he brings it out. Says something about having Firefox, goes onto Facebook, Google Mail, has office tools, etc. She goes, “that’ll work for me” and promptly buys it.

Of course, it turned out that it runs Linux, not Windows, which my uncle gave her some ribbing about. When I asked how useful it had been they replied that my sister didn’t seem to have any trouble getting onto the Internet or using Firefox, but they had one page that wouldn’t work, and could I look at it? I told them I would, and that they might even see something with my name on it. (No, as it turned out).

So when I went down it turned out that it was running something called gOS, a Ubuntu derivative. My sister knew the passwords and stuff and had been able to half-navigate around the desktop. I installed Java and tested the site… and it still didn’t work. I don’t know if this is a gOS or Ubuntu (or Debian) hiccup but after installing the javaplugin package for mozilla I still had to symlink it into the plugins directory. After that, the Java site worked fine and my sister and her friend were able to play some game called Runescape. Only other software package she wanted to see was “that fish screensaver you showed me“. I didn’t want to install kdelibs just for one screensaver so I looked for the original. But the system didn’t have Term::Animation packaged and I didn’t want to mess with CPAN. Maybe next time though.

I also had to make their printer work. gOS actually came really close but since there was no driver included for her model printer it defaulted to Generic Text Only. A similar driver was available which I tried, and worked. There is a specific driver to use from Canon but you have to go through a bunch of hoops to get it to work so I simply didn’t bother.

Other than that, from my use the system was responsive enough, included enough software, and seemed at least reasonably achievable to browse around for someone who had never used Linux. I explained some Linux concepts for my sister and put an xterm icon on her desktop. I also ran the Synaptic Update process… and saw 117 or so security packages, including the OpenSSL fix. I don’t know what else the gOS guys are doing but they really need to make security packages update by default, or at the very least auto-download and then start blaring sirens saying that an update is needed. Windows is much better in that regard on default installations so that’s pretty embarrassing.

However, given all that is included, my grandmother and sister were pretty ecstatic. My uncle (a long time computer nerd) was kind of off-put by not being used to the system and pointed out everything that didn’t work but in the end it was either a 90% useful system for my sister or nothing and so both my grandmother and sister were pretty happy to have the system. I pointed out the support bookmarks in Firefox for my sister so she can mess around and other than that I guess I’ll have to train her a bit whenever I go down. But as long as an update doesn’t break anything they should have a useful system for quite a few years now, which makes me feel good about the work I put in supporting Linux and the F/OSS ecosystem as a whole. We’re not on top yet but for a lot of people we are certainly better than merely good enough now.