Originally Published: Monday, 6 March 2000 Author: Mark Stone
Published to: featured_articles/Featured Articles Page: 1/1 - [Printable]

Matching Up with Windows Applications

One of the common concerns about Linux is the lack of desktop applications. Certainly this concern has some validity. We are first and foremost a community of developers, and we tend to produce the tools that developers need. We have Emacs, but not Word. We have Gdb, but not Excel. But open source, like nature itself, abhors a vacuum, and missing application areas are being filled.

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One of the common concerns about Linux is the lack of desktop applications. Certainly this concern has some validity. We are first and foremost a community of developers, and we tend to produce the tools that developers need. We have Emacs, but not Word. We have Gdb, but not Excel. But open source, like nature itself, abhors a vacuum, and missing application areas are being filled.

Should a Windows user be concerned about trying and perhaps even relying on Linux as a desktop operating system? These days, there is little for the Windows user to fear.

First, let's note that the "lack of applications" criticism is not new, nor specific to Linux. The Macintosh community suffered this criticism for years. To some extent, the response of the Mac community should be the response of the Linux community as well: having a choice of many applications doesn't help if they're all buggy, and having only one application is enough if it's the one that gets the job done for you.

But the "lack of applications" criticism is often a disguise for another criticism: lack of compatibility with Microsoft applications. Here the state of Linux applications continues to improve. It's also worth noting that Microsoft applications themselves are not entirely compatible with Microsoft applications.

Rather than leave this discussion in the abstract, though, let's look at some actual cases. And I'd like to issue a challenge to our readers: tell us what you use as an alternative to some of the Windows standards.

Productivity Applications

Probably the most used application in traditional desktop environments is Microsoft Office. This really represents several applications: Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and now Outlook.

Nothing in the Linux world offers all the features of these applications, nor full compatibility with them. That's less of a problem than it might seem, however.

As an editor at O'Reilly I certainly needed the full power of Word's system of revision marks. No other word processor offers equivalent functionality (despite the fact that this capability has changed little since Word 2.0). But a book editor is an exception. Most people seldom need more than basic formatting: bold, italic, underlining, a few fonts, and a way to set margins, headers, and footers on a page. Word processors under Linux offer all this and more. I've experimented with WordPerfect 8, and I haven't tried Applixware. For now I've settled on using StarOffice, and I have no real complaints with it.

The other issue is compatibility with Word. Both WordPerfect 8 and StarOffice do a reasonable job of handling RTF, Word 6, Word 95, and Word 97 formats. They don't handle revision marks well, and don't try importing and exporting the same Word file repeatedly. But if you just want to be able to read a Word file, or send a Windows user a document Word will understand, these applications are fine. Actually, for viewing Word files one of my favorites is the command line mswordview program, which converts a Word file into an HTML file.

StarOffice has a decent spreadsheet program. It handles some Excel files, and has decent capability in its own right. I balance my checkbook using StarOffice's spreadsheet, and for that level of computation it's great. I'm told that Applix's spreadsheet program is comparable. I used Xess Lite happily for a while, and I still have a fondness for the venerable command line program sc.

PowerPoint is a tougher challenge. StarOffice has a presentation program, but I haven't tried it yet. When I need to put together a presentation, I rely on HTML, a Web browser, and a few graphics tools such as the Gimp.

Outlook serves two functions: it's an email client, and it's a Personal Information Manager (PIM). I'm confident that email clients under Linux are far ahead of clients available for Windows. I've used Pine for years, and Elm before that, though people tell me I should think seriously about switching to Mutt. For those who want a graphical interface, both KDE and Gnome have mail clients, as does Communicator. There are literally dozens of other choices.

My PIM of choice these days is my Palm III. For a long time the Palm desktop was one of the few applications that left me longing for Windows. These days, though, I'm using J-Pilot on my Linux desktop. J-Pilot needs a less clunky means of entering appointments, but that's a minor complaint. Overall it's an excellent PIM, and it's great to be able to synchronize my Palm III from Linux.

Financial Management

I've heard a "killer app" defined as one that would make you buy a computer in order to have it. Visicalc was a killer app. So were the first desktop publishing programs. More recently Navigator stands out as a killer app.

But certainly one of the most significant killer apps of the last decade is Intuit's Quicken. I've never used it, but I know many people who swear by, who would no sooner think of doing without Quicken than they would doing without a car or a telephone.

The only Linux alternative I know of is GnuCash. Never having used either, I can't really say if GnuCash is a viable alternative, or if it is one that would be appealing to Windows users.

Internet Applications

I'll admit that "alias rnl='rm ~/.netscape/lock'" is a line in my .bashrc file. But Netscape is an acceptable browser under Linux. I've also been using Mozilla a lot lately, and though it lacks polish, the basic functionality is really coming along. And I still use Lynx on a regular basis.

Instant messaging is more of a cultural choice than a technology choice. In the Windows world, instant messaging is dominated by either AOL Instant Messenger or ICQ. While ICQ compatibles are available under Linux, the messaging mode of choice in the Linux world is IRC. Linux has almost as many IRC clients as it does email clients. My personal favorite is Epic, but then I'm just a command line kinda guy.

Multimedia Applications

According to C|Net, the second most popular download after ICQ is Winamp. Winamp is the leading MP3 player under Windows, and MP3. The Windows world is full of multimedia file formats that all need players: MP3, AVI, QuickTime, DVD. Winamp and Media Player cover most of this spectrum under Windows.

Linux certainly has a range of multimedia players available, including a solid Winamp clone in FreeAmp. But multimedia is still a big challenge under Linux.

DVD presents significant patent issues that prevent the usual open source development methods from effectively engaging the problem.

But more generally, support for sound under Linux is still tenuous. Programs like sndconfig make the problem more manageable, but developing drivers for every sound card takes time (if anyone has sound working on an IBM ThinkPad 570, I'd love to hear how you did it, by the way).

Graphics Editors

When I first started using Linux the best available graphics tools were XPaint, which was primitive, and XV, which was not free software. Later I heard of something developed at Berkeley called the Gimp, but its development stalled in beta. For a while it looked like Photoshop would be one Windows/Mac application we couldn't compete with.

What a difference a couple of years can make. The Gimp is now a better Photoshop than Photoshop, and stands as one of the great success stories in open source development, as well as definitive proof that the Linux community can produce a quality desktop application. Not only is the Gimp a quality application; it's an accessible one. Anyone well versed in Photoshop should have little difficulty learning the Gimp.


Solitaire, Minesweeper and Freecell might be the most used applications under Windows. All three have multiple clones under Linux. Linux also offers a range of other basic games: various Asteroids clones (my favorite is Maelstrom), Tetris clones, GNU chess/XBoard, etc.

Age of Empires is now almost the only reason I ever have an urge to access a Windows machine. I suspect it will be a long time before Microsoft collaborates with Loki to make this game available under Linux. But other games of this type are becoming available: I've played and enjoyed three Loki games so far: Civilization: Call to Power, Myth II, and Railroad Tycoon II.

But the ultimate answers to Windows gamers are Doom and Quake. Nothing is more frustrating in an online game than having your Windows box revert to the Blue Screen of Death. I'm not saying that Doom and Quake don't ever crash under Linux, but they crash less often, and when they do crash they don't take down the whole operating system.

Give Us Your Feedback

So there you have it: a list of a dozen or so key Windows applications, and one person's take on how Linux fares by comparison. We love to hear some feedback, specifically on these questions:

  • What's your favorite Linux choice as an alternative to these Windows applications?
  • How easy do you think your favorite Linux applications would be for a Windows user to master?
  • What are some other important/popular Windows applications we didn't mention here?

Mark Stone, Linux.com Publisher

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