Installing Linux software 101 for Windows users

Lately, I've seen several articles by Windows users grumbling about how hard it is to install software on Linux. It is? You could have fooled me.

Still, people are having trouble, so here's my 101 class on installing programs on Linux.

First, chances are good you won't need to install any software on a Linux desktop. Almost all Linux distributions already come with an office suite, usually OpenOffice; a Web browser, Firefox; a universal IM client, Pidgin; and so on. Don't like the main choices? Most Linux distributions also come with alternative picks. For example, there's Gnome Office; the Epiphany Web browser and the Kopete IM client. You get the idea.

If you're looking for a specific replacement for a Windows program you love, you have two choices. You can see if it's supported on Linux by Wine, or its commercial big-brother, CrossOver Linux. If it is, you can just install and run it on Linux. I do this all the time with Internet Explorer, for sites that are still crippled by IE-only requirements, and it works great.

There are also several sites that list Linux equivalents to Windows programs. These include the Linux Questions Wiki, for general replacements; the Linux Alternative Project; for specific Linux applications to replace specific Windows programs and the Ubuntu Software Equivalents for Ubuntu Linux.

Once you've found a program you want, you should use the software package management program that comes with your Linux distribution. Unless you're using beta or obscure software, you should never need to compile a program or pry its code out of a compressed tar.gz file. This is 2008, not 1998. The days when you had to build software from bits and pieces is history for mainstream Linux users.

A package manager is the software that modern Linux distributions use to install and update software. In Windows, you run an install program from a Web site or a CD/DVD. The problem with this is that you have to trust that the installation program is what it says that it is. Sometimes, it's not. With Linux and package managers, the program has already been tested and approved by the Linux distributor before you can get to it.

In the case of Ubuntu, the default package management program is Synaptic. By default, package management programs are set to use the official and most popular software repositories. A repository is an online library of a Linux distributions' approved software.

Most Windows users have already seen downloadable software sites like TuCows and Download that resemble Linux's package managers. The difference is that package managers are integrated into Linux, while download library Web sites are stand alone operations.

You can also add repositories to your package management programs to give you more choices. For Ubuntu, you do this from the menu with: System > Administration > Software Sources. With Ubuntu, most of the most trustworthy sites are already available to you as choices.

If you want to add a repository that's not available, you can do it by going to the third-party software tab and clicking on Add. Once there, you enter the "APT line" for your new repository. This typically looks like:

deb etch main

and you'll find this information on the repository's Web site. This breaks down as: the type of packages; its URL (uniform resource locater) address); and descriptive words. In the one above, it describes a repository with Debian-style software packages, at a Debian Web site for the main Debian Etch Linux distribution. Since Ubuntu is a direct descendant of Debian, it can use Debian repositories. Chances are you won't need to add sites. Almost all the software you'll need will be available in the default repositories.

Then, to install, or update, your software, simply enter its name using the search function. The program you'll want 99 outs of a 100 will be the main program rather than any add-on to it. Don't worry about whether you need some other program to make the one you're after work. Ubuntu will automatically download and install any other software you need to make your program work.

You will find, from time to time, that Ubuntu, or any Linux distribution, doesn't have the latest version of any particular program. Remember what I said earlier about the Linux distributor working to make sure that the program will work properly and safely with your desktop? That's why there is a delay. They want to make darn sure that, for example, that the new version won't break other programs.

When the updated program is available, the Linux distribution will let you know. Then, you just tell it to download and install it. Unlike Windows, which often requires you to restart your computer, Linux lets you keep working both during and after updates without a break.

Ubuntu does tend to be slower at updating software than other Linux distributors. In my experience, Fedora tends to be the fastest, followed by openSUSE, and then the Debian/Ubuntu software family.

That said, since Linux is safer by design than Windows will ever be, I don't see that as a major problem.

I also think that, once you get used to how Linux installs software, you'll find it ever bit as easy as installing programs in Windows, not to mention a great deal more secure. Advantage: Linux.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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