Linux is scientifically better

Welcome to a double post.  First I talk about how the largest scientific experiment in the world uses Linux, and then I talk about my own personal experiments with getting family members to run Linux.

What do you use when you need a computer that can control the largest, most precise experiment in the history of the world?  I'm talking about the LHC, of course.  The one that might destroy the world if we're not careful.

So who do you trust with that kind of responsibility?  I already gave away the answer, didn't I.  It's Linux, of course.  The LHC team has released some publicity photos and one of them shows a screenshot of the computer that monitors the LHC experiment.  Running Linux.

Turns out the LHC runs a special version of Linux called Scientific Linux.  Scientific Linux is based on Red Hat Enterprise Linux.  (Red Hat is one of a few companies that has made a successful business model based on free/open source software.  Very, very successful business model.)  Scientific Linux is co-developed by CERN.  The LHC is also run by CERN, so that makes sense.

(Nerd time: It's interesting that although Scientific Linux defaults with Gnome, it looks like the LHC is using KDE.  So do I.  So I guess that's two things I have in common with the LHC: using KDE and also being completely awesome.)

Speaking of how Linux is better, I've talked before about the "Mother Test."  The Mother Test is whether you'd let your own mother use Linux.  I mean sure, Linux is great for computer nerds.  But what about everyday non-techies who just want to surf the web and write Word documents?  In the spirit of science, here's an update on the "Mother Test" experiments I've performed:

Wife Test: This is a modified Mother Test.  Part of the challenge of the Mother Test is that you're not actually there to fix problems when they arise.  With my wife, of course, I'm there every day.  So when she had a problem I was able to fix it.  Therefore this test wasn't quite as rigorous as the full Mother Test.

Early last year my wife's laptop with Windows XP started running very slow.  I did all the usual things to try to fix XP, and eventually reinstalled the entire OS.  It still ran slow.  Part of the problem was that her parents bought us gorgeous large flat-panel monitors.  Try hooking up a flat-panel monitor to a low-end laptop with no dedicated graphics card and let me know how that works out for you.  My wife's laptop cried silicon tears.

The solution: Kubuntu.  Even though it's not the most popular version of Linux, not even in the top 10, I chose it because that's what I used at the time, and so I had the most familiarity with it and if any problems cropped up I'd be able to fix them quickly.  Problems did crop up, and I was able to fix them quickly.  Overall, my wife got an OS that ran well and enabled her to do everything she needed.  Only when we retired the laptop did we realize that half her memory had died; that's why Windows ran so slow!  And yet Linux ran fine.

Verdict: Partial success.  Thanks to Linux, she was able to squeeze an extra year of life out of a dying laptop.  But the interface was a little clunky and it required a fair amount of tech support from me to keep it going.  So it worked, and she was generally happy with it, but it was far from ideal.  Her new computer is a Mac.

Actual Mother Test: Last year my mother's desktop computer died and it took Sony several months to get her a replacement.  During that time she borrowed my laptop, running Kubuntu.  The verdict: it was useable, it was fast, and it didn't break.  But it wasn't what she was used to.  Although she was grateful for a computer that worked and allowed her to do everything she needed, she wasn't thrilled with it.  I'm sorry to say she's a lot more satisfied with Vista (although now her fiance takes care of tech support for her so I don't have to deal with Vista).

In both the Wife Test and the Mother Test, part of my failure stemmed from the fact that I didn't use a better version of Linux.  There's a reason Ubuntu has been the #1 choice for several years now: it's incredibly user-friendly, and it's incredibly polished.  If my wife or mother had tried Ubuntu instead, they probably would have been happier.

Mother-In-Law Test: All jokes aside, I like my mother in law.  When she got a brand new laptop with Vista that ran horribly, she turned to me for help.  I quickly realized that the hardware on this brand new laptop wasn't sufficient to run Vista and I wondered why on earth Toshiba would have installed it in the first place.  Even after I cleaned out the OS and uninstalled everything I could, it was still unusable.  So I installed Ubuntu.  Then I connected her printer/scanner and webcam and transfered all her files over.  Before I left town, I sat down with her and walked her through using the new OS so she wouldn't have any questions.

The verdict: 100% satisfaction.  She can check her work email, bring documents home, surf the web, even talk with her daughter on the webcam.  Everything works, and it's fast and stable.  Compared to her hellish Vista experience, Linux is paradise.

Conclusion: if my mother in law can use Linux, then it's ready for the mainstream.