Novice to Novice

As part of a regular series by and for novices, Dean gives a novice's point of view on some of the many spreadsheet and text editing programs that run under Linux.

This series has aimed at the Unix beginner who has experience with MS-DOS. I have assumed that such a person is exploring Linux primarily to learn Unix easily, cheaply, and conveniently. This person may buy or download Linux, get it running, and probably focus on the main veins—Networking, X-Windows, GNU C/C++, etc.—without really exploring some of the other offerings such as sc, oreo, or xfractint. I originally dismissed these programs, thinking they couldn't have much substance being freeware and certainly couldn't compare to what exists in DOS or Windows.

Then I realized that these freebies weren't necessarily equal to the latest versions of commercial programs like Lotus-123 or WordPerfect but perhaps would be comparable to older versions. And I realized that, just like in DOS/Windows, these freeware and shareware programs served to fulfill an applications void or to present inexpensive alternatives to their commercial counterparts or came into existance because they were fun and a challenging exercise to develop.

This article will be the first of a small journey to seek out these other programs and see what they have to offer. I will concentrate on three main topics: spreadsheets and text editors, databases, and seredipity. The general focus will be towards business applications and things that would impress someone visiting from a DOS/Windows environment.

For the majority of these programs, a major advantage over commercial rivals is that the source code is included. Linux lovers already know of that luxury. Unfortunately, that advantage usually dissipates with the need to compile the source, a task that brings anguish to many novices. As a note of reassurance to other novices, I've found that recompiling isn't always a headache. With a swap file active to boost memory, I've had few problems with compiles. Many of the glitches I've had occur when the make files expect certain files in certain places; that is, when file locations are hardcoded in. And, of course, it helps to read the README files.

A point to remember: many of these programs undergo constant revision and by the time this article sees the light of print newer versions may have been released. With the updates, changes may be made to installation routines or requirements. Consequently the procedures or problems I describe during installing or bugs that I find may not always carry over to newer releases.

My goal is to see how these programs compare to known DOS/Windows counterparts, not to imply that either operating system is better, but simply to provide a frame of reference.

Finally, if no installation option was available from Slackware I unarchived these programs under /usr as those more experienced than myself in Unix have recommended.

Let's snoop around, shall we?

Interlude: The Agonies of Obsolescence

I realized that my copy of Linux from October 1994 was old. Factor in the time for publishing preparations and I was committing a grave disservice. It was time to upgrade to Linux 1.2.1.

Although I had been using Morse Telecommunications' Slackware Professional 2.1 I decided to try another Linux offering. Highly recommended, and what I tried, is InfoMagic's Linux Developer's Resource. This 4-CD monster is an amazing bargain. Archives of Sunsite, TSX-11, and GNU, “live” Slackware, tons of everything else, and best of all: a great price. For the novice, the package may be too overwhelming—there's only a little manual for installation. (Other documentation is on the main CD. InfoMagic offers a beginning package—“Linux Toolbox”—that looks pretty good and comes with a variety of printed help.)

I have two complaints. The first is when using the Windows Boot/Root disk maker routine of the Distribution. The manual says that the program will let you choose UMSDOS as a Root option but I didn't see one and I had to create one manually from the CD. Not a big deal and certainly not heart attack inducing.

The second complaint, not specific to InfoMagic's product, is far worse, but it only applies, I believe, to those having a Sony cdu31a/cdu33a CD-ROM. The auto-detect function was removed or disabled from the kernels. This means that even when you specifically choose the cdu31a kernel from the “Q” disks or recompile the kernel your CD-ROM still will not be recognized. At least it did not for me. Why the decision to remove this chunk of code which worked in earlier versions, I don't know. But I went through Linux-novice hell to get Linux working again.

[The reason that cdu31a/33a autodetect support was removed is that the only possible way to autodetect these drives is so dangerous that detecting it has the potential to hang the computer at boot. This was causing immense troubles for thousands of people without Sony CD-ROM drives, and so the autodetect capability had to be removed, and it is no longer part of the standard Linux kernel. —ED]

A positive change is in the X-Windows configuration routine. Now it does all the dirty work. You do not have to manually edit any files afterwords. As before, however, you will need all the information about your monitor and video card, but the entire process is easy and quick. Kudos!