On the Desktop
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See also: last week's On the Desktop page.
End User System Management. For many desktop users, be they Linux or Windows users, the day to day task of managing their computers is somewhat daunting. The process of managing installed packages alone can be a nightmare, but throw in network management and security, user management, and even the simple process of dialing out through a modem and users end up with a strong desire to toss the whole load out the window, put on a pair of sunglasses, a grass hat and wonder where Jimmy Buffett goes at times like these.
One of the sad parts of Linux is a lack of standardized configuration tools. Many distributions include the useful, if not completely reliable, Linuxconf toolset. This package is based on over 40,000 lines of C++ code and attempts to do what commercial Unix has never been able to do well - administer a standalone Unix (or in this case Linux) system. Linuxconf offers tools for configuring LAN connections via DHCP or manual addressing, dialup modems, the Apache Web server, firewalls, the LILO boot manager, printers, user and group management and a host of other features. An even larger feature set is provided in external modules.
Linuxconf is the current administrative interface used by many Linux distributions. It supports Caldera, Debian, Red Hat, Conectiva, SuSE, and Mandrake. There are text, ncurses, GTK and HTML based interfaces available as well. Many of the modules appear to have come from Conectiva, though it's not clear if the other modules come from other distribution vendors or not.
While Linuxconf appears complete, it does have its drawbacks. The web site mentions compatibility with many older distributions from the major Linux vendors, but there is little mention of the latest releases such as Red Hat 7.x, Mandrake 8 or SuSE 7.
Debian includes some support for Linuxconf but one Debian developer we talked to said that he expects that it has a very low use rate among Debian users. But a bigger issue may be that Linuxconf can often misconfigure some features or activate features unrelated to a users changes at inappropriate times. Many users may be willing to accept broken or incomplete software, but when it comes to systems administration, they should never accept software the works incorrectly. The stability of your system is at risk here.
And most distribution vendors are aware of these issues. Debian developers, we're told, have lately been interested in a Web based administration tool from Caldera, Webmin, though this interest is not at an official level (we haven't heard of them adding it to their distribution at this time). It's an open source (BSD license) application from a company that was recently purchased by Caldera and provides a plug-in style API that permits modules which can be both open source and proprietary. The application supports a large number of Linux distributions. The RPM installation was very clean and installs its own web server for managing your system. It can run with Apache, though the default server seemed quite sufficient for local (single user) administration. Most major tasks are supported in the default configuration, including DNS and networking, file sharing, user management, and even package management. The modular design offers quite a few options for the future.
Another alternative to Linuxconf and Webmin has recently started coming out of Ximian's GNOME product development. The Ximian Setup Tools (XST) is a frontend/backend design currently based on GNOME that also has support in development for the KDE environment. Most of the major Linux distributions are supported, including Debian. Backend tools can be written in any language (though Perl seems to dominate currently), using an XML transport, which means configuration information is passed between the backend and the frontend in XML. Use of XML provides a method (which may or may not be implemented in each backend) for saving past states which can be restored at a later date. This rollback option is something that neither Linuxconf nor Webmin provide.
As Ximian developer Michael Meeks puts it, XST provides "user level support to give a rubber knife to learner systems administrators instead of a scalpel." The architecture of XST offers great hope but not all the features expounded by Ximian are implemented yet. Rollbacks are still missing, as are remote host administration options. Local administration appears to work fairly well though we had a few problems with adding a new user. Features in the current, unstable release of XST include user and group management, time and date handlers, and boot, disk, memory, network, and file sharing management. After installation (which can be handled automatically using Ximian's Red Carpet facility) the tools end up as individual menu items in the Programs->Utilities menu under the GNOME menu panel.
Linuxconf is a bit monolithic in nature - all the bits and pieces are rolled into a single interface (though it appears they can be run individually from the command line). XST, on the other hand, uses a frontend/backend pair as a standalone application. The modularity provided in the backends for both XST and Webmin allows a separation of duties and prevents the problem Linuxconf brings when it performs duties you didn't really request of it. You aren't likely to accidently reset a network daemon while performing user management, for example. Such modularity also makes both XST and Webmin easily extensible. XST carries no dependencies other than the desktop environment (either GNOME or KDE, essentially). This makes XST and Webmin fairly even when it comes to future expansion. With Webmin being web based it should be free of all desktop dependencies other than an available browser.
Systems administration will always be a difficult task to manage for end users, but with tools like Webmin and XST there is hope of a less convoluted future.
Vector tools and the VFX industry. We received a letter from a Windows-based graphics company (see our response to them) who mentioned customer requests for a Linux port of their product. There still isn't a publicly announced professional-level, native vector tool for Linux even though such a tool is highly desired. One problem this vendor has is with peripheral support:
We have looked at the Linux market before but the community and support (graphics tablet and other peripherals) for graphics products was not sufficiently advanced at that stage.
The Wacom tablet is fairly well supported under XFree86 4.0.x now, but support for other tablets is fairly spotty at best. Most Visual Effects (aka "VFX") houses working in the film industry tend to port their own drivers over to Linux as they need them, but few (if any) of these have been released back to the community. Still, this isn't a lost cause. Most of the VFX industry is migrating to Linux. Their biggest problem, according to a couple of industry insiders, is finding out how to get open source developers involved with them, and how they can get the industry itself to move from highly secretive productions to more open development.
Enlightenment. The authors of the Enlightenment environment, which is evolving into a desktop environment to challenge GNOME and KDE, are interviewed about the year long march towards E17.
E17 is built for sheer performance. It should be able to equal or beat anything else doing anywhere near the same level of visual work - and many things doing a lot less visual work. Rememebr you can't compare something that displays 2 lines and a box with something that fills the srceen with alpha blended images and anti-aliased text. They are different levels of visual work, but even so - e17 should be not far off a lot fo the performance of the simpler visual displays. e17 isn't a whole desktop. It's a desktop shell - think of it as a window manager + desktop background manager + file manager + config tools all in one.
GNOME Summary for 2001-08-05 - 2001-08-15. This latest edition of the GNOME Summary is out, and covers topics including the addition of TrueType support to GNOME Print, an update to the Galeon project, updates to AbiWord, and hacks from Linux kernel developer Alan Cox on Nautilus.
Gnome on Slackware and Galeon wins browser review (GNOME Gnotices). GNOME Gnotices pointed us to the news that there are now Ximian GNOME packages available for Slackware. These don't appear to be official Ximian packages and, because Ximian doesn't support the gzipped tar (aka "tgz") format, don't include support for Red Carpet.
In another news tip from the same note, Canada Computes has done a review of Linux browsers, including Opera, Netscape, Konqueror, Mozilla, Galeon and Skipstone. Galeon came out on top.
GNOME Foundation adds Timothy Ney as Executive Director. The GNOME Foundation has finally announced their executive director: Timothy Ney. Ney most recently served as the managing officer of the Free Software Foundation for the past three years.
First review of KDE 2.2. Now that KDE 2.2 is out, reviews cannot be far behind. Here is the first. "The sad fact is that there is no Linux desktop that can yet match the ease of use, and comfortable usage of Microsoft Windows or Mac OS. KDE is getting there but still lacks some refining touches. My guess is that KDE 3.0 is going to provide a revolutionary step towards the desktop with Linux. " (Found at dot.kde.org)
Open Source Printing Summit. The Open Source Development Network (OSDN) along with Hewlett-Packard and IBM will be holding their second annual Linux Printing Summit in September in San Jose, California.
Window Maker web site redesign. Window Maker, an alternative desktop window manager which works with GNOME and KDE, had a web site relaunch earlier this month. The new site is much cleaner and more professional looking, though little new information on the product itself is available.
AbiWord 0.9.2 released. Version 0.9.2 of the AbiWord word processor has been released; see the release notes for a list of changes.
On a side note: The AbiWord Weekly News may be taking a two seek summer break as author Jesper Skov takes a well deserved vacation. Someone from the list may take over for Jesper, but if that does not work out, he'll write up a double issue on his return.
GnomeMeeting 0.10 released. A new release of GnomeMeeting, was announced this week. GnomeMeeting is a video conferencing system. Updates include support for both FreeBSD and KDE and includes packages in both RPM and .deb formats (Mandrake coming soon).
Gnumeric 0.70. A new release of Gnumeric was announced this week. This is a high priority upgrade from the 0.69 release, which broke MS Excel importing. Unfortunately, this release also reduces the stability of graphs. Remember that that the sub-1.0 releases are meant primarily for developers and testers - expect some problems.
And in other news...
Caldera CEO: The challenge of the desktop (ZDNet). ZDNet News interviews Caldera CEO Ransom Love. "The challenge of the desktop is evolving. The traditional monolithic desktop is not for Linux, but the evolving thin client desktop is ideal for it. Something like 80 to 90 percent of personal time is now spent in the browser, and as the Internet becomes predominant use of desktop, applications will follow."
Adding a new dimension to the desktop with 3Dwm (LinuxPower). 3 dimensional desktops are still quite a few years away from the common man, but work steadily progresses on at least one project in this arena: 3Dwm. "We expect to be releasing version 0.3.0 of 3Dwm shortly (just need to iron out a few things), and this release finally adds full input handling in the display server. This should allow you to not only navigate around in the environment (this has been possible from day one), but also to interact with the 3D objects in the scene. However, I would not recommend this release for users other than to just perhaps compile it and play around a little with it; there are still some pretty glaring things that keeps us far away from a 1.0 release."
VistaSource gets a makeover. The VistaSource web site has gotten a makeover. Despite earlier rumors, it appears that Applixware continues to be sold by the new company, though its name has been changed to Anywhere Desktop for Linux.
Section Editor: Michael J. Hammel
August 23, 2001