Open Source

Novell's Ximian Desktop 2 makes Linux easier to use

Discover an easier-to-use GUI for your Linux desktops.

Lawsuits and related controversy aside, Linux continues to make major inroads in the data center and is even beginning to be more seriously considered as a desktop solution in many areas. Formerly stand-alone Linux companies are being swallowed up by competitors, and new products are being released every day. One new product out of Novell’s Ximian group is the latest version of the Ximian Desktop, aptly named Ximian Desktop 2.

What’s included?
Ximian Desktop 2 (XD2) features a wide array of desktop enhancements, including:
  • A Ximian-enhanced version of OpenOffice 1.1.
  • A Ximian Evolution 1.4 Outlook-like e-mail client.
  • The capability to connect to an Exchange server via the optional Ximian Connector.
  • Enhanced Windows-compatible AGFA fonts.

Perhaps more important, XD2 features a consistent look and feel across all of its applications, making it much more user-friendly than some typical Linux desktop environments. A consistent user interface can go a long way toward acceptance and can ease the training burden on organizations that decide to deploy desktop Linux. The result: a lower TCO and increased productivity.

What does XD2 support?
XD2 works on Red Hat and SuSE Linux systems. For Red Hat Linux, you need to run version 7.3, 8, or 9. For SuSE Linux, version 8.2 or 9 or the SuSE Linux Desktop 1.0 is required. Expect support for SuSE Linux to expand in the coming months considering Novell’s acquisition of both Ximian and SuSE.

How can I get it?
XD2 is available in two editions: a free version and the Professional Edition, which has a list price of $99. The Professional Edition has a few more features, including the AGFA Microsoft Windows-compatible fonts and browser plug-ins such as Acrobat Reader, Real Audio Player, Macromedia Flash Player, and the Java 2 JRE. Additionally, the Professional Edition includes a one-year subscription to Red Carpet Express—Ximian’s high-speed update utility.

For this article, I'm using a Red Hat Linux 9 system and the freely downloaded edition of Ximian Red Carpet. The purpose here is to see what it takes to get this tool up and running.

The installation for XD2 couldn’t be easier. First, make sure you're a superuser on the machine to which XD2 should be installed. Next, in a console window, execute:
wget -q -O - |sh

The installer first checks the consistency of the RPM database to make sure that there's nothing that could pose a problem for the product. Second, you're asked to select a mirror from which the product is downloaded. Select the closest location and then press [Enter]. The graphical installer is then downloaded; it’s about 2.5 MB, so if you’re on a slow link, go get some coffee. Once the graphical installer is downloaded, it starts automatically, as shown in Figure A. Click the Forward button to continue.

Figure A
The XD2 installer starts automatically.

Trying its best to be as easy to use as possible, XD2 attempts to identify your distribution. Figure B shows that XD2 was indeed able to recognize my Red Hat 9 system. Again, click Forward to continue. If the installer didn’t successfully recognize your system, follow the instructions on the screen instead.

Figure B
The XD2 installer attempts to identify your system.

In the interest of load balancing and speed, there are a number of locations from which you can install XD2, as you can see in Figure C. First, the Red Carpet Express option downloads the product right from Ximian. If you’re elsewhere in the world and don’t want to use trans-Atlantic links, use the Ximian Mirror Site option to select a closer site. The third option allows you to install from a CD shipped to you by Ximian, or you can define a network location from which the software is installed. For this article, I’m using the Mirror Site option.

Figure C
Install XD2 from a mirror site.

The next screen you'll see lets you specify your HTTP proxy settings, if you need to. Another screen asks you to register the software with Ximian and provides the usual opt-out questions about getting e-mail announcements and so forth. This screen also provides the option to not register with Ximian.

If you’ve opted to install from a mirror site, the installer will ask you to select the site. Since I live in Maryland, I’ll use the UUNet site in Ashburn, VA, as shown in Figure D.

Figure D
Select a local mirror site.

Once you've selected a site, the installer downloads information about what you can install. This is one area that makes no sense to me. I don’t think the installer should present a menu with a default selection of the latest unstable build of a product. This could definitely confuse some users. As you can see in Figure E, I’ve selected Ximian Desktop 2.

Figure E
Select the product you’d like to install. I recommend XD2.

Like many products, there are a number of different components to XD2. You have to install the Ximian Desktop Core environment, but you can also optionally install the Ximian-enhanced 1.1, as well as various other tools, including additional editors, the development libraries for a number of the Ximian-enhanced packages, and other applications such as Gnumeric. For this article, I’ll just install the core environment and, as you can see in Figure F.

Figure F
Select the components you’d like to install.

Since you might have already installed some of the selected packages on your system, the installer performs a dependency resolution to identify other packages that need to be installed or removed so that the updated Ximian versions can be installed.

In Figure G, you’ll notice that OpenOffice is slated to be removed even though I selected it for installation earlier. This is because the version of OpenOffice on my Red Hat 9 system is not the Ximian-enhanced version. Scrolling down the list, I see that the updated packages are shown in the Packages To Install list.

Figure G
A list of the package changes

Based on your selections, the appropriate packages are downloaded from whatever location you specified. Be ready for a surprise. The base install, including on a new Red Hat 9 installation, requires a 438-MB download. Once fully downloaded, the packages are installed. But this takes quite some time.

After installation
Once the new packages are installed, you’ll be asked a few questions. You’ll need to decide whether to use the Gnome login manager and whether to use CUPS for printing. If you decide not to use CUPS, you won’t be able to use certain features or print from the Ximian desktop.

After you make these decisions, your X session will be automatically restarted, and you'll see the new Ximian login screen, shown in Figure H. Once you log in, Ximian will ask if you want to use the new desktop or if you’d rather keep your current settings. Use the new desktop unless you have a really good reason not to.

Figure H
The new Ximian login screen

The new desktop
Figure I shows the new Ximian desktop. I have it running at a fairly low resolution in this example (800 x 600), but you can see the taskbar along the top of the screen, the personal documents folder, the Windowsesque My Computer link, and the Ximian-enhanced 1.1.

Figure I
The Ximian Desktop 2 in action

Since network systems are pretty important, I decided to see how well XD2 did on my Windows network. Figure J shows that my Linux system found three Windows (smb) machines out on the network. The machines named Scott and XP3 are Windows XP computers, while the one named Scotts-iBook is a Mac OS X laptop with Windows file sharing enabled.

Figure J
Windows file sharing works nicely.

Ximian has done an impressive job of integrating the various GUI design elements into a standard, theme-based system, particularly with OpenOffice. While themes and fonts don’t necessarily mean productivity enhancements, we all know that users need to change the desktop look and feel to suit their desires. Figure K shows the same screen as Figure I, but with a few desktop-appearance changes made in the central configuration utilities. All of the changes have been made seamlessly across the desktop.

Figure K
XD2’s consistency is very good.

Monkeying around
With the interface additions and improvements made to both Gnome and OpenOffice, XD2 provides a consistent platform that you can roll onto the desktop for users. XD2 is a compelling addition to the Linux environment when coupled with Red Carpet (which I'll discuss in a future article) and the Ximian Evolution e-mail client with Ximian Connector For Exchange mailbox access.

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