Troubleshooters.Com Presents

Linux Productivity Magazine

Volume 3 Issue 8, August 2004

The Linux Desktop

Copyright (C) 2004 by Steve Litt. All rights reserved. Materials from guest authors copyrighted by them and licensed for perpetual use to Linux Productivity Magazine. All rights reserved to the copyright holder, except for items specifically marked otherwise (certain free software source code, GNU/GPL, etc.). All material herein provided "As-Is". User assumes all risk and responsibility for any outcome.

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See also Troubleshooting Techniques of the Successful Technologist
and Rapid Learning: Secret Weapon of the Successful Technologist
by Steve Litt

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but only after massive investments in ease of use and configuration. The average desktop user is unfamiliar with "make".  -- Halloween Document II


Editor's Desk

By Steve Litt
We use Linux for servers only!

That was conventional wisdom for years. It's an easy position to take. Samba has always been, and continues to be, despite Microsoft's repeated changes to break Samba interoperatbility, a better file/print server than Windows. Sure, at any given time Windows servers have features Samba can't (yet) match, but Samba is rock solid, easy to administer, and zero cost.

Quick! Think of a web server software! Did you think of IIS? Probably not. You thought of industry leader Apache, and you probably envisioned it on either a Linux or BSD box.

Linux hosts many other great servers, including X servers, mail servers, ftp and secure ftp servers, fax servers, news servers, telnet/ssh servers, and loads more. For a lightly used server, an $800.00 commodity box, with no software cost once you download or otherwise obtain your Linux distribution. For a heavy hitter machine you'll pay extra for error correcting RAM, more RAM, faster processor, SCSI disks and the like, but not a penny more for software.

Linux servers are a no-brainer.

Desktops are a different animal. The people who use them are a lot less technical than server administrators, and thus do not train themselves. Training is an issue. Something as simple as a different method of cut and paste presents a training challenge. There are huge file and protocol compatibility issues between the Linux desktop and the Windows world. Some Windows programs have no close equivalent in the Linux world. So why are more and more individuals and corporations jumping to the Linux desktop?

People who years ago considered only the product are now starting to consider the vendor. How has Microsoft treated them? Do they trust Microsoft? How do they feel about the spectre of software audits, and possible huge fines? These are the major incentives.

Once those incentives highlight a choice, the "wouldn't it be nice" factors come into play. Wouldn't it be nice to have software expenses go down to zero? Wouldn't it be nice to install an OS on any machine, as many machines you want, without first placing a call to your company's procurement officer? Wouldn't it be nice to be immune to the most destructive viruses? Wouldn't it be nice to have world-class C, C++, Java, Perl, Python and PHP compilers and interpreters bundled with the operating system?

2004's best kept secret is that many corporations are trying out Linux desktops. Many individuals bring Linux desktops into their homes.

This month's Linux Productivity Magazine is devoted to the Linux Desktop. If you've ever considered a Linux desktop computer, or if you just like Linux, this is your magazine. Enjoy!
Steve Litt is the author of Samba Unleashed.   Steve can be reached at his email address.

Help Publicize Linux Productivity Magazine

By Steve Litt
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For months I've publicized Linux Productivity Magazine, expanding it from a new magazine to a mainstay read by thousands. There's a limit to what I can do alone, but if you take one minute to help, the possibilities are boundless.

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Steve Litt is the founder and acting president of Greater Orlando Linux User Group (GoLUG).   Steve can be reached at his email address.

GNU/Linux, open source and free software

By Steve Litt
Linux is a kernel. The operating system often described as "Linux" is that kernel combined with software from many different sources. One of the most prominent, and oldest of those sources, is the GNU project.

"GNU/Linux" is probably the most accurate moniker one can give to this operating system. Please be aware that in all of Troubleshooters.Com, when I say "Linux" I really mean "GNU/Linux". I completely believe that without the GNU project, without the GNU Manifesto and the GNU/GPL license it spawned, the operating system the press calls "Linux" never would have happened.

I'm part of the press and there are times when it's easier to say "Linux" than explain to certain audiences that "GNU/Linux" is the same as what the press calls "Linux". So I abbreviate. Additionally, I abbreviate in the same way one might abbreviate the name of a multi-partner law firm. But make no mistake about it. In any article in Troubleshooting Professional Magazine, in the whole of Troubleshooters.Com, and even in the technical books I write, when I say "Linux", I mean "GNU/Linux".

There are those who think FSF is making too big a deal of this. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The GNU General Public License, combined with Richard Stallman's GNU Manifesto and the resulting GNU-GPL License, are the only reason we can enjoy this wonderful alternative to proprietary operating systems, and the only reason proprietary operating systems aren't even more flaky than they are now. 

For practical purposes, the license requirements of "free software" and "open source" are almost identical. Generally speaking, a license that complies with one complies with the other. The difference between these two is a difference in philosophy. The "free software" crowd believes the most important aspect is freedom. The "open source" crowd believes the most important aspect is the practical marketplace advantage that freedom produces.

I think they're both right. I wouldn't use the software without the freedom guaranteeing me the right to improve the software, and the guarantee that my improvements will not later be withheld from me. Freedom is essential. And so are the practical benefits. Because tens of thousands of programmers feel the way I do, huge amounts of free software/open source is available, and its quality exceeds that of most proprietary software.

In summary, I use the terms "Linux" and "GNU/Linux" interchangably, with the former being an abbreviation for the latter. I usually use the terms "free software" and "open source" interchangably, as from a licensing perspective they're very similar. Occasionally I'll prefer one or the other depending if I'm writing about freedom, or business advantage.

Steve Litt is the author of Troubleshooting Techniques of the Successful Technologist.   Steve can be reached at his email address.

My Bias

By Steve Litt
You might as well know up front I'm a Mandrake Man, and have been for four years. Mandrake is a Linux distro aimed at the desktop niche. It detects hardware very well (though not as well as Knoppix), and comes with a HUGE group of very useful applications. For me, installing Mandrake is a way of getting an almost complete desktop machine in a one hour install.

That being said, I can show you very knowledeable people who have set up heavy duty desktop computers with Red Hat, Fedora, Debian, Knoppix, and even "geeky" distros and operating systems like Slackware and BSD.


BSD is not Linux, but rather an actual UNIX that is free software. BSD's supporters love its stability and performance.

Mandrake is not the only distro aimed specifically at the desktop. There are many others, including Lindows, which strives to be as much like Windows as possible, while still keeping most of the Linux benefits.

Knoppix deserves special notice because it can be run directly from a CDROM without disturbing the operating system installed on the hard disk. This makes Knoppix a wonderful stepping stone. If you like Knoppix, you can choose to install it on the hard disk and use it just like any other distribution. Knoppix is Debian under the hood, so you can update just like any other Debian distribution. Knoppix does a better job of hardware detection than any Linux distribution I've ever seen. That alone makes your life much easier. Knoppix is also an excellent diagnostic tool and hardware tester/configurer, but this is beyond the scope of this month's magazine.

So which distribution should you choose for the desktop? Informally I'd say Mandrake because I've had so much success with it. But really, you can make any Linux distribution into an excellent desktop -- it's just a matter of how much work it will take to do so.

If the rest of this document appears to be somewhat Mandrake-centric, it's because I've had 100 times more experience with Mandrake than Red Hat, and 10,000 times more experience than with Debian, Knoppix (used as a desktop), Caldera, Corel, or BSD. That being said, I believe most of what's written in this month's magazine is applicable to Linux at large.

The Basic Desktop Machine

By Steve Litt
What do most people do with computers? They surf the web. They correspond via email. They write letters and other documents. They work with spreadsheets. They create presentations. They interact with specialty applications. They track their finances.

Most of the preceding capabilities are packaged with your average Linux distribution. For web browsing, the user has the choice of Mozilla, Konqueror, Galeon, and several other browsers. Most Linux distributions come with Kmail, Evolution and Mozilla Email. Many Linux distros are bundled with OpenOffice, which includes a word processor, spreadsheet, and presentation program, all of which are compatible with documents created by most versions of MS Office.

That leaves two holes:
  1. Interacting with specialty applications
  2. Tracking finances
#1 is doable depending on the specialty application. If it's a web app and isn't riddled with browser or OS dependencies, it's likely runnable from a Linux desktop. If it's a simple C or C++ program without Windows specific frameworks such as MFC, it might be possible to get the vendor to compile it for Linux. If it's an in-house application, it could be ported or reengineered. So in many instances you can interact with specialty applications from a Linux desktop.

#2 is problematic. There's no Quicken or Quickbooks for Linux. Sure, you can learn and use GNUCash. You can train employees to use GNUCash. But you'll be out of sync with the vast majority of accountants, who can handle only Quicken, Quickbooks, and a few other well known Windows-centric accounting packages. Alternative approaches to this problem will be discussed in later articles.

To get your basic desktop, start with a substantial hard disk (at least 20GB), and install all browsers, all email clients, OpenOffice, all the office offerings from the KDE and Gnome projects, KDE, Gnome, and all the other desktop managers. Configure Internet connectivity and a firewall, either on the desktop box or on a separate box. I use a separate box with the IPCop firewall distribution, because it makes Internet connection trivial and it's an excellent firewall, complete with DNS server and DHCP server.

That's it. You have a basic desktop machine. Now explore its possibilities.
Steve Litt is the author of the Universal Troubleshooting Process Courseware.   Steve can be reached at his email address.

Exploring the Possibilities

By Steve Litt
Linux is a brand new world. It comes with several browsers -- which one will you use? Same with email clients. One thing that really separates Linux from Windows is the availability of multiple window managers and desktop environments. Window managers are software that governs the display, appearance of and interaction with windows. When integrated more closely with other software, window managers are often called desktop environments. Either way, Windows has only one, while Linux has many, although you can only use one at a time for a given X server.

If you've used Windows you're probably familiar with themes. By changing themes you can change the color scheme, button appearance, window appearance, and even which controls are visible. But underneath it all, you're still using the exact same software.

Window managers also change color scheme, button appearance, window appearance, and the controls. The distinction is that different themes use the same software, while different window managers are different software, sometimes with drastically different capabilities and advantages.

Most people use the KDE desktop environment. It's very intuitive and Windows-like in its user interface. When it comes to user interface, Windows-like is a good thing, because Bill Gates spent oceans of money testing peoples' reactions to various user interface components. KDE comes with huge numbers of applications designed specifically for it, although most of those applications can be used with other window managers. KDE's ease and powerful features come at a cost -- it's very resource intensive.

Another widely used desktop environment is Gnome. It's not quite as Windows-like, but if you can use Windows, you'll instantly understand how to use Gnome. Like KDE, Gnome comes with many applications. Like KDE, Gnome is very resource intensive.

I use IceWM. Unlike Gnome and KDE, IceWM is a window manager and little more. Therefore it's very easy on your resources. IceWM makes low power machines enjoyable, and high power machines screamers. Like KDE and Gnome, IceWM is very Windows like in its user interface, plus keyboard use is a high priority with IceWM. IceWM includes a CPU monitor and network monitor on its taskbar. I've grown to find these indispensible.

Fvwm is another small footprint window manager with a start button and a taskbar. It's a great choice for a low power machine.

Fluxbox, Blackbox and XFCE are three small footprint window managers without taskbars or start buttons. You access the menu by clicking the desktop, which can be difficult if you have a lot of applications open. Fluxbox opens windows in a way that leaves a tiny strip of the desktop uncovered at the bottom of the screen so that you can easily click the desktop to access your menu. XFCE has a relatively large control center dohicky at the bottom of the screen. I've never been able to figure out how to use it.

Speaking of not figuring out how to use something, I've never figured out WindowMaker. WindowMaker is, in my opinion, the most aesthetically pleasing window manager out there. It has lots of configuration opportunities and a great level of integration, but its user interface is miles away from the others.

Exploring Your Applications

Your average modern distro contains a treasure trove of applications. Word processing, spreadsheets, presentation, desktop publishing, html authoring, text editors, web browsing, email, newsgroups, chat, instant messaging, accounting, calendars, pixel graphic authoring, vector graphic authoring, and much more. The following table just scratches the surface of what's available on the typical Linux install CD:


  • Web browsers
    • Mozilla
    • Galeon
    • Epiphany
    • Konqueror
    • Nautilus
    • lynx
    • links
  • Email clients
    • Kmail
    • Evolution
    • Mutt
    • Pine
    • Mozilla email
  • Chat
    • xchat
    • ytalk
  • Instant messaging
    • Gabber
    • Gaim
    • Jabber
    Content authoring

  • Word processors
    • Open Office
    • kword (part of koffice)
  • Desktop publishers
    • scribus
    • kword (part of koffice)
  • Book writing software
    • Lyx
    • Docbook
  • Spreadsheets
    • Gnumeric
    • OpenOffice
    • Kspread (part of koffice)
  • Graphics authoring
    • Pixel graphics
      • Gimp
    • Vector graphics
      • dia
      • xfig
  • Text editors
    • vim
    • vile
    • emacs
    • jed
    • joe
    • xedit
    • nedit
    • joe
    Other office programs

  • Money
    • GNUcash
  • Faxing
    • Hylafax
    • fax
  • Digital photos
    • gPhoto
  • Project management
    • planner
  • Calendering
    • gnomecal
    • cal
    • ical
    Maintenance tools

  • File managers
    • mc
    • git
    • Nautilus
    • Konqueror
  • Distro specific configuration tools
  • Swat, Gnomba (configuring Samba)
  • Servers

  • Windows File/print server (Samba)
  • Linux file server (nfs)
  • Mail server
    • Postfix
    • Sendmail
    • Others available free on web
  • Web server (apache)
  • News server
  • Chat server
  • X server
  • FTP (and sftp) servers
  • Telnet and ssh servers
  • Entertainment

  • Sound
    • xmms
    • aumix (a mixer, not a player)
    • festival (speech synthesis)
  • Video
    • xine
    • mplayer
    • totem
  • Games
    • bzflag
    • many, many others

    Try running all these applications. You'll find a few you really like.

    Steve Litt is the author of the Universal Troubleshooting Process Courseware.   Steve can be reached at his email address.

    The Development Desktop

    By Steve Litt
    When it comes to development, you could describe Linux as "it was the best of times, it was the worst of times". You'll never see Visual Basic running on Linux (except with emulation). Nor MS Access. Most of those drag and drop "development evironments" you came to know and love (or hate) in Windows are conspicuously absent.

    But if you're not afraid to write code, and you're good enough with a cut and paste editor to develop fast, most languages are available right on your Linux distribution CD:
    If you're a developer, I suggest that you install everything in the development section of your install CD. Sure, you won't use most of it, but if you want to explore any of it you can do so immediately.

    Beyond what comes on your Linux CD, there are plenty of free software development tools you can download. Google and your local LUG are your friends.

    Beyond free software, you can get commercial tools. Bless Borland's heart, they ported Delphi, calling it Kylix. Our friends at ActiveState sell a cross-language development environment called Komodo, as well as the Perl Development kit and Visual Perl, with which you can interface with .NET. These can be bought as a single package called ActivePerl Pro Studio. Other ActiveState offerings include Visual Python and Visual XSLT.

    Led by the GNU compilers, Linux available languages are for the most part rock solid, fast and productive. You can use Linux as a web app server, database server, or to directly host an app. Use it!
    Steve Litt is the author of Rapid Learning: Secret Weapon of the Successful Technologist.   Steve can be reached at his email address.

    Interacting With the Windows World

    By Steve Litt
    The day you switch to Linux for your desktop machine, to a degree you'll be at odds with the Microsoft world. To put it charitably, Linux compatibility is not high on Microsoft's priority list.

    Luckily for us, the free software community, and in some instances the commercial software companies, have created great tools to interact with Microsoft programs and data.

    Using Microsoft Software

    One way to interact is to actually use Microsoft software, either as a dual boot, a second machine, or a virtual machine.

    Dual booting

    Many people keep Windows around to run a single app (typically Quicken/QuickBooks). If that app is used infrequently, given how cheap disk space is today, why not simply dual boot. Dual booting isn't always easy, and runs the risk of trashing both operating systems, but many people are quite happy with their dual boot situations.

    Second machine

    I have a headless Windows machine in the corner. It's the same Pentium II 300 with 128MB that I bought for $2000.00 in 1997, and used as my daily driver until March 2001. Today it lives on as my Windows compatibility appliance. This box would seem hopelessly obsolete today, but please remember it's running the same software it ran in December 1997, when it was a state of the art screamer. This appliance enables me to create perfect MS Office files, and to use Micrografx Windows Draw, WordPerfect 5.1, and Key Thesaurus (a $39.00 DOS TSR that blows the doors off every other thesaurus I've tried).

    In the old days I accessed it through VNC. VNC is wonderful, enabling me to "take over" the Windows box's desktop from my Linux desktop. Trouble is, VNC is rather slow, and it's twitchy in full screen mode, meaning I usually worked in a small 800x600 window on my 1024x768 box. With my eyesight, that's not good.

    So I spent $150.00 on a Belkin 4 port KVM switch with 15 foot cables. This allowed me to get rid of serveral monitors, freeing up lots of desk space. Better yet, now my daily driver, my Windows box and my experimental boxes are all visible from my 19" monitor.

    All my data resides on my Athlon 2400 1.5GB RAM 400GB disk daily driver. When the Windows box needs to operate on data, it uses a simple Samba configuration to reach that data. Life is good.

    Virtual machine

    VmWare anyone? You can purchase VmWare Workstation for $199. Using VmWare Workstation, you can partition a physical machine into a Linux box and a Windows box, each with its own network. Indeed, the two can interact quite nicely, using some of the same techniques discussed in the Second machine section. You can simulate having a couple Linux boxes and a Windows box with one piece of hardware. Out-standing!


    Many emulators (or things that act sort of like emulators) enable you to run Windows software on a Linux box. The most famous is Crossover Office. Supposedly you can install and run all of MS Office, and now even Quicken. They're working on Quickbooks.

    I installed Crossover Office about a year ago and couldn't get it to work right. All apps worked for a couple minutes and then froze. The people at Crossover Office extended my support time and offered to give me assistance, but I was just too pressed for time to take them up on it.

    The good news is, from what I hear a lot of people find great success with Crossover Office. Imagine using your old favorites on your new Linux box, without the need to maintain or even pay for Windows.

    I wonder if Microsoft will place language in their license or EULA forbidding use of their products on Linux computers. Would that be legal? Would it be a good marketing move by Microsoft, or would it simply gain them even more enemies? We may find out.

    There are other emulator like products, including Win4lin. Win4lin requires a Windows license, but from what I hear it's very good at running Windows apps on Linux.

    Compatible apps

    The very best compatibility is naturally delivered by separate box, dual boot or virtual machine systems. Then come the emulators. However, sometimes you can get by with even less compatibility. In that case, consider a compatible app.

    When it comes to Microsoft Office, the king of compatible apps is OpenOffice. You can open, edit and save MS Word, MS Powerpoint, and MS Excel files. You can save as various MS formats, or as the native OpenOffice formats, or even as RTF or HTML. OpenOffice is my first choice for reading MS Office documents, and for casual writing of MS Office documents. However, when I really need an exacting look in the final MS Office document, I either author in MS Office, or author in OpenOffice and then tweak in MS Office.

    OpenOffice also has a very nice vector drawing program.

    Other apps can also work with MS Office documents. My favorite spreadsheet, Gnumeric, reads and writes Excel spreadsheets. Kspread doesn't save to Excel, but it saves to Gnumeric, from which you can save to Excel.

    Kword opens WordPerfect 5.1 files. It's not very faithful to the original formatting and graphics, but it gives you the text and some idea of the formatting as a starting point. Unfortunately, the little research I've completed indicates that it converts all WordPerfect styles into appearances. Although you could conceivably open a WordPerfect 5.1 document in Kword and save it as OpenOffice, there are probably better ways to convert old WP 5.1 files to more modern formats.

    In my opinion, using compatable apps is by far the easiest way to work with MS and WordPerfect documents. Another advantage is that by saving in OpenOffice, Gnumeric or other free software native formats, your data resides in more robust, editable and parsable text formats.


    No matter what degree of Microsoft compatibility you desire, there's a solution for you. A physically separate Windows machine, a Windows virtual machine (VmWare, win4lin), an emulator (CrossOver Office), or compatible app (OpenOffice, Gnumeric, Kword), you can interface with the Microsoft world.
    Steve Litt is the author of Samba Unleashed.   Steve can be reached at his email address.

    Life After Windows: Switching is Hard to Do

    Life After Windows is a regular Linux Productivity Magazine column, by Steve Litt, bringing you observations and tips subsequent to Troubleshooters.Com's Windows to Linux conversion.
    By Steve Litt
    Ask 100 people why they don't use a Linux desktop. Most will mention incompatibility with the Windows world. But a huge number will also state an objection that boils down to "it's just so hard to switch". That's an objection that's hard to counter, because it's true.

    How well I remember March 2001, when I switched my business from the Windows to the Linux desktop. How well I remember tasks I couldn't perform any more. I couldn't write a book, I couldn't create an outline. A hundred little gotchas plagued my first few weeks in Linux.

    One by one, I lined them up and shot them down. But even today,  a few remain.

    My Linux pet peeve #1 is cut and paste. I'm a touch typist, so I'm not sure why cut and paste should involve the middle mouse button, or any mouse button for that matter. And if you accidentally highlight something before doing the paste, you need to start over again. And in Linux, there are some program pairs that won't cut and paste to each other.

    Of course, many applications enable Ctrl+C and Ctrl+V cut and paste, but that's at the application level, and it's inconsistent. Programs like Klipper make cut and paste more uniform across applications, but no matter what you do, Linux cut and paste is never as simple and uniform as the Ctrl+C and Ctrl+V in Windows.

    Another Linux pet peeve is the mouse. No matter what you do with XFConfig mouse resolution and xset mouse accelleration, the Linux mouse is never as smooth and easy as in Windows.


    What really puts my Linux pet peeves in perspective is maintaining my wife's and my daughter's Win98 PC's. When's the last time you tried to work on the command line without file completion? How could I EVER have worked without file completion? On a Windows computer, I first need to perform a dir command to find the filename, and then retype it. This could add an hour to a serious maintenance session.

    Win98 doesn't, by default, come with command history and editing. If you ever want to know how dear these features are to you, go to a virgin Win9x machine and try to work without them.

    Trying to install Mozilla Firefox on my daughter's computer, I had occasion to go into regedit. Eeuuuu, get it offa me. Regedit! One wrong move and your OS is trashed. Or you have to press Enter every boot. Or you get a strange problem you'd never associate with a specific registry variable.

    Just when you think Windows can't get worse, try installing a network, sound or video card in Windows. I don't mean one you just bought 10 minutes ago at Best Buy. I mean one several years old that's been sitting in another computer. One for which you don't possess the manufacturers drivers, nor do you even know the manufacturer and model. Oh, how you long for those good old Linux days when you drop in almost any old card and it autodetects. In windows, even having the drivers is no assurance of success. I've failed 3 times and succeeded once at installing an Intel EEPro100+ in Windows. In Linux, it works instantly. Same for all my Realtek 8139 chipset network cards.

    My wife bought a Kodak DX4530 camera. At the time, Linux documentation varied on how well that camera was supported by Linux. It took her a few tries to get it to work with her Win98 machine. I'd never before worked with a digital camera, but I took it, plugged it into my Linux box's USB port, fooled around for an hour, and got it to download albums. Now, a few months later, her camera works with an out of the box Mandrake 10 system.


    Yes, it's really difficult to switch from Windows to Linux. It's heartbreaking to leave behind those features you loved. But if you really want to experience difficulty and heartbreak, try switching from Linux to Windows.
    Steve Litt is the founder and acting president of Greater Orlando Linux User Group (GoLUG).   Steve can be reached at his email address.

    Letters to the Editor

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