KDE: Putting Linux on the desktop

Many Linux distro vendors have started pitching Linux for desktops in enterprise environments. But KDE and GNOME are the real MVPs for the desktop interface.

Linux as easy to use as Windows?

Recently, HP, Red Hat and Novell took a big leap and started pushing Linux for the desktop in enterprise environments. However, desktop software such as KDE and GNOME deserve just as much credit as the distributors of Linux.

Unlike Microsoft Windows, Linux doesn't actually mean you get a desktop (a.k.a. "windows" environment). A more accurate term is "X Windows environment." Usually during the installation, you have a choice of two or three different desktop environments to choose from. For security, most Linux servers have no windows environment at all; just the needed applications. Everything is done through a terminal or a Webadmin client.

During the last three years, I've used KDE (K Desktop). With Mandrake Linux, KDE is the default windows environment. Another popular desktop is Gnome, which is similar to KDE but has a different architecture. However, it is possible to install and compare both to see which one suits your needs. Red Hat's own desktop is actually a combination of GNOME and KDE. Most applications such as GNOME Meeting or Evolution can be installed whether you are are running GNOME or KDE.

Since Red Hat, Novell, SuSE and Mandrake pretty much all come with KDE and GNOME, a lot of the same applications are available. In this article, I will introduce some of the core applications as well as others that are more fun. All of these come on the distribution CDs -- the original three I downloaded from Mandrake. With this type of environment, there are plenty of reasons why Linux can become prominent on the desktop.

Konqueror for files and Web

Like Microsoft Windows, KDE comes with a feature-rich File Manager/Web Browser called Konqueror (in Gnome, Nautilus is the default file browser). Konqueror can be used for local file browsing as well as browsing the Web. I mostly use Mozilla to browse the Web but often start using Konqueror without realizing it. Konqueror also supports multiple windows, tabbed views, split views (very helpful when copying files) and FTP folders (see figure 1).

Figure 1: Konqueror file browser

Office and productivity software

KDE comes with KOffice which includes KWord, KPresenter, KCalc and KSpread. These applications are light and quick. They usually have enough features for most users and a very consistent look and feel. Kontact (see figure 2) is a calendar and e-mail program I currently use. Again, having an integrated system is nice, especially if you are new to Linux. For most businesses, having a set of applications like these available to all users is enough for daily operations.

KWrite (or Kate) is the default text editor for KDE and it is much better than notepad. For many Windows users, the first priority of business when getting a new computer is to find a better notepad. By default, KWrite does a decent job at coloring most types of code files as well as XML. With XML, it also builds the XML tree so you can hide and drill down to different elements. KDE provides quite a few editors (KWrite and Kate are the most common), again, out of the box and with spell checking. Of course vi and emacs are also available (see figure 3).

Figure 2: Kontact Calendar and Email

Figure 3: Editing an XML file with KWrite

The Goodies

Other software that could be used more at home than in the office shows off the development of KDE. K3b is a CD burner that handles data files, ISO images and audio CDs as "projects." Creating a CD from an ISO image is probably one of the best interfaces I've used (it is actually a wizard). I also use Kopete to log into Yahoo, AOL and MSN Messenger all at the same time. It also has some inbox functionality for Hotmail. Over the years I've used Yahoo with family (because my brother got everyone on it) and MSN Messenger with friends. Having one program to handle the messaging is very convenient. Another program I've used is KStars. Owning a telescope, I was pleasantly surprised to find a star and planet finder application included. There are also quite a few games and educational programs available. These are not blockbusters (except for maybe bzflag which is not part of KDE). However, they are more than what is included in a typical Windows application.

Conclusion

There are things about KDE that might be annoying. Maintaining the start menu and how applications are configured could be easier. However, most people have the same issues with Windows XP or any other operating system.

Besides KDE, many other user-friendly applications like Open Office, Evolution, XSane, gnuCash and, of course, Mozilla have become very stable and work just as well as their Windows equivalents.

With the software available to users with Linux and KDE, buying more software from other sources can also become a thing of the past. It'll be interesting to watch over the next year to see how many people and businesses switch to Linux.

KDE, Gnome and others develop great software for users to access the computer with a graphical desktop. For more info about KDE and Gnome, check out www.kde.org and www.gnome.org.

This was first published in May 2004

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