August 13, 2002

How to find Linux software

- By Jenn Vesperman -

Proprietary software is easy to find. You can wander down to any computer store -- or even office superstores -- and find software for most common tasks. Want to research your family tree? Plan your holiday? Organize your office? There's probably something to do it at the local office super-store.
One of the advantages of Open Source software is that the software is cheap, or even free. But that very cost advantage means that the commercial distribution system rarely sells it -- profit margins are too low, and the software rarely comes in snazzy boxes. Open Source software exists for most tasks that proprietary software exists for. But where do you find it?

Already installed

Many distributions install software by default, or include software on the distribution's CDROM or downloadable disk image. So the first place to check is your own desktop or laptop computer.

Red Hat's Web page says that its distribution comes with a Web browser, email system, calendaring and contacts database, and a full office suite. The professional edition has more software, including Web, mail, print and file servers. These programs may be installed, or they may be in the installation package and not actually on your system at the time. Many other distributions come with a similar range of software.

If you have a graphical user interface, the simplest place to start looking is the menu system. Some program names tell you what the program does -- OpenOffice is obviously an office suite, and AbiWord a word processor. Others don't -- who would guess from the name that Evolution is a mail program?

apropos


$ apropos office
Net::POP3 (3pm)      - Post Office Protocol 3 Client class (RFC1081)
filter_wrapper (1)   - invoke a KOffice filter as a separate process
kchart (1)           - a chart drawing program for the KDE Office Suite
kformula (1)         - a formula editor for the KDE Office Suite
kivio (1)            - a flowcharting program for the KDE Office Suite
kontour (1)          - a vector graphics tool for the KDE Office Suite
koscript (1)         - a script interpreter for the KDE Office Suite
koshell (1)          - the KDE Office Suite workspace
kpresenter (1)       - a presentation program for the KDE Office Suite
kspread (1)          - a spreadsheet for the KDE Office Suite
kugar (1)            - a business report maker for the KDE Office Suite
kword (1)            - a word processor for the KDE Office Suite

apropos is a command line tool that searches the man (manual) pages for descriptions that include a specific word. In the example above, a search for "office" provided the information that the KOffice suite of programs are installed on the system. Running man koshell would provide more information about the koshell program.

Unfortunately, not every program that is installed has a man page, and not all man pages have useful descriptions. The same computer has an early version of StarOffice (another office suite) installed, and this search didn't find it.

Note: apropos and man -k do the same thing.

Other documentation

Documentation is also available with the info command. Info and man documents can also be accessed through the Gnome and KDE help systems.

locate

locate is useful when the user knows the name, or part of the name, of the program they're looking for. The command locate evolution will search the location database for any file whose name includes the word "evolution," and display its location.

Binaries

Expert Linux users may want to check for the code itself. I do not recommend running unknown programs without first reading the documentation. Please don't run the code if there is none.

In your distribution

If the software you need isn't already on your machine, your distribution might have it available, packaged and ready to install. In most cases, you can find the software on their web site, ready to be downloaded to your machine. There are also 'contribution' lists for most distributions, packaged software which is not directly part of the distribution but is ready to install.

Red Hat

The Red Hat Linux Web site has two sections for software.

The first is http://www.redhat.com/marketplace/channel_software.html, and lists both commercial and free software. This section is arranged like a store, and most of the links lead to the vendor's site.

The second is http://www.redhat.com/apps/download/ and lists Open Source software that has been packaged for Red Hat Linux. The list is searchable by category or keyword. Links lead to a download page for the package.

Debian

A list of pre-packaged Debian software is available at http://www.debian.org/distrib/packages. The packages are searchable by file or package name.

base-config

Debian also provides a program to rerun the configuration and installation system that the system runs when you first install Debian. This is the base-config program, and you can use it to modify any configuration as well as to install software on your system, at any time.

SuSE

SuSE packages (in English) are available at http://www.suse.com/us/support/download/index.html or http://www.suse.co.uk/uk/support/download/index.html. There is a German SuSE Web site at http://www.suse.de.

apt

Many distributions are now using the apt suite of programs to distribute their packaged software. This allows you to bypass the distribution's Web site, and select and download software from the nearest apt cache.

To find software using apt, use the command apt-cache search keyword. This will provide a list of packages whose description includes the keyword you chose. To install software, use apt-get install package name.

On the Internet

The people and companies that provide Linux distributions are not the only ones interested in providing Linux software. There are several other groups that index and categorize the software available.

Linux Documentation Project

The Linux Documentation Project might not be the first place you think of to find software, but if a guide or a howto solves a problem, it will list the software the author used to solve that problem.

The Linux Documentation Project is at http://www.tldp.org.

Kernel.org

Kernel.org has a large variety of Linux software available at http://www.kernel.org/pub/. The site might be off-putting for people used to computer super-stores, but would probably interest Linux experts.

Code libraries

Code libraries provide categorized lists of software, frequently for a variety of operating systems. The libraries in this list provide Linux software, and many of them provide reviews of the software in the list as well.

Search engines

Many people use none of these methods, and simply hunt for software on the Web using search engines. Part of the trick with this is to use "Linux" as one of the keywords.

Final Words

Linux software is gradually becoming available in computer stores in shopping malls; but for the full range of Linux software, check the Internet.

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