“Anything you can do, I can do better…”

Remember that old song from Annie Get Your Gun, a 1950s musical, with the venerable Betty Hutton? The original context was women vs. men, and really a social reform / equal rights message hiding behind a musical. But, the song is perfect for a big player in open source: KDE.

I’ve never been a huge fan of Linux. The first time I tried it, back in the days of Red Hat 9, I wasn’t much impressed. Compared to Windows XP, or Mac OS X, it couldn’t do much. It didn’t “just work” like Apple Corp. says Mac OS does, and like Microsoft is now saying Longhorn will do.

There were a few things that I couldn’t get past. For starters, you couldn’t plug in hardware and have it instantly recognized and working. That’s a key part for your mantra to be “it just works.” Also, I had a horribly disheveled desktop, with mismatched icons, different widget toolkits depending on what program I was using, and an overall “I’m in Windows 98” feel. I couldn’t print easily, and there was no Photoshop (only this evil program called the GIMP). The office suite felt underpowered. If you were looking to do “cool” things, like import pictures from your digital camera, burn CDs, watch DVDs, then you might as well had better switch back to Windows.

I’ve come along way since then, and I obviously now realize that you can import new themes, and download new software. But Linux has come along even more so, including the K Desktop Environment. KDE calls itself a “desktop manager”, which means it includes a common GUI desktop, a window manager, a centralized help center, a centralized control center, common widgets and dialogues from app to app, and a wealth of apps that integrate seamlessly. That’s the goal, anyway. When it started it way back in 1998, it was a long way off from that. But fast forward to 2005, with the release of KDE 3.4, and it is a different story entirely. Nowadays, KDE (combined with the power of the latest Linux kernel, version 2.6) can do anything Windows can do.

I have come up with a list of must-have requirements for a desktop in the home (and possibly small business). It describes what KDE can (or can’t) do. The results are suprising, even to me.

Printing. Sure, there’s an “Add Printer” wizard that has as many print drivers (maybe more) than Windows XP. You can also save anything to a PDF document. That’s on par with Mac OS X, and one up on Windows. That same wizard lets you add your friend’s shared printer on his Windows machine, or your boss’s shared printer on his Apple PowerBook. And of course, you can see ink levels, monitor the print queue, and set different quality levels.

Digital Photos. Plug your camera in. A pretty little camera icon shows up on the desktop (again, a lot like Mac OS X, and not much like Windows, where it buries itself in the “My Computer” paradigm). Click the camera icon, and you can browse your photos. Most new and old digital cameras will work: Fugi, Canon, HP, Kodak, Mustek, Sony. This is thanks to Linux 2.6 adding in support for so many USB devices. My wife’s brand new Kodak EasyShare DX7630 worked out of the box. Even better: install a KDE program called digiKam (not part of official KDE, but connected to the KDE universe). My wife loves it. She plugs in her camera, opens digiKam, and clicks on the menu item that reads “Camera: Kodak EasyShare DX7630.” A dialogue appears, much like the photo browser included with many digital cameras, and from the dialogue she can download all or selected pictures (she’s seeing thumbnails) to any of her albums or a new album, or she can delete all or selected pictures. Once in an Album, she can click a photo’s thumbnail to “make it big”, and touch it up with a wealth of plugins. That includes digital artifact reduction, red-eye removal, color, lighting, and painting effects. If she wants to get real crazy, she can open the image in GIMP and do some serious editing.

Music. Windows is lagging in this area. Most music lovers have switched to iTunes and their beloved iPods, while the rest are using WinAmp. A few “regular users” are stuck with MusicMatch, Napster to Go, or RealOne. Does anyone even use Windows Media Player? Anywho, KDE now has several options to choose from. If you’re looking for a straight-up jukebox, use JuK. But if you need to feel the power of iTunes or WinAmp, there is a program for you: amaroK. amaroK can be as simple as WinAmp 2 (or XMMS), or it can be an advanced media browser, complete with playlists, smart playlists, radio stations, cover art (and a wicked-cool cover art manager), context browsing, MusicBrainz statistics and intelligence, lyrics, and yes: iPod support. It even says “your iPod” in the help text of the portable media player browser. That’s dumb, because not everyone has an iPod like me, but oh well. They realize that the iPod will forever dominate. Oh, and I’m pretty sure it works with your silly Creative Zen / Dell Jukebox. The only thing missing from this excellent setup is the iTunes Music Store. The current workaround is using PyMusique, a python/GTK-based interface to the iTMS that allows for browsing, previewing, and legally purchasing. Coincidentally, it also strips the purchased song of any copy protection. Binary packages are available for my favorite distro, (K)ubuntu.

Video. The strong contenders in the Windows digital video market, both on and offline, include Microsoft’s Media Player, Apple’s Quicktime, Real’s RealPlayer, and (more recently) Macromedia/Adobe’s Flash player. Of those, Real and Flash are officially supported in Linux, with those companies compiling a Linux port of each new version. But the real question with Quicktime and Windows Media Player is codecs. AVI, XviD, DivX, WMV, MOV; sound familiar? Those are all video formats. Currently, KDE and most distributions do not ship ready to play these file formats. You have to install Mplayer, plus a KDE frontend for it (Kplayer, KMplayer, etc.) or just install the codecs they provide. They have support for about a zillion codecs natively, and they also support Windows DLL codecs. That means any new papa that comes to town with a new video format for Windows hasn’t excluded Linux. Personally, I prefer Kaffeine, a great KDE video player, that supports multiple backends (default is xine). With Kaffeine (and those darn codecs installed), I can play Quicktime movies, DivX movies, AVI files, Windows Media Video, Digital Video Broadcasts, DVD video discs, VCDs, RealPlayer streams, and whole lot more I haven’t tried. So, video is ready and working, it just needs to be included by default in all the Linux distributions.

Office. There are two major office suites available for Linux: KOffice (KDE’s office suite), and OpenOffice.org (Sun’s open-source office suite). KOffice has many more parts, such as a project manager, database GUI, forms creator, vector illustrator, personal information manager, and more. It sounds a lot like Office 2003, yes? OpenOffice.org, while having few applications, is actually further along in the process of being a very powerful office suite. OpenOffice can open and save Microsoft proprietary-format documents. KOffice has trouble opening them, and has no plans to support saving to them. But, that is only important if you still have Microsoft Office within your circle of friends. OpenOffice is available on Windows, so convert everyone, and no more fuss. :) In recent news, the OASIS group came up with the OpenDocument format, which all open-source word processors, spreadsheets and presenters will support and hopefully use by default. I’ve heard that Corel might add OpenDocument support to WordPerfect. All we would need then is to create a filter for Microsoft Office to read and save OpenDocument files. And, since it is an “open format”, we shouldn’t have any trouble doing that!

Email. Well, duh. KDE’s KMail is miles ahead of Microsoft’s free Outlook Express. I even prefer Kontact to Microsoft Outlook 2000. Nothing, however, is as BAD as Mac OS X Tiger’s Mail.

Web. I wish I could say that Konqueror is ready for the masses. But it wouldn’t be true. They need to simplify the web profile, and they need to ditch KHTML. Yeah, Safari is based on KHTML, but they have not and never will (probably) see backports of Apple’s improvements. Konqueror really needs to use the Gecko (Mozilla Firefox) engine. Until then, I’ll be using Mozilla Firefox, with a theme applied that makes it look and feel like the rest of KDE. That still doesn’t provide full integration with KDE desktop, though, including DCOP calls and KIO slave support. But Firefox in KDE is a lot better than Internet Explorer in Windows.

Burn CDs & DVDs. Yes. With flying colors. K3B is quite possibly at the top of the open-source software coolness list. It burns CD data, CD audio, CD-RW, Video CD, DVD data, DVD video, DVD audio, DVD-/+RW (depending on what your drive supports), and supports CD audio ripping, CD ISO file creation, and DVD ripping.

So if you are ever wondering what’s cool in the Linux world, go do a Google search for digiKam, amaroK, Kaffeine (oh, and how about a few QT/KDE apps I didn’t mention — Scribus and Inkscape.)

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Philip Cain

Ninja Master of the Series of Tubes, musician, audio engineer and geek. More about Philip...

3 thoughts on ““Anything you can do, I can do better…””

  1. Nicely put together collation of where Linux is at the moment. I have just recently done a similar exercise, albeit not as specific as yours.

    Linux, and in particular Ubuntu, is almost almost ready to knock on the average user’s desktop. With an awesome repository arrangement, excellent community and easy to use package management system, Ubuntu IMHO is leading the pack (I use Kubuntu personally)

    – Spleenie

    PS grabbed your menu package install thingy, looks excellent!

  2. Well it’s an oldie but goodie. Nearly 2 years later and I’m still using Ubuntu. Haven’t reinstalled once.


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