Desktop Applications for GNU/Linux – Part 1: Web Access & Communication

As linux gets more popular, people are asking which applications they can use for browsing the web, office productivity and graphics and video editing etc. Part 1 covers applications Web access and communication.

Despite of being around for years, adoption of GNU/Linux based operating systems in the mainstream desktop has been slow. But now it is getting more coverage thanks to distributions such as Ubuntu, and for being included with some new computers from manufacturers such as Dell.

More people are asking what can I run on it, and what do I use for writing documents, editing photos etc. In this series of articles I will cover a number of common use applications that should be relevant to most people. I’ll start with the mostly used applications in todays average computer.

In a typical personal computer today the most used application would have to be the web browser. It can be used for many things ranging from general web surfing and checking emails, to watching online video. Although webmail is prevalant today, people still use pop3 and imap email clients. For that, I’ll cover a few desktop email clients.

Web browsers

There is actually quite a wide range of web browser options available in gnu/linux. First lets have a look at Firefox (or IceWeasel if you are using Debian). Pretty much everyone’s heard of it as it’s also available in windows. The behaviour of this browser in linux is exactly the same as it is in windows. The same add-ons are available and the pages render in exactly the same way.

The other two main browsers included in gnu/linux distributions are Epiphany and Konqueror. They are the default browsers supplied with Gnome and KDE respectively, which are the two of the most popular desktop environments today.

Konqueror, the KDE browser, uses the KHTML browser engine to render web pages. Apple used KHTML as the basis for developing Webkit, which they use as the rendering engine for their Safari Web Browser. Web pages look pretty much the same in Konqueror as they do in Safari. Konqueror also acts as the file browser to make the web feel more integrated with Desktop Environment.

Epiphany, the gnome browser, uses Mozilla’s gecko engine by default, which means pages in this will look just the way they do in firefox. It can, however, be configured to use Webkit to render pages, which would make it more like Konquerer and Safari when it comes to page rendering.

These are the most popular browsers, but there are a few others available. Mozilla’s Seamonkey is based on the same gecko browser technology as Firefox, but it includes an email and chat client. Users of Opera would be glad to know that it is also available in gnu/linux. Another browser deserving mention is Galeon. It is a very fast and lightweight browser, and is perfect if you have a relatively old computer.

All of the above browsers support tabbed browsing. They support the typical plugins such as flash and java applets. For general online videos, you should get the mplayer plugin.

Email clients

As I’ve already mentioned, Mozilla Seamonkey is a complete web suite and includes an email client. This can handle POP3 and IMAP email.

If you want just an email client you can use Thunderbird or Sylpheed. Sylpheed is a very lightweight email client. It doesn’t need a lot of memory to run and feels more responsive than Thunderbird. However, it lacks the add-on feature and html emails. It is great for low powered or old computers.

Thunderbird, from Mozilla, is a feature rich client with excellent HTML email rendering with spam protection mechanisms (such as not loading images by default). It has an add-on architecture that allows third party tools to to provide extra features, such as adding calendar or email encryption.

They both support the standard POP3 and IMAP protocols, and contain rule based email filtering similar to outlook. They also offer adaptive junk mail protection. In addition to these, thunderbird also has googlemail support.

The Gnome desktop environment includes an email client called Evolution, while KDE includes KMail as part of its Kontact Personal Information suite. Evolution has the ability communicate with Microsoft Exchange Server as long as the server has Outlook Web Access enabled. This allows you to have desktop computers in your office running gnu/linux even if you have windows based servers, making it ideal for the corporate environment.

Instant Messengers & Video conferencing

The most popular instant messaging clients are Pidgin and Kopete. Both of these support multiple protocols including Yahoo, MSN, Jabber/Googletalk and AIM et al. If you are looking for just a Jabber/googletalk client, you can use Psi. Ekiga is a NetMeeting (SIP and H.323) compatible video conferencing application, meaning you can use it with people on Window Live Messenger. It integrates with Gnome Evolution, so you can use the same set of contacts in both applications. If you are a skype user, that is also available in gnu/linux.

Free Software purist would have noticed that I’ve included non-libre software (i.e. Opera and Skype), but they are still free and since this article is intended for people that aren’t very familiar with linux, I think it is fair to let them know they can use many of the same products they use in Windows. The rest are all freely available open source software, distributed under various free software licenses.

Other Articles in this series


Author: Musaul Karim

Software Engineer, Hobbyist Photographer, and a bit of a gadget geek.

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