Ever heard of Linux? Ever wonder what exactly it is? Is it for real? Isn’t it hard? The applications I’ve come to love in Windows won’t work in Linux. How can I possibly switch? Well, here’s your explanation.

There’s lot of confusion out there about how suitable Linux is for the home user. Linux, which I prefer to call GNU/Linux (pronounced Guh-Noo Linux) admittedly started as a server/multi-user type of operating system. However, the home user market has become very interested in GNU/Linux over the past few years, and many companies now create GNU/Linux versions aimed at home or desktop users. These versions are more correctly called distributions and modern-day desktop distributions are as familiar and intuitive to use as modern day Windows desktops.

Most GNU/Linux distributions are free. The savings in that alone is significant, but it doesn’t stop there. Most applications are also free. There’s an incredible range of applications available for GNU/Linux and many of them were created specifically to mimic Windows applications, and are therefore, easy to learn. An average GNU/Linux distribution comes packed with hundreds of applications. In contrast, Windows comes with very few applications and many of them are only trial versions, which will expire in short order.

In this article, I’m going to take a quick, broad view of the GNU/Linux equivalents of some popular Windows applications.

The Desktop Itself

Do you need to worry about this topic? No.

Unlike Windows, there are many different types of desktops for GNU/Linux. In the Windows environment, the desktop forms the central interface of the computer. As such, customizing and modifying the Windows desktop is primarily limited to colors and wallpapers. With GNU/Linux, the desktop (called the desktop environment) is a stand-alone application. There are many different desktop environments and is therefore, possible to create some very significant and radical customizations. The image below shows the Ubuntu default desktop.

Sound confusing? It could be, but in practice, you don’t need to worry about the desktop environment until you want to. Each distribution will come with a default desktop environment installed, which will likely be suitable for you to get started with.

The two more popular desktop environments are called KDE and Gnome. KDE and Gnome became so popular because of their similarity with the Windows and Mac desktops that many of us are comfortable with. Most of the procedures used to perform common tasks like changing wallpaper, navigating the file system and launching applications are the same or very close to their Windows or Mac counterparts. The learning curve is very shallow with KDE and Gnome and a new user can generally be up and running quite quickly.

There is an ongoing and fierce debate between GNU/Linux enthusiasts about which desktop environment is better, but at this stage of the game, it’s not important to you. Once you have some time under your belt, you may wish to try other desktop environments, but for the moment you will likely be happy with whichever one your distribution of choice comes with. Other desktop environments include Fluxbox and XFce.

Office Software

Do you need to worry about this topic? Only if you use MS Office.

There is a variety of office type applications for GNU/Linux, but one of them stands alone. The defacto, full-featured, office suite is called OpenOffice.org. ‘Openofficeorg’ is spoken as one word, but frequently abbreviated in writing as ‘OOo.’ As of this writing, the newest version of OOo is 3.3.0 and it features a full-fledged word processor, spreadsheet, presentation and database application. The OOo crew has gone to great lengths to make the OOo interface as close as possible to the good parts of the MS Office interface which, again, makes OOo very easy to pick up and use. The figure below shows the OpenOffice.org Writer application.

OpenOffice.org is completely compatible with many other office suites, including Microsoft Office. Many GNU/Linux authors such as Marcel Gagne and Robin Miller have written entire books in OOo and had no problems sharing them with their Microsoft Office using editorial staff.

OpenOffice.org isn’t only a GNU/Linux application. There is a version for Windows as well, and an offshoot project called NeoOffice for Mac. And you know what? All these versions are free, so OOo offers significant savings. Another office application to try is KOffice.

MS Outlook

Do you need to worry about this topic? Only if you use MS Outlook.

Like office software, there are many e-mail applications for GNU/Linux. However, one of the full-featured suites including a calendar, to do list and e-mail is Evolution. Evolution is a powerful and flexible personal information manager up to par with Outlook. Again, it’s free, and the interface is designed to look similar to Outlook so the learning curve is low.

If you don’t need all the power of MS Outlook, there are many smaller applications that perform specific applications, such as KMail, which is a great little e-mail client. Other PIM applications to try include KOrganizer and Gnome-PIM.

Web Browser

Do you need to worry about this topic? Only if you want to surf the Web.

The image above shows Firefox 3.6.10 browsing the WorldStart site.

Most, if not all, distributions come with a Web browser installed and ready to use. Distributions that come with the KDE desktop environment generally come with Konqueror and distributions that come with the Gnome desktop environment generally come with Firefox. Konqueror is the central workhorse of the KDE desktop. Not only is it a Web browser, but it is also a file manager, an FTP client and a plethora of other things. Firefox is available for Windows, as well as GNU/Linux, so it’s possible to try out the Windows version before switching over to GNU/Linux to ensure that it will be suitable for you. Oh, and they’re all free as well. Other Web browsers you can try are Flock and Opera.


Do you need to worry about this topic? Only if you want to play those little clips people send you in e-mail.

Multimedia is definitely one area that GNU/Linux is weak. That’s not to say that there aren’t any multimedia applications for Linux, quite the contrary. The problem is that most of the multimedia formats that are in wide use are proprietary and therefore not open to be distributed with free GNU/Linux distributions. For a list of free Linux multimedia applications, click here.

Last Words

These are just a few of the more popular applications that are in widespread use amongst home users today. It is true that GNU/Linux is a different operating system and therefore Windows applications won’t run on GNU/Linux, but there’s another way to look at it: you can do anything with GNU/Linux that you can do with Windows. Most of the applications available for GNU/Linux were inspired by the need to fill a gap. Over the years, many developers have noticed a need for a certain application that wasn’t available for GNU/Linux, and made it. A quick Google search for a Linux version of pretty much any Windows application will likely turn up many options.

If you’re interested in trying out GNU/Linux, but don’t want to take the full plunge and install it on your computer, there’s a wonderful thing called a Live CD. A Live CD is a specially formatted distribution that is designed to run from a bootable CD. Live CD images are available from many distributors and as long as your computer can boot from its CD-ROM drive, then you can test drive how Linux will work on your machine without running the risk of destroying your data.

Keep in mind that a Live CD is just a type of CD, rather than a specific CD. It is basically a “try before you take the plunge of a full install” type of thing.

Here’s a link to a massive list of the more popular Live CDs:


~ Jon Watson