Every time mum and dad visit any of their kids or their wired friends, there is usually a moment where they ooh and ahh at the miracle of the Internet. Touring the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, watching the Sydney-Hobart Yachts update in Google Earth, seeing storms roll by on Bureau of Meteorology Radar — they were certainly interested in getting on the Internet. “Why,” my siblings and I wondered, “had they not got themselves connected?”
Mum and Dad wanted to get this Internet thing to explore, and to exchange email and photographs with their family and friends.
The problem was they didn’t know how to begin or how much it would cost. Hardware and software and the terrors of the Internet all blended into a very mysterious and threatening challenge.
“How do you get a virus?”
“How do you talk to someone?”
We tried to explain, but their eyes glazed over.
The desire to get on the Internet was really 80% mum and 20% dad. Mum and dad have run a small business in regional NSW since about 1975. Mum learned how to type on a typewriter when the small business wasn’t going so well and it looked like mum would have to get a second job to keep things afloat. Thankfully that scare remained just a scare and mum rarely ever used her typing skill, or the typewriter, again.
Dad is a tradesman. Although he has held many administrative roles in various community and charitable groups and has written many quotes for the business he has never really used a keyboard.
For Christmas, my siblings and I pitched in to get mum and dad deployed on the Internet. We were all going to be home for a week with them over Christmas, so it was a perfect time to impart all of our knowledge about what it is like to be on the Internet and answer any questions that came up.
I put together a pretty basic computer — a new cheap Windows XP desktop computer with built-in NVIDIA video, a very basic AMD CPU and 1GB of ram. I tacked on an old 17″ LCD display, and about $60 worth of Canon printer/scanner/flash-card reader. I put a wireless network card in the back too, as the path from the incoming phone line to the “computer room” could not be cabled easily.
Rationale: What I would like to have done was load them up with Fedora Core 6, with which I have had success with my kids. This would have been free, and saved money on operating system and virus scan software. The decision to go with XP is a combination of cheap-ass printer driver support, frightening Linux wireless support and a lack of local (to my parents’ house) knowledge of Linux to help them when we kids weren’t around to help. All of their friends run Windows, it seems. They don’t seem to know anyone who owns a Mac except me.
I had a spare F-Secure Internet Security 2006 license from getting a “Family Pack” so I installed that for them. I also installed most of Google Pack and set mum and dad up with Gmail, Picasa, and Google Docs.
Rationale: Mum and dad want email. My experience is that most of the security and technical problems with email come from user error and the complexity of email clients, virus and spam plugins. Gmail doesn’t really require any configuration, comes with an attachment virus scanner, and spam protection. They need never worry about deleting things and if their computer fails for some reason, their email and documents are backed up off-site.
For security and training we invested in a 48 page exercise book and pencil and wrote down anything that came up. Passwords, usernames, sites, friend’s email addresses, how to launch a program; all this and more was written into the exercise book. We judged the risk was reasonably low that someone would make off with the book and steal their money or identity. All the same, the book gets put away from the computer when it’s not needed.
One day I’ll introduce them to Password Safe, but that time hasn’t come yet.
Taking some advice from my workmates, I decided to order a basic ADSL package from the reliable Internode with a random wireless router bundled. Until they’re `on their feet we’re paying $39.95/month for 8GB of downloads and 512kbps/128kbps (down/up). They don’t need anything like 8G of download quota, but the cheaper plans were 256kbps, and that doesn’t fit my definition of broadband. When they start paying for it themselves, they might want to tolerate slower bandwidth for a cheaper plan, but that decision is a little way off yet. Since making the decision to go with a non-cheap-ass plan, Internode have withdrawn their cheaper plans from the market. We might have to churn to a provider with cheaper plan when the time comes.
In general the only thing on mum and dad’s PC that needs to be backed up is photographs. Thankfully Picasa has built-in support for backups and the PC came with Nero OEM as well.
How did it go?
At first, the training was unexpectedly slow. The first task was navigating to, and logging into every account I’d set up for them. She couldn’t log in to anything and I didn’t pick up why until we were both really annoyed. She would type her password and fail to log in then I would type the same password and succeed. Although mum had once learned to type, the muscle memory must have got rewired over the years because she kept hitting SPACE when she meant to press SHIFT.
Training mum and dad about what phishing is was a bit more of a challenge. They were a bit nervous. “How do you get a virus?” was the first question. I talked about not downloading anything and installing it unless they were absolutely sure it was ok. We looked at Microsoft’s automatic updates and learned how to recognize them, and that they would usually arrive on Wednesdays. They prefer to run IE7 even though Firefox was installed (Firefox isn’t as memorable as Internet Explorer), so there is some assistance in mitigating phishing and browser hijack attacks, but I’m afraid their ability to identify threats is still quite poor.
Mum rang me at work one days and announced that been browsing the web when she’d won a laptop by being the lucky 1,000,000th visitor to a site. Thankfully she checked with me to make sure it was legit. She wasn’t entirely surprised to know it was a scam, but she did sound disappointed, having spent an hour taking notes on the terms and conditions.
I recommended that they spend about a year on the Internet before they even contemplated signing up for Internet banking or using their credit card for anything online.
Gmail is the great success story. I don’t think mum knows that there is a difference between email and instant messaging, or that there ever was a difference.
Mum says she couldn’t go back to being without the Internet. Wikipedia, e-mail and just being able to explore and find out about things is too much to give up.
Dad’s not quite so convinced. I think he could live without it, but he does ask mum if she can use the Internet to find out about stuff for him. A lot.