The Linux desktop has come a long way. I know. I've been using Linux as my default desktop work environment for so long I feel like I've experienced almost the entire evolution of the Linux desktop firsthand. I'm guessing it was sometime shortly after 1995 when I started using Linux on the desktop for more than 90% of my work. Linux not only outperformed Windows 95 on my Everex 486 DX2-66, but it also spared me the three R s that plagued every version of Windows: Reboot, Reformat, and Reinstall. I never had to reboot or reinstall anything to solve a Linux problem. That was enough to solidify my determination to use Linux in spite of its aesthetic flaws.
On the down side, I had to tolerate very spotty hardware support, especially for display and sound cards. Once I had a graphical desktop running, the fonts were hideous. To its credit, Linux let me choose from dozens of window managers. Unfortunately, only a few of them ran reliably, and the user interface on most of them made little sense to someone like me, who was used to OS/2 and Windows. On the other hand, I was immediately spoiled by the fact that almost all Linux window managers let you switch between virtual desktops instantaneously (virtual desktops are separate, distinct desktop workspaces). Windows-based attempts at mimicking this feature were pitiful by comparison. Only a small number of productivity applications were available back then, and few of them were GUI-based. But even then, Linux came with more than enough software to meet my needs. Eventually, I learned it was possible to improve the early Linux desktop experience to make it border on pleasant, but I couldn't do it without becoming proficient at editing an endless list of obscure, text-based configuration files.
As Linux matured, it inspired a hack of the window manager FVWM that emulated the Windows 95 desktop. That, and a few other improved desktops, made Linux more usable, but it still didn't offer mass appeal.
Then along came KDE, a free desktop environment based on the Trolltech Qt C++ library of widgets and functions. Even in its most primitive stages, it was obvious that KDE would eventually challenge the best desktop environments on any operating system. The KDE developers didn't disappoint those who saw the potential. The most recent versions of KDE will knock your socks off and make them dance around the room. You can accomplish virtually anything from the KDE desktop in ways more elegant than I had ever anticipated back in 1995. Hopefully, by the time you've picked up some of the tips in this book, you'll be able to use KDE to amaze your Windows-using friends with the flexibility of Linux.
The GNOME project started somewhat later than KDE. Since its inception, GNOME has switched personalities more often than Sybil. But it is finally coming together as a desktop that targets users who are looking for both power and simplicity. Although GNOME is somewhat less flexible than KDE, you can use GNOME to put on a pretty good show for your Windows-using friends, too.
In a more general sense, the Linux desktop has improved dramatically in all other aspects. Linux fonts are now downright beautiful. Arguably at least, as many productivity applications are available for Linux as for Windows and it is surprisingly easy to run Microsoft Office applications directly on Linux without having to buy a copy of Windows. Most important, there is OpenOffice.org, which matches or exceeds the needs of the vast majority of Microsoft Office users. Plus, there's the Ximian Evolution email and scheduler, which is a Microsoft Outlook clone that outperforms Outlook itself. And the Firefox web browser is gaining so much momentum that even top managers at Microsoft use it rather than Internet Explorer, because Firefox is so much more usable and secure.
In short, Linux desktop environments and applications are no longer chasing the Windows desktop for usability and power. When it comes to choice, desktop usability, and features, Linux actually surpasses Windows in many ways. Admittedly, there are a few glitches to fixfeatures that still require you to edit text files and a few other holes to fill here and therebut we no doubt are entering the age of the Linux desktop.
This book is designed to help you get the most out of the Linux desktop. These hacks will show you how to spiff up your boot experience with graphical startup screens, ways to log in that you might never have imagined, and various ways to let multiple users access the same machine at the same time, each one using the graphical desktop they like best. This book also shows you how to extend the capabilities of your graphical desktop so that it looks like these functions were built-in from the start. There are even many useful tips for those who prefer to do most of their work at the text-mode console. For example, you don't need a graphical desktop to assign the multimedia keys to control your CD player and multimedia experience.
Though this book plunges into depths far more deeply than what I've outlined here, it still uncovers only a fraction of what you can do with the Linux desktop. Linux multimedia capabilities are improving steadily, and multimedia on Linux will virtually explode as problematic patent issues are addressed (such as the decryption algorithms for playing DVDs). Desktop environments such as KDE and GNOME, among many others, are changing and improving so quickly that by the time you read this book, some of the problems I mention in the text that follows likely will have been solved, the URLs to patches probably will have changed to reflect updates to those patches, and so on (fortunately, it is easy to compensate for these changes, as we point out in the affected chapters). If the evolution of the Linux desktop maintains its current pace, it won't be long before you start hunting for the second volume of Linux Desktop Hacks (101-200).