Ruminations on the Digital Realm

Jan Stedehouder

Archive for the category “PC-BSD: the first 30 days”

PC-BSD Day 20: Alternative desktops

KDE is the default desktop for PC-BSD. It is possible to install GNOME, but I ran into a few problems with that (no keyboard input possible and no window borders). One of the finer things about Linux and *BSD is that you can choose whatever desktop you’d like to work with (or even forget about a graphical work environment altogether).

But first: back to encryption

One other program that I stumbled upon was KGPG. However, when I installed it via pkg_add I got tons of dependency errors and left it at that. Strange enough it popped up during reboot and nested itself in the taskpanel. KGPG asked me if I wanted a secret key and gave some instructions on file encryption/decryption. I will give it try over the coming days.

Default alternatives

PC-BSD installs two alternative desktops by default: Fluxbox and TWM. What can be said about them? They are quite ‘ barren’ and not particularly interesting. No doubt they do well on less powerful desktops, but there are other graphical environments that can do a better job at that.

Getting new desktops

I made a shortlist of alternative desktops that I wanted to see on my PC-BSD box. The Enlightenment project is making some interesting progress. Xfce has become a very good and light desktop environment. And finally, there is Blackbox. Maybe I expect too much and am I plain lazy, but I like see a simple install that leads to a fully functional desktop. Ubuntu Linux has some great metapackages. You are an easy $sudo apt-get install kubuntu-desktop away from a complete KDE desktop. For Xfce you just use the xubuntu-desktop metapackage.

First, I installed Xfce with #pkg_add -r xfce which left me gasping for some air. Man, this was so 70s and completely unlike the Xfce desktop I know. A brief search through the ports collection revelead I had installed the wrong version. I should have used #pkg_add -r xfce4 to get the latest incarnation. Sad to say this install didn’t finish without error messages. Xfce4 required xterm-229 and xterm-228 was installed. When I finally logged in to the new desktop the friendly mouse was there. There was a brief flicker of hope when the desktop icons flashed by. But that was it. Once those icons were gone there was nothing. No menu, no icons, no quick access buttons. Just a blank screen.

Trying to get Enlightenment was stonewalled by a third digit dependency. The install of Blackbox finished without any errors, but the desktop needed some serious configurations to get access to all the applications.

No, this wasn’t one of the nicer experiments with PC-BSD. One could argue that it is enough to support one graphical environment well when you are focusing on end-users. KDE is a very powerful desktop environment. Still, it would have been nice to get an alternative desktop that actually worked.

The FreeBSD handbook again

The amount of information in the FreeBSD handbook still amazes me. It ranges from the mundane to the -for me at least- exotic. Chapter 8 deals with configuring the kernel, why it is important to learn to master this skill and then explains step-by-step how to do it. Chapter 12 explains the booting process. At least now I know where the term ‘boot strap’ comes from. The chapter 14 till 19 contain extensive information about increasing the security of your system. Just going over these chapters and learning to master the skills is an adventure in itself.

It reminded me about my early days with Linux. I bought a second-hand book on Unix (with a Slackware CD) and learned more about Linux from that book than from some other books that actually dealt with Linux. One advice for Linux users that want to acquire a solid skillset: download the FreeBSD handbook and start reading.

Note: this article was written based on PC-BSD 1.4 RC1. On September 24 the final version of 1.4 was released. From day 22 and onward I will use that final version.

PC-BSD 1.4 Da Vinci released

While I am still playing with the RC1 version PC-BSD released the final version. Along with it there appears to have been a make over of the website. One of the nice items is the section Migrate with some information about migrating to PC-BSD.

Well, this means I have to move on during the first 30 days series. I am downloading the materials as I write this and look forward to installing it later this week. For the rest: feel free to it and download it as well.

PC-BSD Day 19: Improving end-user security (day 2)

Vidalia and TOR

My my, this experiment took longer than I expected. Trying to install Vidalia via the ports collection didn’t work out. There were dependency issues with Qt-xx-4.3.1 packages while Qt-xx-4.3.0 were installed. That brought back some bad memories about the ‘old days’ under Linux. I still can’t figure out why a third digit update should brake other packages.

Anyway, I decided on sticking with the packages and installed TOR, Privoxy and Vidalia that way. For Vidalia I needed to install tor-devel instead of tor. Remember, I wanted Vidalia to have a nice graphical interface to setup both Privoxy and TOR. Unfortunately, this was one of those days. Launching Vidalia ran into segmentation fault 11 and then nothing. The good thing is that you can set up both TOR and Privoxy by getting into the configuration files. For one, I needed to ‘tell’ PC-BSD to run the two programs at boottime. This was my first acquaintance with the /etc/rc.conf file. I added two lines:

tor_enable=”YES”
privoxy_enable=”YES”

After that I needed to create two new directories that Privoxy badly wanted in order to work:

/var/run/privoxy
/var/log/privoxy

The third step required editing the config file in /usr/local/etc/privoxy. According to the TOR page the following line had to be added in order for TOR to user Privoxy in the proper way:

forward-socks4a / 127.0.0.1:9050 .

Finally, in order to make the use of TOR from within Firefox somewhat easier, I added the TORbutton extension to the webbrowser. That should do it. I thought.

The only thing I could actually get while browsing was the privoxy page telling me it wasn’t possible. I guess some more fiddling is required. When it comes to setting up TOR for the end-user I think we could call this a fail. Compared to setting TOR up under Windows and/or Linux the version for FreeBSD needs some work before it can be called userfriendly.

Drive and file encryption

One program I like for getting an encrypted drive is Truecrypt. The version for Windows is easy to install and to use. The Linux version is more cumbersome since there is no GUI included with the program. And -as I found out- there is no *BSD version for it. For good measure I tried to install it under Wine (it did install but wouldn’t launch) or compile it from source (no luck there). So, what other methods are there for drive and file encryption for FreeBSD/PC-BSD.

For starters, you can set up an encrypted swap space while installing PC-BSD. This is considered a good thing for laptop users. FreeBSD has the ability on-board to encrypt disk partitions and this is explained in chapter 18.16 of the FreeBSD handbook. The chapter discusses two methods, but -in all honesty- in kind of turned out when I noticed the phrase: Rebuild the kernel as described in Chapter 8.

This doesn’t mean file encryption isn’t possible. It is, but it requires command-line actions. I found references to three programs: bcrypt, mcrypt and ncrypt. Of these three I found ncrypt the easiest to use. The instructions how to construct the proper command-line to encrypt or decrypt a file are concise and easy to understand. The other two had quite cryptic messages (pun intended) before I could actually start working with them.

Anyway, the available methods are outside the reach of the average end-user, especially when he/she is trying to get away from Windows. On the other hand, if you are aware of the need for this level of security you’re not the average user anymore and you might even enjoy the command-line tools.

PC-BSD Day 18: Improving end-user security (part 1)

This week the so-called Big Brother Award, a price given to a person or organization that most threatens civil liberties in the digital realm, was awarded in the Netherlands to the end-users. We can blame organizations and government institutions for intruding on our online privacy, tampering with our digital liberties, but at the same time we litter the net with personal data and sensitive information. Yet, it is not so complicated to enhance our security with a few simple measures which I described in the article “Portable security for the practical paranoid” . Today I want to implement these features on my PC-BSD box.

Improving e-mail security

The first and last line of defense is the use of common sanity. Unfortunately, there is no way to install that, not with #pkg-add-r comsanity or with #make install comsanity. It would be nice -from a sysadmin’s perspective or when you are the one in the family that everyone calls when there is a screwup- if the computer would just show a message like: “You are showing irrational and insane behavior in the use of this computer. All system files will be erased in five seconds. Your personal files will not be touched and can be salvaged by someone who knows what he/she is doing. Otherwise… well, you asked for it”.

There are at least two things I would like to see in Thunderbird: an improved spam filter and the possibilitiy to encrypt my e-mail traffic. Spamato (needs java) and Enigmail (requires GPG). Installing Enigmail is a matter of downloading the appropriate .xpi from the website. The dropdown box shows there is a version for FreeBSD 6.x. After downloading you launch Thunderbird and go to Tools -> Add ons. Select the enigmail.xpi file and restart Thunderbird.

The new menu item “OpenPGP” is now visible. Selecting “Key management” opens the wizard that helps you to set it up and select the first key pair. There is no need to install GNUPG. After this you can sign and encrypt all outgoing e-mail.

Of course I was curious how KMail would do. You can set up encryption under Configure -> Security -> Crypto backend. There is no wizard and a ton of fields to fill with information. I think I will leave that for another day.

Spamato is a somewhat more advanced filter than the already well-working filters of Thunderbird. I installed the .xpi file and added it to Thunderbird. Under Windows and Linux I am automatically greeted by the message that it can’t find Java. No such message under PC-BSD. This doesn’t mean Spamato actually works. You still have to tell it the location of the correct java executable.

Anonymous internet

To be honest, I didn’t start looking for ways to cover my online tracks until I was confronted with a few websites that wouldn’t allow visitors from the Netherlands. In the past I could listen to music via the Pandora website. In order to sign up you needed a US-based zipcode (90210 anyone?), but nowadays the IP-address is the rat. Short of moving to the United States I found two ways to circumvent that barrier, methods for anonymous surfing: TOR and JAP.

Caveat Emptor (or, for non-literaty among us, read before you proceed): Anonymous does not mean secure. TOR is a peer to peer based proxy network where traffic is routed through various TOR servers before reaching it’s destination. Just about anyone can set up a TOR server and capture the traffic. So think before you start sending your credit card data through the TOR network. JAP provides a similar service and is located in Germany. The German authorities do not appreciate this level of anonymity and it is told the developers were forced to build in a backdoor. Chances are that German law-enforcement is listening in, so better select some decent music when you visit Pandora.

The online instructions at the JAP website ask to check the available Java version on your system. However, these instructions do not seem to work when you used the Java PBI package to get Java. It’s a matter of simply downloading the JAP.jar file and launching the program with #java -jar JAP.jar. Two windows appear, the main JAP windows and the JAP installation assistant. The assistant is pretty good. It tells you about the settings for your webbrowser and has instructions for a small collection of those. Simply put: you should change the proxy settings of your webbrowser to localhost and port 4001.

After applying the changes you are asked to run a few tests and fine-tune JAP based on the warnings you get. If you think websurfing has become too slow because of this you can try to select another free server or you can opt for one of the paid services. JAP does hide your IP from the site you are visiting, but that’s about it. Using it under PC-BSD is not a problem.

In order to get TOR I decided to use the install via the ports collection. When it comes to security I believe it is necessary to get the latest version possible. I also like to have a GUI, so I opted to install Vidalia. More on this tomorrow.

PC-BSD Day 17: Multimedia

Any desktop that wants to cater to the needs and wants of end users has to be multimedia enabled or at least be enabled as easy and quickly as possible. There are Linux distributions that have solved this problem by just adding all the necessary drivers and codecs and as long as they are unchallenged by authorities, license and patent holders they appear to have the edge. The problem is that some drivers and codecs are perfectly legal in some parts of the world and illegal in others. The Ubuntu Linux community solved the problem by making them available in the various repositories, but leaving it up to the user to install them. How is PC-BSD holding up in this regard?

The test circuit

When it comes to multimedia each one has it’s own desires. I decided to make a short list of multimedia features I consider either important or which I know to be important for a larger group of users.

  • MP3 playback
    xvid playback
    DVD playback
    the ability to use websites with flash. I use the Dutch website woonnet-rijnmond.nl for this
    YouTube
    the Dutch newssite Nu.nl, especially the video items
    the Dutch site Voorleesbijbel.nl, which reads parts of the Bible out loud
  • The interesting thing is that solutions that work with nu.nl sometimes hinder voorleesbijbel.nl.

    What works out-of-the-box?

    For this I installed PC-BSD on a fresh virtual box so as to emulate the new users experience as closely as possible. I had various MP3 files and one xvid video file. By default PC-BSD uses Kaffeine to play both the music and video files. Simply double-clicking them is enough to launch Kaffeine and play the files. Basically, both MP3 and xvid are supported out of the box, but playback was very buggy.

    KMPlayer is also available on the default box and I tried to play the same files with it. That was much better. The sound and sights were as they should be. In contrast, the third mediaplayer -Amarok- had similar issues with the MP3 files as Kaffeine. Trying to play a DVD had mixed results. One dvd would play, whereas the other would result in warnings that I didn’t have sufficient rights and that it couldn’t be found.

    On to the websites. The flash based woonnet-rijnmond.nl was a disaster. It didn’t work at all. Youtube was much better, though it did appear a bit buggy. Nu.nl was a pleasant surprise. It takes some fiddling to get it working under Ubuntu, but it worked without any needed configuration. The same thing was true voor voorleesbijbel.nl.

    Solutions?
    When you have worked with Linux for some time you know that solutions exist. Some are quite recent like the Flash 9 support. Going over the forums revealed that I shouldn’t expect too much for PC-BSD. There is no Flash 9 support yet and Gnash, the open source version, provides mixed results and leads to instability. I tried Gnash nonetheless and a few other solutions mentioned, but none led to a usable website. Gnash yielded no results and installing swfdec and swfdec-plugin only resulted in grey boxes where the flash-based items should have been.

    Other mediastreams?

    Since I was playing anyway I tried out some websites that have Quicktime and RealMedia mediastreams. Kaffeine had no problem with the Quicktime streams, but didn’t work well with RealMedia. I had sound, but no image. I went to http://www.pbis.in and got the RealPlayer PBI and the Windows codecs, just for good measure.

    Conclusions

    PC-BSD does have multimedia support out-of-the-box. Sort of. The default mediaplayer Kaffeine seems to have problems with handling audio and video files, though it did a masterful job with WMA, MP3 and Quicktime streams. In the end I still couldn’t get the RealMedia stream to work. For local playback KMPlayer is a much better solution.

    Flash is a serious bottleneck. The woonnet-rijnmond website is used to find housing in the greater Rotterdam area and people need to sign-up for new houses through this site. I can only hope that this will improve between the RC1 version and the final version of PC-BSD 1.4. DVD playback came with mixed results. Even after installing the “infamous” libdvdcss there was no improvement. That makes it a hit-and-miss thing.

    Overall, that leaves PC-BSD with a decent multimedia support. As it is often said: “Your mileage may vary”.

    PC-BSD Day 16: Time for advocacy

    Today I really have no time to play with PC-BSD. I will attend a workshop organized by Rednose ICT in cooperation with Holland Open, Gendo and Livre. And it has everything to do with what PC-BSD stands for.

    A few months ago I noticed an announcement in Livre Magazine. It referred to a series of workshops to train a group of open source ambassadors. I liked the idea since it harmonizes with the idea I wrote about in the Linux Proliferation Agreement. The workshops aim to equip us with tools and skills to promote the use of open source software and open standards in various sectors (government, education, small and medium business, ICT). The approach is realistic, non-geek, non-technical and pragmatic.

    The good news is that the Dutch government send a new policy paper to parliament about the use of open source software and open standards. The gist of it is that government institutions will be obliged to start using open standards as early as 2008 and migrate to open source software as much as possible and feasible. This means that I can request, no demand government documents to be made available to me in Open Document Format or -when it is deemed impossible- to get a very, very good explanation about the why.

    Open standards do not lead to open source software

    In this sense it becomes paramount to use some old-fashioned economic theory here. Without a demand there will not be a supply. Some economic theories also state that without supply there is no demand, but I don’t think that will apply here. The governments (central, state and municipal) can still opt to offer both closed and open standard documents. If they would only offer ODF documents that would create a wholesale migration to…. Yes, to what? Microsoft has more than enough time to create a perfectly working ODF plugin. By being very buddy buddy with both Novell and Sun chances are that the ODF plugin will work so well with Office 2003 and 2007 that it still blows away all of the competition. One example of the strength of Microsoft in this is Windows Live Writer. It is an offline program for writing blog posts. Windows Live Writer connects to a ton of open source CMS packages and even downloads the online theme for you. In doing this it is a mile ahead of open source implementations like Drivel and BloGTK.
    The desktop penetration of Microsoft Office is extremely high and when offered a choice between installing a small plugin or a wholesale migration to OpenOffice.org what do you think most organizations will choose? Especially considering the immense archive of .DOC and XLS files that still need to be accessible in the coming years. Chances are that these organizations will continue to download the closed standard documents, both out of habit and because it doesn’t matter anyway under the new Office 2007 with plugin.

    In terms of advocacy the new government guidelines are an important first step, but only the first step. From now on we have to create a solid demand for ODF documents, demand an explanation when an organization does not provide it and send our own documents to colleagues, partner organizations and government institutions in ODF format.

    Secondly, we need a very strong and very solid alternative to Windows and Microsoft Office. The migration to open source software does not and will not follow in the footsteps of open standards if the real and perceived quality of both Windows and Microsoft Office surpasses the current open source offerings. The lower quality is a legitimate reason to postpone migration to open source software.

    The only true contenders for the open source desktop

    In order to do this we, as open source ambassadors, need a few solid packages in our toolbox to show the strength of open source software on the business desktop. Ubuntu Linux is a solid contender for this as is Novell’s offering. I am still waiting for Red Hat’s re-entry in the desktop market. Okay, I might be burned to the ground for this statement, but I believe that these are the only valid contenders for the business desktop. Most of the other distributions are either too geeky, focused too much on the home user and bleeding edge features or simply depend on one or two main developers and maintainers. In some cases the track record over the recent years is too erratic, alternating good releases with major disappointments and buggy releases.

    PC-BSD’s position as open source desktop

    PC-BSD could be the fourth contender. For one, it is firmly rooted in the *BSD tradition with a pendance for stability. Linux has been making headways in the server room, but the various Unix’s have been there for decades already. Hence, there is a foothold in a lot of companies and organizations that could be used to make a push for the desktop. As a third argument I would mention the more relaxed and professional attitude of the *BSD community, which gives access to more solid informal support should end-users start looking for it. The close link between PC-BSD and FreeBSD makes for one central source of information and problem-solving. The *BSD world has less problems with forks due to personal itches and personality problems. PC-BSD and DesktopBSD were created with similar goals in mind and exist in parallel now, but it is no problem to install DesktopBSD-tools in PC-BSD because it became part of the same package/ports collection. This means that advances in one BSD can easily be made available to the other BSD. Plus, the packages and ports collection is huge, only rivaled by the Debian repositories.

    I deliberately wrote ‘could be’, because there is still work to be done. In the last two weeks I played with PC-BSD and I like it, but I also had to revert regularly to a skill set that simply isn’ t available for the average desktop user in commercial and government organizations. There is need for some strong polish in the area of software management, in making various desktop management tools more accessible and understandable by the casual user and some serious investments in the graphical interface of the most important desktop applications. I know, this isn’t the sole task of the PC-BSD team. But please, be aware that Microsoft knows how to do one thing very well and that is to create a user experience that looks and feels more naturally attuned to the way the users want to work with applications. Word processing, spreadsheets, presentations, PIM software, communications software etc. etc. should not only be functional and adhering to all the open standards, but should be pleasant and fun to work with. That doesn’t mean to emulate the experience Microsoft provides, but to outperform it.

    The PBI’s can offer the ease of install that the current package and ports system might be lacking. But they could also offer tailor-made graphical interfaces to current software applications that make them shine and sparkle. I know this requires even more investment in terms of time and effort. It even requires the PC-BSD team to sit down with GUI specialists, artists and graphical designers to create that new experience. But once this is done PC-BSD should be able to make a strong contribution to support the push to promote open source software in the wake of the open standards adoption.

    PC-BSD Day 15: PAMP your website

    One application that always finds its way to my desktop is Apache-MySQL-PHP in one of its incarnations. MAMP for Mac OSX, XAMPP for Windows XP and my portable USB drive and LAMP for my Ubuntu box. In the latter case -and on *BSD- it shouldn’t be necessary to work with an *AMP package. Installing the various component via the software repositories or packages is a matter of entering the proper commands. Making them work together is a completely different ballgame, one I haven’t had the time to master yet. Plus, I want to play and test with websites not with setting up a webserver. For PC-BSD I simply used PAMP, which is available as PBI package.

    The PBI installer took care of everything and left me with a new entry under Internet. The PAMP submenu gives access to the start/stop functions. PAMP sets itself apart from XAMPP and MAMP by making a distinction between root and personal websites and folders. In this way it is simple to create personal websites on a local box for each of the users. Each user will find a /public_html folder in his/her own /home/user folder.

    I want a local webserver to test out updates and upgrades for the various websites I maintain. My main Dutch website will be the portal for my upcoming book release. It is run by Joomla 1.0.x with a small collection of extensions. Each update of an extension or Joomla itself needs to be tested before I apply them on the life site. Besides, Joomla 1.5 is shaping up and I want to test that with the main site and three company sites I wish to migrate to Joomla. Then there is this weblog. WordPress is working towards a major upgrade with changes in the database. That will break some plugins and testing the upgrade locally is definitely a big “oh yes!”.

    Downloading the packages from the Joomla and WordPress websites straight to the /public_html folders was not allowed by default. It’s annoyance at first, but it does show that the simple PAMP install does come with some sensible security settings. And changing the access rights to the folder is easy enough. After that it was a matter of unpacking the packages (Konquerer and Ark are a nice couple here).

    Via Internet -> PAMP I went to Open Personal Web Site. I unpacked each into it’s own folder with no index.html or index.php in the root, so I got a list of folders. Clicking on Joomla brought me straight to the installer. Both Joomla and WordPress require a mysql database. In order to create them I went to Open Web Site which provides a link to PHPMyAdmin. Of course, entering http://localhost/phpmyadmin does the trick as well. Like XAMPP and MAMP, PAMP has a default MySQL user root without a password. It saves the hassle of remembering a new password. The field Create new database is evident enough and two new databases were created.

    The Joomla wizard is straightforward enough. I did forget to change the access right to the newly created joomla folder, as a result of which the installer could not write the new configuration.php itself. With Bluefish I created the new configuration.php file and after changing the access rights (remember, very unsafe but it’s for a non-public test setting only) that problem was fixed as well.
    Wordpress requires you to alter the wp-config-sample.php file manually and add the proper database information. This is one of the reasons I always like to have Bluefish on my desktop. It integrates nicely with Konquerer and is very simple to use as a PHP editor. Finishing the installation of WordPress was a breeze after that.

    Since I was on a roll I decided to add three additional CMS packages to my personal website: Mediawiki, eGroupware and SugarCRM. SugarCRM could be added and installed without a glitch. Mediawiki was more troublesome. It requires PHP5 to run properly (I used the most recent version of Mediawiki. There are older versions that can run with PHP4). The good thing is that PAMP comes with a PHP switch (under Internet -> PAMP -> Advanced -> Set PHP version). I stopped Apache, changed to PHP5 and restarted Apache. Nope, Mediawiki was still giving the same error message.

    eGroupware became a real enigma. I could see the folder under /public_html, I could browse to the folder and the index.php file under Konquerer, but I couldn’t see the folder on my personal website. Checking and changing the access rights didn’t solve the problem yet and I am still looking.

    Anyway, three out of five isn’t too bad and the two packages I really need to work with are no easily accessible on my PC-BSD box. The PAMP implementation of *AMP is one of the easiest and versatile I know and I like the way it is integrated in the menu. It’s very simple to navigate to your personal web folder, extract the packages you want to work with and then play with the CMS. One thing I couldn’t find yet -and which is available for XAMPP- is TomCat. There are some Java-based packages I want to test out in the near future. Feel free to offer suggestions about that. For today, playing time is over. There is work to be done.

    PC-BSD Day 14: GNOME snags

    Working with KDE for the last two weeks was enjoyable enough. I even decided to use KDE on my Debianized iMac. What I realize is that I have become pretty agnostic when it comes to the graphical desktop. I hardly care whether it is Windows, GNOME, KDE or Mac OS X. I do care about applications and what i can do with them. So, why bother with installing GNOME right now? I have installed all applications I need, including the ones closely related to GNOME and all dependencies have been taken care of. Well, do we ever need an excuse to do things that the average Microsoft customers would find weird? Now you know why I decided to run #pkg_add -r gnome2. And join my wife for diner.

    After diner I was greeted by a message that everything had installed fine. Some dependencies were more recent than the ones required, but other than that it seemed fine. Logging off and logging in again after selecting a GNOME session revelead the new GNOME desktop in all it’s dull and bare glory. Really, once you see the default GNOME desktop you immediately understand the rational behind the gnome-look website and the amazingly easy way to install new themes. Just download the theme and drag the package to the theme selector.

    The first order of business was firing up Firefox and typing http://www.gnome-look.org in the location bar. At least, that is what I wanted to do. The system did not accept any input from the keyboard. Weird. I went for a complete reboot (I know, old Windows habits die hard, but sometimes it really works).

    Then came the second surprise. I am used to GDM or KDM asking me whether to permanently change the default session. In this case my box booted into GNOME by default, which was not what I wanted. It didn’t change a thing about the keyboard input though. Still no luck.

    The third surprise was the fact that new windows wouldn’t have window borders. The application would load in the upper left corner, covering the GNOME menu, but I couldn’t drag it to another place. This leaves me with two problems I need to solve in order to get a fully functional GNOME desktop. Tempting challenge, but it will have to wait. It’s kind of busy right now and I prefer to spend my time on other experiments with PC-BSD.

    I can say one good thing about the new GNOME desktop. The KDE applications are all neatly organized under one menu heading called KDE. The other way around is not as neat. The applications are scattered over the menu tree and for many programs the icons are lacking. It would appear that the desktop implementation under FreeBSD doesn’t yet adhere to the free desktop guidelines. Ubuntu uses that and that makes sure that -no matter the desktop- all applications are loaded under the same menu entries with the proper icon set.

    PC-BSD Day 13: The KOffice workspace

    Where Kontact is a shell around various communications applications for the KDE desktop, KOffice is a shell around the productivity applications. During install PC-BSD gives you the opportunity to install OpenOffice.org and that you need to do. The good thing about OpenOffice.org is that it is available for multiple platforms (Windows, Mac OSX, Linux and BSD) and there is a portable version for Windows that runs from a USB stick. However, don’ t forget to install KOffice as well. KOffice gives access to more applications than OpenOffice.org.

    Going through a day with KOffice

    What applications are covered by KOffice? You have you word processor (KWord), the necessary spreadsheetprogram (KSpread) , the powerpoint clone (KPresenter), the flowcharter (Kivio), programs to create charts (KCharter) and vector drawings (Karbon14). With KFormula you design your mathematical formulas and with Krita you can work on your pictures. There is a ton of work you can do from the KOffice workspace including managing all that work (KPlato).

    The graphical interface is divided in four sections. From left to right you can find the taskbar to add various types of frames, the taskbar with quick access to the other KOffice modules, the navigator window and the main screen. Each new document -no matter the type- gets its own tab along the bottom of the main screen. This saves a lot of alt-tabs when you work on multiple documents at the same time. When you work -for instance- on a presentation or edit some picture the desktop real estate comes at a premium and a lot of space is used for other functions.

    The standard spreadsheet is a lot smaller than in Excel, so I wouldn’t count on an easy import of large and complex Excel sheets. You can’ t even save you spreadsheets in Excel format (though you can save your text documents in .DOC format). Similarly, you can not save your presentations in .PPT format. This would make it difficult to use KOffice in an environment where most of your friends and workmates are shackled to Microsoft Office and closed source formats. The tide is changing and it could well be that within a few year open standards have become the norm. For that KOffice is well prepared. It supports the OASIS Open Document standard and uses that as the default.

    Suitable for whom?

    There is plenty to say about the various applications, but the overall impression is that they provide those functions that most casual users will use in their day to day tasks. A program like Krita shows that this could still imply a lot of functions and a lot of strength. Koffice is somewhere between Microsoft Works and Microsoft Office. There is a solid market for Works and that market is perfectly suited for KOffice as well. Personally, I am more of a power user and regularly run into the limitations of OpenOffice.org. But I also know that this is not true for most of the people around me that work with Microsoft Office every day. For them, KOffice is more than sufficient. Together with Kontact it could suit all their needs and most of their wants.

    PC-BSD Day 12: A closer look at Kontact

    On day 9 i tried my hand at KMail. It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t overwhelming either. Having used Thunderbird for quite some time (with a small collection of extensions) it appeared a bit bare. KMail is a lot faster to load though and that is a boon when you are running everything in a virtual box.

    The KDE desktop has two major items that really add some spice for the desktop user: the KOffice workspace and Kontact. Maybe it is not correct to call them parts of the KDE desktop, because they need to be installed. There is no real counterpart of these two on the GNOME desktop. GNOME Office is far from an integrated set of applications. Evolution could be compared to Kontact, but only up to point.

    Kontact appears to be a shell that wraps around various separate KDE based applications, that can also be used as standalone programs. There is KMail, KAdressbook, Akregator (RSS feeds), KPilot (PDA synchronisation), KOrganizer (calendar), KNotes (memo notes) and KNode (newsgroups). The taks bar on the left side provides quick access to each function, which is loaded in the main screen.

    It could be me, but I have the impression that Kontact has a cleaner and brighter look and feel than for instance just KMail. The level of integration with other parts of the KDE desktop is remarkable. For the article I wrote yesterday I found some RSS feeds that I wanted to keep. Konquerer informed me that there were feeds on a webpage by showing a radio button in the lower right corner. Clicking on the button revelead the option to add the feed to Akregrator. Once you see an article in the feed that you like to read it become a matter of double-clicking the link and Kontact/Akregator opens a new tab. No, it won’t open Konquerer or any other webbrowser, just the tab. It’s a bit slow at first, which almost made me think something was wrong.

    Kontact/Calendar is a straightforward calendaring application. There is even a plugin to link to Exchange 2000. I work with Outlook at my workplace and I haven’t found a single function lacking in Calendar yet. Kontact/Contacts again is clear enough. It can be linked to an LDAP server, which should be interesting for organizations that want to go open source all the way.

    Overall, I am mightily impressed with Kontact. It is fast, it is clean, it fully functional as a personal information manager. KDE has the reputation of being ridden with possibilities to set options and change them. Kontact indeed has quite a few of those, but when you consider that you actually managing multiple applications through one interface and that everything is neatly organized the issue disappears. I do believe that presenting Kontact as the default PIM for desktop users beats offering Evolution.

    Planning the rest of the month
    There are a few things I want to try in the coming weeks. For one, I am testing PC-BSD in a virtual environment and it would be nice to check the performance on a real harddisk. I wouldn’t mind giving it a spin on my laptop and see how it handles the wifi stuff, but that will have to wait. My laptop needs to be returned to the manufacturer.

    Secondly, I want to see how easy (or difficult) it is to install PC-BSD next to Windows and Linux. How good is the installer for that task and will I be able to boot into the other OS via the boot loader?

    Networking is another one on the list. How well and how easy can I connect to the various shares? Can i just as easily adjust fstab to mount those shares at startup? That will bring me to a brief tour along the differences between *BSD and Linux. Then we have the suggestion by Manolis to alter the PACKAGESITE environment and in that way getting more recent packages. That’s the really nerdy stuff, at least for me.

    Other than that I will be exploring the various other applications that come with the KDE desktop. And I shouldn’t forget GNOME. Can I add it just as easily as all the packages? Anyway, feel free to point out some other experiments.

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