linux on the desktop

I use linux a lot. Many professionals in the Unix world might play with linux on the desktop at home, and perhaps use linux on servers at work, but generally they’re not using linux on the desktop in the workplace. Windows still has that market wrapped up.

However, I work from home a great deal … and some time ago I set out to use linux on the desktop for work. I tend to think of Windows as something that’s been inflicted upon the world, rather than something of great usefulness. Perhaps thats my own pigheadedness. It’s now close to 2 years since I set out on this path and it really has been a struggle. The fact that I have persisted is testament to the fact that I want it to work. Free software is great, but at the end of the day I would gladly pay money for some commercial software that the authors had a vested interest in ‘getting right’ and ‘releasing well tested stable versions’ and that in a years time ‘that the same piece of solid software I was using would still work and not be screwed up by some dependent library that’s changed’. But even commercial linux software can have its moments.

So what kind of things do I use for ‘work’ on linux?

  • A word processor. I keep a diary of work activity mainly so I can search back through it. Sure I could use a content mgmt system, but ultimately I like the flexability of a word processor. I want to highlight things etc, so generally a plain text editor is no good. And I don’t need fancy formatting, so the equivalent of wordpad is what I want. It should be MS Word compatible too. I don’t want to use lots of resources either.
  • A spreadsheet. I need to send and receive Excel spreadsheets and keep track of my time.
  • A web browser.
  • An email client. The main thing here is to be able search email quickly. Most webmail systems do not cut it.
  • A VNC viewer. Mainly for connecting into other unix systems
  • An RDP client. Of course I have to connect to Windows servers from time to time.
  • A citrix client. And some Windows systems are accessed via citrix
  • A cisco VPN client. And I need this to actually connect to the customer.
  • An ssh client. The most useful tool.

For a Word Processor and Spreadsheet I actually paid money to get a commercial product; Softmaker Office. I just couldn’t find a free wordprocessor or spreadsheet that worked well. I looked at OpenOffice. But that thing is huge. My needs were pretty simple, and having been involved in computing for a long time, my opinion is that if a wordprocessor can’t show me the first page of a document within a few seconds then it’s too slow. And I looked and looked but I really couldn’t find the equivalent of a wordpad for linux. Apps seem to either be plain text editors or full blown wordprocessors gobbling up lots of disk space. However, Softmaker Office initially impressed me. They’re a German company as far as I can tell, and they sell their Office product for Windows, Linux and FreeBSD. It’s not too expensive and they do claim compatibility with Word and Excel. I’m not sure what level they claim for compatibility, my general feeling after using it for a while is that the Wordprocessor (TextMaker) can read most Word documents, but often stuffs up the pictures in it. For the spreadsheet side (PlanMaker) I am generally sending spreadsheets (which are pretty basic) and no one has complained about them. And the software is quite small and self contained. I really really like software that just extracts into a directory and you run it from there. It doesn’t seem to have an enormous dependency requirement and I’ve tried it on a few modern linux distros and it just seems to work. The executables are under 10MB, and most importantly they load quickly.
The key thing for the word processor is that work diary I keep. Every day I fill it in, so it just grows and grows. The only real formatting in the document is bolding bits here and there. It’s pretty basic. But I need to be able to hit ctrl-f to search and find something quickly. Textmaker seem to do this OK. But over time, that work diary got bigger and bigger. I also tended to paste text from terminal screens into this document. This worked well until SoftOffice came out with a new version; Textmaker 2006. I had used Textmaker 2004 up to this point and it worked well. When the new version came out, my diary was up to 380 pages long. I thought it would be some kind of an improvement. But it had a weird bug. Everytime I pasted a few lines in at the end of the diary using a middle click, I would wait a couple of seconds and then my text would appear. I like to think copy and paste is a pretty mature technology and the idea of waiting a few seconds to paste in a couple of lines of text is pretty sad. Pasting using ctrl-v worked instantly .. so in some ways that was a workaround. I complained to Softmaker about this and they initially offered a few suggestions, but seemed to imply that my document was too long. So I just kept using the old version … until recently when my diary got to 480 pages and the old version decided that anything beyond 480 pages should be rendered in white on a white background. Rather useful .. not. So now I’ve finally migrated to the new version and it works fine beyond 480 pages, but still has the copy/paste problem … which I kind of workaround using a tool called ‘autocutsel’.

The spreadsheet is pretty good. One niggle in common to both textmaker and planmaker is that you cannot have multiple documents open in separate windows. Sure you can have multiple documents , but you can only toggle between them with the ‘Window’ menu. If you use multiple monitors you can see how annoying this could be. Sure you could work around it by opening different docs as different usernames … but its still annoying.

I use both Opera and Firefox for web browsing. I do most work on my 1.5GHz Thinkpad T42, and I’m happy with its speed, but I still reckon Opera feels faster most of the time. However, Opera still has problems with some internet sites, so I’m forced to use Firefox in those cases. Firefox is fine in most cases. But I do always feel like its a very resource hungry monster at the best of times.

Email. As I mentioned, webmail doesn’t cut it. Everybody says; “you should just use gmail. It’s great”. Admitedly I do use gmail. And I am impressed by it. But its still not quick enough for me. I want to be able to search gigs of email very quickly, and when I’m composing an email I want to click and have something happen immediately. I don’t want to wait for it to contact the server …. etc (Yes, I know gmail is mostly asynchronous). And gmail is totally dependent on having an internet connection. So I use Thunderbird for mail. I tried a few other clients, but settled on Thunderbird (I think I looked at the seamonkey client, and maybe sylpheed) . I can’t say I like Thunderbird. Over the past two years I’ve seen some annoying bugs and been stuck trying to recover my mail data a few times. There used to be a bug where messages would not show in folders until you clicked on a few other folders first, and the silliest one was when drag and drop completely stopped working (thats possibly Archlinux’s fault more than Thunderbird). Searching mail still isn’t the fastest thing in the world, but the convenience of having all your email with you is worth it.

VNCviewer. Its hard to go wrong here. I just use the TightVNC viewer. It works well enough and after having a high latency broadband connection for a while, I know that bgr233 is the most important option.

RDP client. I use rdesktop. I assumed thats the only choice on linux. It works well enough.

Citrix client. I think you can only use the Citrix official one. I think its pretty old. It uses Motif (which personally I think is a good thing and reduces its chance of failing after a few years) and I had to play around to get the right libraries symlinked in … but has been relatively easy to set up and keep going.

Cisco VPN client. Cicso do make a linux vpn client program. Its a bit tricky to get going as it requires some linking with your kernel … and they don’t seem to update it as often as the linux kernel deviates. So I run it in a user mode linux virtual machine … so it doesn’t get trashed by my distro’s package mgmt scheme. I’m pretty happy with this setup.

ssh client. OpenSSH is fine. I could easily dedicate a whole page to how useful ssh is. But suffice to say it just works.

So I’ve had a few hassles. Many people think I should just use windows instead. So what next?

At the moment I can do my work OK. I still find myself running up vmware to edit a word document when it gets too hard for TextMaker, but most of the time I’m in a linux environment. People tell me OpenOffice is really good now with Word docs. Perhaps I’ll give that another go. I’d still like to see a simple wordpad equivalent for linux. And I’m looking forward to an email client with decent fast indexing of your emails.

I do get distracted though. I have many colleagues who have gone down the Apple Mac path. OS X does appeal to me. The quality and polish of software available for OS X does appeal. And if Apple ever makes a machine that is cheap enough that I simply don’t care if its crap … then I will buy one (even 2nd hand Macs are expensive). I’m also starting to look at the FreeBSD and PCBSD world. On the surface it looks like the BSD world has a tighter reign on the quality of what goes into their platform … but its early days for me. I’ve been looking at FreeBSD 6.2 and PCBSD1.3 under VMware and there’s a lot to like so far. So far PCBSD looks impressive for its simplistic approach. My sad niggle at the moment is the difficulty in getting the Adobe Flash player to work (yes I need youtube). Supposedly PCBSD have resolved this in the upcoming v1.4. I’ll wait and see.