Ashton Mills17 September 2007, 12:51 AM
Having settled in with his Ubuntu partner in crime, Ashton discovers that living in a Linux only world can sometimes be a breeze too.
So far we've had a bit of hit and miss affair in the Open Source Challenge. There have been a few issues which aren't so much something missing in Linux or its applications, but more a simple lack of polish or attention to detail. Some of the problems, especially media and DVD playback, were solveable through help on the Ubuntu forums -- but philosophies aside these features need to be bundled in, out of the box as it were. And if they can't, there needs to be great big fat information popups when these features are accessed that tell you why they're missing, and the shortest click-through steps to get them working. Searching a forum does not come under the umbrella of 'ease of use', a trophy Ubuntu has long been striving for. In fact, the user shouldn't have to search for anything. For an operating system to be easy to use -- and this applies equally to Linux, Windows, and Skynet (which we all know is being developed in some secret US bunker) -- it has to work for you, not the other way around. If you trace the challenge so far, you'd be fooled into thinking I was Ubuntu's plaything, working to get the necessary functionality of out of it. Somewhat opposable to its intended purpose, I would think.
But I digress -- in this installment I'm going for something simple. Actually, I've been using them since the moment I installed Ubuntu -- they're core to my work -- but they're not the most interesting of applications to start with. They are however essential: email and office, the corner stones of any networkable business machine. Oh, stop yawning! Some of us have to work!
In this project we're making the assumption that Windows does all that we need, and we're seeing if Linux and open source software measures up. Perhaps that's not an entirely fair place to sit, however as the de-facto in operating systems for which everyone is familiar, it's our best basis for comparison. So here's how we'll rate the experience of going Windows-free: Optimal
-- Passes with flying colours. The task could not only be completed, but better or easier than under Windows.
Pass -- No problems. The task can be completed exactly as under Windows.
Iffy -- When a task could only be partially completed, or completed but not without issue.
Flop -- Not possible to complete at all. Probably not a good thing.
One of the most popular software suites that put Gnome on the map a few years ago for 'business' computing was Evolution, an open source alternative to Outlook with a focus on the office. Not just an email client, but calendar, contact database and task manager it was designed to be the ultimate Linux groupware suite. Except for a long time it couldn't interface with MS Exchange servers for email, limiting its uptake, without a costly commercial plugin from Ximian, now free.
Today Evolution is the default email application for Gnome, and is pretty damn swank. It's not as lean as alternatives such as Thunderbird or Slypheed, but it lacks nothing and its contact, calendar and task-list integration is essential for the working user.
Having been using it for a while now I actually do somewhat miss the simplicity of a leaner client like Outlook Express or Thunderbird, but probably more due to familiarity (having used both extensively) than anything else.
Otherwise, Evolution is simply a powerhouse. Filters are a breeze to setup, GPG support is built-in, neat features like Search Folders make it easy to find information, and it didn't blink when importing my inbox from Thunderbird under Windows of over 10,000 messages, attachments and all. And not that I have one, but Evolution can synchronise with PDAs as well.
Where it matters most -- viewing and writing emails -- Evolution is a pleasure. The formatting options in the editor are great, how it handles attachments is simply beautiful, and if you can't be bothered to write a signature it'll autogenerate one for you. My only bugbear is the annoying shaded bars for every second line in the messages box, a bit of Gnome standard, and which can't be turned off. What's wrong with a plain white background? Can't have everything, I suppose. But Evolution comes close.
Evolutionary email: Optimal -- Passes with flying colours. The task could not only be completed, but better or easier than under Windows.
|Yes, there's a beautiful Redmond sized irony in this screen cap of the Evolution client.
|Search folders in Evolution make it easy to categorise and find information.
Much like Evolution has had many years of development behind it, so too has Open Office, Ubuntu's chosen office suite. In fact, Open Office has quite a following not only under Linux but Windows as well.
Ubuntu installs the Open Office Database, Spreadsheet, Presentation and Word processing components and registers the appropriate file formats to launch them. Naturally, Open Office has strived for compatibility with MS formats, without which it'd die a horrible and slow demise. So thankfully I was able to open my excel files and work with them just as under Windows. In fact aside from some interface and functionality changes OO brings to the table, Spreadsheet looks and works the same as Excel, right down to editing functions.
Similarly Word documents opened fine, with maybe a differentiation in font at times, but otherwise everything was present. In fact OO's format support is massive, going back to WinWord 5 and, more importantly, can write to a variety of MS formats (along with everything else) including Word 6, 95 and 2000/XP for when you're sending documents to those who have resisted the upgrade urge. You can even export as a PDF (a feature which applies to all Open Office applications).
What's strange for me is that I don't particularly find office software particularly interesting. As long as it does what I need, I generally ignore the superflous features. But I've been impressed with OO's integration with other OS components, such as databases (working with Evolution), a media player (not pulled from Gnome however), and a litany of tools and options in the menus most of which I have no clue how to use, but nice to know they're there. In this regard, it's a very faithful emulation of MS Word.
Truth be told, I don't write in Word under either OS. A simple text editor like Notepad (Windows) or Gedit (Linux) is enough, but I don't need to deal with formatting, letterheads, image integration and all the rest. If I did, I don't think I'd miss anything using Open Office. I'm sure the office afficaondos would be able to fault MS or OO's suite one way or another, but for me it's been doing everything I've needed it to, which is about as high a praise as I can give in this challenge -- if it works as I expect it to, then it makes me a happy user, and that's entirely the goal of an OS and applications you can depend on.
Open Office: Optimal -- Passes with flying colours. The task could not only be completed, but better or easier than under Windows.
I knew going in that email and office would be two areas to excel (ahem) under Linux, and that I would be able to work with both trouble free -- there's a long history and years of development behind them. Perhaps it's also saying something that both Open Office and Evolution are modeled off their Microsoft equivalents (and drastically improved upon in some aspects), being both easy to use and familiar to the Windows experience. Which, in a twisted irony, is what also makes them successful for Linux, and as the very alternative to Windows at that. I think my head hurts now, I'll leave it at that. Next installment USB peripherals and plug'n'play functionality.
|Looks like Word, acts like Word, but it's not Word! Note: This is a good thing.
Open Source Challenge