We all remember our first time. It began with one ill-advised click, and then another, and soon we'd clicked our way to the bottom of an Internet rabbit hole, our screens inundated with popups from .ru domains. Those of us privy to the wiles of the web know not to download anything unless we trust the source – but what happens to those who lack the necessary skepticism?
But What of the Innocents?
What about those to whom the digital frontier is unfamiliar and frightening? Our parents and grandparents, society's elders, the good people who oft reminisce about simpler times, when a kind stranger would lend a helping hand to a guy or gal in a jam. How do they react when they tumble down the digital rabbit hole and encounter a barrage of aggressive popups? More importantly, what do they do when they arrive to a page awash with flashing GIF sirens and large, red text, alerting them to a “virus” and instructing them to download a program called ANTIVIRUS4REAL.exe? We know what they do. They click OK and unwittingly install malware. They do it every time. And who fixes their computer after they've obliterated their data? We do, their children and grandchildren. Every time.
To Avoid Highwaymen, Take the Road Less Traveled
In the first four months of 2015 alone, anti-malware researchers discovered more than 48 million new Trojans, viruses, and other forms of malicious software. Of those, 98% targeted Windows, primarily because over 90% of personal computers run a Windows operating system. The diligent team at Microsoft does an excellent job implementing timely security updates to protect users from threats, but even they can't stop a well-intentioned yet misguided grandparent from ruining their computer by downloading a virus disguised as instructions to collect their cash award for being the 1,000,000th visitor.
However, if such a grandparent were to download a malicious .exe file to a computer running an operating system that didn't recognize the file type, an otherwise certain crisis would be averted. They could fill an entire hard drive with .exe viruses, and their computer would soldier on, unperturbed. Such an operating system does exist, and you don't need to drag your grandparents through the mall to your local Apple store to get it. It's elegant, simple, and can be installed right now, for free. If your favorite pensioner's computer activity consists mostly of web surfing and email, they may be the perfect candidate for a lightweight Linux distribution.
A New Hope
Long associated with apex geekdom, Linux is often wrongfully classed as inaccessible to anyone lacking a degree in computer science. The word evokes cinematic memories of a sinister terminal, a wall of white or green code against a baleful black background.
The Old Man and the PC
For older machines, there are light, nimble Linux distros created specifically to maximize performance with outdated hardware. To a millenial, a ten-year-old computer is ancient. But to a morning mall walker who covers their keyboard with a frilly doily when not in use, such a machine is cutting edge. To them, purchasing a new computer would be an unnecessary waste of valuable nickels when the current machine probably just needs a little tune-up and an oil change, and hey, isn't that what grandkids are for? You'll be paid in cookies.
Game of Distros
So which of the hundreds of unique distros is best suited to the geriatric in your life? Avid Linux users should choose the one with which they're most familiar; when an IT service-request ticket is passive-aggressively submitted during Thanksgiving dinner, they'll be best positioned to assist if they're intimately knowledgeable with the system at hand. For Linux neophytes – those who have yet to convert but are tired of sitting through virus scans and defrags every time they visit their Nana – Lubuntu is an excellent choice. Based on Ubuntu, one of the the most popular full-function distros, Lubuntu is a slim, sleek operating system designed to minimize its resource footprint while providing complete functionality for basic personal use. It features the lightweight LXDE desktop environment, designed with a similar look and feel to the familiar Windows interface, allowing for a smooth transition. Users have complete access to a plethora of free software available in the Ubuntu software repository, from the familiar Firefox browser to the versatile LibreOffice Suite, while Canonical provides regular and automatic security and software updates through the native Software Updater. Other options include Puppy Linux, Linux Mint, Xubuntu, and many more.
Try Before You Don't Buy
Those who would like to test drive a particular distro before committing can do so by installing it to a spare flash drive by following these directions. Detailed instructions for the straightforward installation process are widely available, both here and around the web, and all levels of support, whether for the complete newb or the seasoned hacker, can be found in the enormous, friendly, and incredibly involved open-source community.
Social Media Security
A brief time investment today could save you from one or more unexpected time sinks in the future, perhaps sparing you from the sudden scramble to remedy an infected PC so the Bingo player in your life can quickly return to trying to find you on Facebook. While nothing less than constant surveillance will prevent innocent fingers from clicking malicious links, the right Linux distro can minimize the damage, or mitigate it altogether, while still offering all the functionality a web-surfing Granny requires. In a perfect world, hackers would simply stop creating malware, but until pigs fly through blizzards in Hades, the best option is to become a small target, and with Linux, being small doesn't require sacrifice.