Ottawa PC Users' Group, Inc.
 Product Review 


Exploring Linux – Part 5
by Alan German

In the last article (Exploring LinuxPart 4, November 2006), we made a start on customizing the Ubuntu 6.06 (Dapper Drake) distribution of Linux by editing the boot-up command file so that Windows started by default, with a pause allowing us to select Linux if desired. Now, it's time to move on and see what else we can do to Linux, and what else Linux can do for us!

One of the obvious things that we will need is the ability to add new software. For example, there's really nothing wrong with the Evolution mail client that comes with the Ubuntu distro, but I am used to the features offered by Mozilla Thunderbird and, since there is a Linux version of this program, I would like to locate and install it.

My first thought was to go the Mozilla web site and download the Linux version of Thunderbird. No problem here, except that it comes as the compressed "tar" file thunderbird-1.5.0.4.tar.gz. To use the latter, we would need to know all about "tarballs". Note that the file has two extensions – .gz, showing that it is compressed with the gzip utility program – and .tar indicating a file in Tape ARchive format. The net result is a file that is similar to the familiar (to Windows users) ZIP archive. Unpacking the archive requires finding out how to issue a tar command, with a gz option, in a terminal window. We then need to identify a suitable shell command file to run the Thunderbird program which, it turns out, is complicated by a broken link in the help file! Now, all this seems fairly complicated, and modern Linux systems really should be easier to use. Perhaps what we need is a different source of helpful information.

System – Help on the main menu provides links to a variety of help files. Online Documentation, Community Support, and Commercial Support all require an Internet connection for access. But, both System Information and Ubuntu Book Excerpt are available on the local hard disk. The System Information menu option opens a browser-type window (actually a program called Yelp) with further options that include access to the Ubuntu Desktop User Guide which, in turn, provides a link to "Adding, Removing and Updating Applications". This describes a number of ways to access new software in an automated fashion using various package managers. However, the Ubuntu Book Excerpt (actually selected chapters from The Official Ubuntu Book) probably has the best information on this subject in the section entitled "How Do I Install a Package?"

With this information at hand, we find out that it's actually really easy to install new software in Ubuntu, because the support community maintains a whole raft of stuff in on-line file repositories. Using the menu sequence – Applications – Add/Remove – provides access to one such repository. A considerable number of available applications are displayed, broken out by category (such as Internet, Office, Games, etc.) The applications that were included as part of the installation of Ubuntu are already checked. Selecting a new application for installation is as simple as checking one of the boxes, while unchecking a box marks that application to be uninstalled.

Looking through the list, we find "Thunderbird Mail" in the Internet section. Installing the program is now as simple as checking the associated box and clicking on the Apply button. A dialogue box confirms the pending file operations. The system then asks for the logon password, goes out to the web, downloads the software, installs it on the local hard drive, and even adds it as an option for use on the Applications – Internet menu.

Note that the installation routine modifies the menu system to include a link to the newly added software, but it doesn't enable the new program. We accomplish the latter by modifying the menu system with the Alacarte Menu Editor (Applications – Accessories – Alacarte Menu Editor). Calling up this utility program, and highlighting the Internet tab, we can see all the installed packages and the checkboxes that denote their operational status. We can disable Evolution Mail by unchecking its box, and then check the box for Thunderbird Mail in order to enable our new program. Click on Apply, and we have switched our default mail client from Evolution to Thunderbird.

The Install and Remove Applications program noted above provides a mechanism for simple addition and removal of software packages. The generic engine underlying this and other package managers is the Advanced Package Tool (APT) whose primary task is search for, download and install additional Linux software. One important aspect to this is that the tool ensures that any necessary libraries and support files are obtained to provide a total package and making for a trouble-free installation process.

The Advanced tab on Add/Remove Applications calls up Synaptic, the program's more powerful cousin. Synaptic is part of the distro and can also be located as the menu item – System – Administration – Synaptic Package Manager. Synaptic provides the ability to add other web-based software repositories (Settings – Repositories), providing access to a much larger range of additional software. For example, we can select Ubuntu 6.06 LTS (Binary) to give us access to the community-maintained repository named Universe. The list of packages with All selected is rather daunting, so hit the Sections button to categorize the offerings and make the process more manageable. Now, with very little effort, we can find software of interest to use under Linux.

There are also ways to change the user interface to make Linux look-and-feel precisely the way we want. For example, we can add icons to menu bars, and to the desktop, if we so desire.

One useful way to run a program is through an icon located in the Panel (the menu bar along the top of the screen). We can customize the panel by right clicking on it at a location where we wish to position a new icon. Select Add to Panel and then Custom Application Launcher. We can now enter Thunderbird into the Name field, and browse for an executable Thunderbird file as the entry in the Command field. Which file to choose, and where to locate it, is not intuitive. To fully understand the process we need to explore the Linux file system. But, life is too short. Let's take a wild guess and see what happens! (Actually, there is a much easier way to establish a new icon in the panel – but bear with me for a moment.) The file we seem to need is mozilla-thunderbird in /usr/bin, so we browse to that directory and select the file. We can also specify an icon for Thunderbird by clicking on the Icon box, browsing to the usr/share/pixmaps directory, and selecting the mozilla-thunderbird-pm-menu.png image file. This places the Thunderbird icon on the panel. Clicking once on this icon launches the program.

In Linux, there always seems to be multiple ways of doing things and so, it shouldn't come as any surprise that there is a much easier way to create an entry in the panel. It's actually as simple as going through the initial stages of the menu system to call up Thunderbird (Applications – Internet – Thunderbird Mail) but, rather than left-clicking on the final menu item to launch the program, right-click instead to launch a sub-menu. The first item on this menu is "Add this launcher to panel" – which does exactly what it says – without having to locate obscurely-named executable files and images. Easy!

One of Ubuntu's claims to fame is its "clean" interface. It doesn't have a lot of icons on the desktop when it starts up. In fact, it doesn't have any icons on the desktop! Nor is it easy to find out how to create such icons; the information isn't readily located in any of the help files. However, the above trick provides one clue. The second item in the sub-menu is "Add this launcher to desktop" which, if selected, produces an icon for Thunderbird on the display screen.

As mentioned, there are other ways to create icons on the desktop. For example, we can open up the Nautilus file manager and browse to – File System – usr – bin – where we can locate the editor gedit. Right-clicking on the program's icon provides a menu item to copy the file. Moving the mouse cursor to the desktop, we can right click once more and paste a copy of the gedit icon onto the desktop. As you might guess, using Control left-click and dragging the icon to the desktop has the same effect. So now, we ex-Windows users can create desktop icons to our heart's content. But, of course, we wouldn't do that because, now, we are "real" Linux users!

After simply installing Ubuntu and its associated applications from the distribution CD, we have gone on to explore how to tailor the system to work the way that we want. We have also seen that a much bigger world of applications programs is open to us, and that a really nice feature is that the Ubuntu user community packages many desirable applications and makes them available for easy download. In addition, we have the ability to customize how we launch all of this stuff, and we can choose from a number of different methods. So, there's no longer any excuse to download, install, customize and use a copy of Ubuntu – Linux for human beings!


Bottom Line:

Ubuntu 6.06 LTS (Open Source)
http://www.ubuntu.com/

 

Bibliography:

Documentation for Ubuntu 6.06 LTS (Dapper Drake)
https://help.ubuntu.com/

Unofficial Ubuntu 6.06 (Dapper Drake) Starter Guide
http://ubuntuguide.org/wiki/Dapper

Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Linux


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