At some point in your IT career, your staff (or someone on your staff) is going to implement Linux for one service or another, be it Web servers, DNS servers, mail servers, file and print servers, servers, servers, servers! But eventually you might also have to deal with the adoption of Linux on the desktop.

With the enormous saturation of Microsoft products on the desktop, it is fairly safe to say that the average end user isn’t going to know squat about the Linux desktop, and you are going to be faced with the challenge of introducing the two! Fortunately, it’s not as enormous a task as it sounds. With the help of the KDE desktop, end users can fairly easily acclimate themselves to using Linux and actually find themselves quite productive.

In this Daily Drill Down, I will show you some helpful ways to get the Linux (KDE) desktop configured so that your end users won’t be calling you night and day.

Getting to know KDE
It would probably be worth your while to get to know the KDE desktop before you begin training your end users. KDE is a desktop environment for the Linux operating system. It’s the most Windows-like desktop environment not created by Microsoft. KDE is pretty. KDE is highly flexible. I could go on and on. But first, let me explain the desktop environment (hereafter referred to as DE).

The DE, simply put, is where the users work. It’s the desktop, the icons, the start menus, the task bars, the windows, and all that coherently joins the user to the operating system. KDE strives to make that as simple and user-friendly as possible.

Created by Matthias Ettrich in 1996, KDE’s goal was simply to bring UNIX to the desktop. Since its inception, KDE has grown to fulfill the prophecy with all the typical bells and whistles users have come to expect on a computer.

But how does all the above hoo-ha translate to a simple user experience? Let’s break it down and relate it to the environment you know and love/hate—Microsoft Windows.

Logging in
Typically in an enterprise-level environment, users are required to log in. The process of logging into the desktop brings the user’s own personal settings to that particular machine (or it should). KDE offers this same function. Upon pressing any key on the keyboard, the user will be greeted with a login window where they will enter their user name and password. Once the password is accepted, their desktop configurations are read from the ~/.kde/Autostart and the ~/Desktop directories.


The ~/ character combination is shorthand for the user’s home directory. For example, if my username was jlwallen, the directory that would correlate to ~/ would be /home/jlwallen. If my username was bob, ~/ would relate to /home/bob.

Post log in
Once you’ve logged into KDE, you will probably be surprised at how familiar it looks and feels. As in the Windows environment, you will see the standard desktop items: task bar (called the Kicker Panel), Start button, clickable icons, system tray, etc. Take a look at Figure A for a nice shot of a default KDE2 desktop.

Figure A
The KDE desktop offers all the standard bells and whistles the user has grown accustomed to.

As you can see in Figure A, the KDE desktop is a familiar playground of icons, buttons, and bars. Although not quite that simplistic, KDE does take the desktop metaphor to the limits of usability. Let us now take a look at each of the pieces that make up the KDE desktop. We’ll start with the big picture, migrate to the task bar, have a look-see into the Start menu, and finally take a look at the wunderkind: Konqueror.

The desktop
What we are going to look at is the actual working area. The desktop holds our clickable icons and can be configured in a number of different ways.

As you can see on our default desktop, there are a number of predefined icons. The top icon, Kontrol Panel, opens up the equivalent of the MS Windows Control Panel. Here, you can launch any given configuration utility from Apacheconf (the Apache Web server configuration tool) to wu-ftpd (FTP server daemon), and everything in between. As you click on this icon, you will notice that its default behavior is similar to that on a Web-enabled Windows desktop, meaning a single click will open that particular application.

The next icon, Autostart, was mentioned earlier. When this icon is clicked, the Konqueror browser will open (in File Management mode) to the ~/.kde/Autostart directory. Here, you will see an icon representing the link to the karm, an executable binary file (a time-tracking application) (see Figure B). (More on Konqueror later.)

Figure B
Icons in the Autostart directory are links to applications that will automatically start at login.

Below the Autostart icon are two icons that will open the Konqueror Web browser to either the Linux Documentation Project or Red Hat (in the case of a Red Hat Linux install).

The next icon is quite a step forward for the Linux desktop. The Printer icon allows the user to drag a file (from Konqueror) onto the icon and, so long as the printer has been properly configured, that file will print automatically!

The next icon, Trash, should be very familiar to the Windows user. In fact, it offers the same functionality as its Windows brethren! If you right-click the Trash icon, a small menu will appear, giving you these options:

  • Open a New Window: This is the same as left-clicking the icon.
  • Empty Trash Bin.
  • Add to Bookmarks: This adds the ~/.kde/Trash directory to your Konqueror favorites.
  • Open With… This allows you to select which application you want to open the Trash Bin with.
  • Edit File Type… Allows you to associate various applications with certain extensions.
  • Properties: Allows you to view the properties of the Trash Bin and change permissions.

The last two icons will most certainly be new to migratory Windows users. Both the Floppy and the Cdrom icons allow the user to mount and unmount either device.

Mounting and unmounting devices

Because Linux is a multiuser/multitasking operating system, it has always been common for users to have to mount and unmount devices in order to use them. If you insert a CD into the CD-ROM drive and do not mount the drive, the system will not see the CD.

By right-clicking the Cdrom icon, you will see a menu that has a number of entries (see Figure C). One entry is the Mount (if unmounted), or Unmount (if mounted) selection.

Figure C
The Cdrom right-click menu allows you to simply point and click to mount and unmount your devices.

Creating your own icons
Like any good desktop environment, KDE allows you to create your own clickable icons. There are actually three ways to create a desktop icon. The first, and arguably the easiest, is to open the Konqueror browser, navigate to the directory that houses the executable binary, drag the binary onto the desktop, and select Create Link.

Should you want to change the icon from the default “gear” icon, you must right-click the icon, select Edit File Type, click on the gear button, and select a new icon.

The next method is not quite as simple, but it is much more flexible. Right-click on the desktop, choose Link To Application from the Create New menu, and fill in the necessary text boxes. The first bit of information for you to fill in is in the General tab (see Figure D). Here, you will give your icon a name, which will appear under the icon on the desktop. You must supply this name.

Figure D
Not only can you name your icon, you can select a specific image to be used by clicking the ‘gear’ button and selecting the desired icon.

On the Execute tab, you will need to enter the command that launches the application. To do this, either enter the command in the text area or click Browse, navigate to the command, and select the binary executable file.

The third and final method of creating a desktop icon is to manually create the text entry that creates the icon. The file will be placed in the ~/Desktop directory and will look like this:
# KDE Config File
[KDE Desktop Entry]

We’ll create the above file, like so:

  • Click on the Terminal button in the panel (see Figure E).
  • When the new Terminal opens, enter the command pico ~/Desktop/TPG, which will open the pico text editor.
  • In the pico text editor, enter the text above (see Figure F).
  • Once you’ve entered the text, press [Ctrl]x to save. (You’ll have to answer a question or two.)
  • As soon as the file saves, the lil’ penguin icon should appear on your desktop. (Click on that and it will open the Konqueror browser to the TechProGuild site.)

Figure E
Clicking on the Terminal icon in the panel will open up the Konsole application.

Figure F
The pico text editor is one of the simplest to use.

The desktop menu
Like its Windows counterpart, the KDE desktop has a right-click menu. Unlike its Windows counterpart, the KDE desktop menu is quite extensive. The KDE desktop menu allows you to do the following:

  • Create New: Here, you can create a new Directory, HTML File, Text File, CD-ROM Device, Floppy Device, Link To Application, and Link To Location (URL).
  • Bookmarks: This allows you to open Web sites (from various bookmark files) in the Konqueror Web browser. This is like the Favorites folder in many other OSs.
  • Undo: Copy: Interacts with the clipboard.
  • Paste: Interacts with the clipboard.
  • Help On Desktop: Opens the KDE help application.
  • Run Command: Opens a small window that allows you to enter commands. (Very useful, by the way!)
  • Configure Background: Allows you to configure your desktop wallpaper.
  • Configure Desktop: Allows you to configure the number of desktops, icon text, appearance, borders, etc.
  • Enable Desktop Menu: Click on this to enable a horizontal menu at the top of the screen. This menu is handy if you hide your panel often.
  • Unclutter Windows: This entry, when clicked, will take all your open windows and arrange them so that they have as much area visible as possible. This entry is more confusing than anything—arrange your windows yourself!
  • Cascade Windows: This will stack your open window in a cascading fashion.
  • Line Up Icons: The name says it all.
  • Arrange Icons: Similar to above.
  • Lock Screen: Switches the desktop to the configured screensaver and requires the user’s password to get back in.
  • Logout: Logs the user out.

Multiple desktops
One major difference you will find is that with Linux and KDE, you have the opportunity to use multiple desktops. What this does is, effectively, quadruple your desktop space. This makes managing your workspace quite a bit easier. If you look at the Kicker Panel, you’ll notice a small square broken into four quadrants. This is called the pager and will transport you to whichever desktop you click on.

Getting users accustomed to the pager is not exactly the simplest task. The typical reaction is that users will zap themselves to another desktop and sit in shock as they witness all of the their applications disappear! If this is an issue that your users (or even you) cannot get around, you can configure this feature away (somewhat). Right-click on the pager (the quadranted square) and select Preferences. Once the Preferences window opens, you can move the slider to the far left to enable only one desktop (this would emulate a Windows desktop) or all the way to the right to enable 16 desktops. Of course, 16 desktops is a bit much (and rather confusing).

The Kicker Panel and the K Menu
The Kicker Panel is akin to the Windows Task Bar and offers, feature for feature, the same functionality. From the K (or start) menu, to the clickable icons, to the system tray, this panel isn’t missing a single trick. Let’s take a look at the Kicker from left to right, starting with the K Menu.

K Menu
The K Menu (see Figure G) is the equivalent of the Windows Start menu, only, like the whole of Linux, it is much more configurable. The first thing you will notice is how similar the K Menu is to the Windows standard. Since the majority of the K Menu is fairly self-explanatory, we’ll jump into the configuration issue.

Figure G
The K Menu contains menus and submenus, just like most PC users are accustomed to.

The first thing you will want to do is add (or remove) entries from the K Menu. Let’s say you know that you don’t want your staff doing any online chatting while they are working (but you don’t necessarily want to remove the application from the machine). As the root user, open the menu editor with the kmenuedit command, navigate through the Internet group, and then click on Chat Client. When you click on this, you will see the details of the Chat Client menu entry (see Figure H). In order to delete this entry, simply click on the Delete button and exit the application.

Figure H
The kmenuedit application allows you to add and remove K Menu entries to your heart’s desire.

Before you exit the kmenuedit application, there is one more handy configuration you will want to consider. Hot keys are ways to make the launching of applications a mere two (or three) key combination. In the Advanced tab, you will see one configuration option (Current Key). Let’s say you want to be able to launch the Konqueror Web browser by pressing [Alt]K. To do this, you can either type [Alt]K or you can click the Change button, select the Custom key option, click on the Alt option, click the empty button (yes, it really is empty; if you’ve not already customized a hot key, see Figure I), and when the button turns white, enter the desired key, click OK, and finally click Apply. Now when you want to open Konqueror, just hold down the [Alt] key and press K at the same time. Pretty swift!

Figure I
Yes, it really is a blank button!

Back in the kmenuedit application, you can create new submenus by clicking the New Submenu button. Figure J shows the various configurations to be had while creating a new submenu. Here, you can add a Comment (think Tool Tip) and change the icon.

Figure J
Don’t forget to change the icon to represent the new submenu.

Once you’ve created the new submenu (ours is called Work), you can then add entries into this menu. Make sure when you click the New Item button that you have highlighted the submenu you wish the item to belong to; otherwise, it will fall under either the main menu all by itself or whatever submenu happened to be highlighted at the time.

The Kicker Panel
We now move on to the actual panel that houses the K Menu. The Kicker Panel is very much like the Windows 9x/NT/2K Task Bar. Here you will find clickable icons, the pager, minimize area, Lock Screen/Log Out buttons, the Klipboard application, and the clock/data application. One other little item you might find interesting is the hide arrows. The hide arrows allow you to slide the panel to the left or to the right, giving you more room on the desktop.

Like the K Menu, the Kicker Panel is fairly self-explanatory. There are clickable buttons that can be added, removed, moved, and edited. If you right-click any one of these buttons, you will see a menu that will allow you to configure that particular button. If you right-click on an empty section of the panel (or even the hide arrows) you will get another menu that will allow you to configure the panel, add new buttons, change the size of the Kicker Panel, open the menu editor, and get help.

If you like your toast a little on the round side, you can left-click on your panel and drag it to either of the vertical planes or the top of the screen. Take heed in making such choices. The typical user has grown accustomed to their panels hanging out on the bottom of the screen.

The Konqueror browser is considered by many to be the single biggest selling point for KDE2. Konqueror acts not only as a solid file browser but also a fully featured Web browser! In my recent interview “Open source: The Linus Torvalds interview,” Linus Torvalds himself said, “I’ve switched from my old fvwm setup (where “f” stood for “feeble” window manager) to KDE2 mostly because I love the anti-aliased fonts from QT and because I think that Konqueror is a better Web browser than Mozilla or Netscape (and also gets anti-aliased fonts).”

Konqueror is a rather large application that serves a multitude of purposes. As a file browser, it gives to the Linux OS full drag-and-drop capability, in-line image viewing, single click application launching, and a host of other features. One of the nicest aspects of Konqueror is the ability to switch between viewing modes. The available modes include:

  • File Management: This is standard two-pane viewing.
  • File Preview: This is three-pane viewing, which gives the user a third viewing area. Here, the far-left pane is for directories, the middle pane is for file listings, and the far-right pane is to view the contents of the actual files.
  • Midnight Commander: This is an interesting perspective in that it takes the standard two-pane view and adds a third (at the bottom) that is actually a small terminal window where you can interact with the command line.
  • Web Browsing: This is single-pane view.

The two most often used viewing modes are File Management and Web Browsing. Although they make a nice dog and pony show, the File Preview and the Midnight Commander viewing modes are not nearly as easy to use as the standard modes.

Choosing the various modes is simple: From the Window menu, navigate through the Load View Profile and select one of the four modes (see Figure K). You can also customize your own viewing modes. This can be handy if you know that your users will be using certain directories frequently. Let’s say one department frequents one particular FTP server and moves files back and forth. You can easily enter the address of the server in the Location bar and, once the server comes up in the browser, click Configure View Profiles (from the Window menu). The new window that will appear will ask you to Enter Profile Name, and then click Save. Once you’ve saved the Profile, you will see it in the Load View Profile submenu.

Figure K
You can select one of four view modes from the Load View Profile submenu.

Konqueror is actually a much larger application than I’ve acknowledged. To do it justice would take much more space and time than I have allowed myself.

Helping users to become comfortable with KDE is really not a difficult task once you understand the metaphor yourself. The functionality/usability is very similar to that of the Windows desktop, and the ability to customize the desktop’s appearance and function to your needs makes migrating new users that much easier.

Should you need more help with KDE, don’t neglect the KDE help system. On the default Kicker Panel, just click on the icon that looks like a life preserver, and you should have most of your questions quickly answered.