Ask any casual Linux enthusiast whether Linux is easy to use and they’ll tell you once installed, it’s very simple to navigate. The problem with the Linux desktop in 2015 isn’t how easy the desktop environment(s) are to work with, but whether the applications provided are easy enough for the average user at a workstation.
Over the years, I’ve found the real issue was software compatibility and familiarity. For example, open source applications that met my needs weren’t always a great fit for my clients. At least, not without some extra help setting up the applications.
In this article, I’ll share my tips and software picks to make using Linux on the desktop easier and more familiar for the casual user.
In years past, I used to recommend Evolution to businesses looking for a personal information manager (PIM) for Linux. Despite its horrid appearance it was compatible with Microsoft Exchange and offered reasonable functionality for business purposes. Fast forward to today, and it’s still exactly the same. Evolution is now extremely dated in appearance and its Microsoft Exchange compatibility has been very hit and miss in recent releases.
What bothers me the most is that outside of KDE-centric solutions (which are just as bad in terms of reliability) Linux lacks any true choice in terms of a usable PIM. Recently, I needed to find a PIM that worked with my client’s OWA Exchange setup. I needed a fully compatible Exchange solution that gave me contacts, calendar and email without the excuses.
After exhaustive research, it turns out the most reliable solution is to use Thunderbird with Lightning to handle the calendar. On a default installation, neither Thunderbird nor Lightning is capable of handling Exchange OWA data. Worse, when it’s first installed it looks like something the 1990s left in the pool after a frat party.
To make Thunderbird into a first class PIM we need to install the following extensions.
Calendar Tweaks — I’d consider this a visual enhancement and not a functional add-on. It provides you with an Outlook Today style view for your calendar, while making your calendar events easier to read.
Exchange EWS Provider — Designed to sync your calendar and tasks with your Microsoft Exchange server. Be sure you have your server URL and user name correct or it will not connect. Case sensitivity is critical. For example, in my case it was http://domain.domain.domain/CAPS/ — previously I tried lower case for the last part and had errors.
ExQuilla — Instead of setting up IMAP for your Exchange server, you’re free to connect directly with Exchange using ExQuliia. This syncs your email and contacts with Exchange.
Lightning — Without Lightning, you wouldn’t have a calendar available for Calendar Tweaks to enhance.
MS Office 2003 JB Edition — Because we’re trying to appeal to a Microsoft convert here, familiar colors can go a long way. I found that this theme provided both familiarity and easier readability. Hate it or love it, this is by far one of the easier to stomach Thunderbird themes. It gives Thunderbird a whole new look.
Google mail and calendar
Generally speaking, getting Google tools working with Thunderbird has been fairly easily. Just setup your Gmail to allow IMAP access and you’re ready to access the email account from any modern email client software. But when you add in contacts and calendar to the mix there’s something to be said about having the right extension. Assuming you’ve already setup Gmail to access via IMAP, the next step is to add the following add-ons.
Google Contacts — This add-on will make sure your Gmail contacts are always in sync.
Provider for Google Calendar — Just add this add-on and then add your calendar afterward. The option for Google Calendar will be available in the Add new calendar selection upon restarting Thunderbird thanks to this add-on.
Notice how short that add-on list was? This is because email is handled using the IMAP protocol.
Functionality add-ons for Thunderbird
The next set of add-ons are strictly eye-candy. In no way are these add-ons critical to connecting to Microsoft Exchange or Google services. They are however, very helpful in getting the most from your Thunderbird installation.
Today’s messages — If you’re receiving a high volume of email, using Today’s Messages is a no-brainer. When you’re dealing with email overload, being able to filter things down to a single day is critical to getting the most recent correspondence out the door.
Send Later — If you’re needing email to be sent at a specific day and time, Send Later is for you. I use it to make sure scheduled emails hit the recipient’s inbox on my schedule…while still meeting theirs. If I log off for the night late, but need an email sent first thing the next morning and not before, Send Later can help.
MinimizeToTray — Not a critical option, but it’s nice to have. The MinimizeToTray add-on allows you to put your running Thunderbird instance next to your clock (MATE desktop) and keep it out of sight until new mail arrives.
For any situation where you’ll never need to deal with Microsoft Office documents, LibreOffice is fantastic. Despite its dated UI, it provides all the basic functionality you might need from an office suite. Unfortunately for folks coming from current versions of Microsoft Office, it’s not even remotely cutting it.
This is where I’ve found that WPS Office has met a genuine need. First, it provides a similar interface that Microsoft converts will feel at home with. Additionally, it also provides a classic interface for users such as myself who have greater experience with OpenOffice/LibreOffice.
Next is the available templates. I found the available template selection under Elegant Mode to be extensive. LibreOffice also offers templates, but I found those offered in WPS Office to be far greater in quality and quantity. The added advantage of having them built-in, was also a treat.
And finally, the handling of Microsoft Office formats is rock solid under WPS. To be ultimately fair, LibreOffice does better than it did in the past…but there is simply no contest with regard to spreadsheet and document formats when opening modern Microsoft Office documents.
For me, using GIMP is fairly straight forward – this is the image editor I have the greatest experience with. Trying to use Photoshop, by contrast, just confuses me. Unfortunately, most people coming to the Linux desktop for the first time realize early on that GIMP is nothing like Photoshop in terms of layout and work flow.
For newcomers, I have been recommending “Gimphoto”. It’s designed to operate in much the same way as Photoshop, which means for some newcomers there is less anxiety in the switch to a new operating system. From the plugins to the menu, Photoshop users will feel at home using Gimphoto. Need CMYK “print friendly” colors? Gimphoto offers this support right out of the box.
One of the killer new applications of the past couple of years has been Evernote. And while there is a plethora of FoSS friendly note taking applications, they don’t hold a candle to Evernote’s existing user base. Fact is, people are plugged into Evernote’s functionality.
Luckily, there is a Linux friendly application called Nevernote that will provide you with the Evernote access you desire. While it may lack some of the features found in the native Evernote client, it’s very close in overall compatibility and functionality.
Over the years, I’ve used a number of scanning applications. But none of them has been easier to use than SimpleScan. Regardless of operating system, this is the single easiest to use scanning application I’ve ever used.
For those of you using wifi enabled printers such as the HP Officejet Pro 8600, SimpleScan detects the built-in scanner. And by detects the scanner I mean if the printer is setup to print over wifi using HPLIP, SimpleScan will allow you to use your scanner functionality over wifi as well.
Making Linux Easier
Making Linux easier to use is about using software that makes sense for the end user. Based on my experience, the software titles I’ve shared will make the Linux desktop very simple to use. By providing expected functionality with minimal hassle, new comers to today’s latest distros will be much happier and more likely to stick around.
Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.