Applications in Ubuntu

Working without Windows implies working with something else. In this episode of our series, we will be delving further into the options you see in the Launcher, including a look at the applications that come pre-installed with Ubuntu and how to find and install new applications.


The most commonly asked question whenever anyone asks anything about a system that is not Windows, is “Can I use Word and Excel?”

Well, the answer is no (at least not until 2014 if the rumours are true), but there are alternatives that are free. Ubuntu ships with three programs out of the LibreOffice suite of applications. They are…

  • Writer – Equivalent to Word
  • Calc – Equivalent to Excel
  • Impress – Equivalent to Powerpoint.

Functionally they offer pretty much the same as their Microsoft equivalents. The look and feel of them can be compared to Microsoft Office from a few years back, before Microsoft introduced the ribbon tabs across the top instead of a conventional menu system. So stylistically they will appear familiar to people who are used to the older style of Office.

What is more is that not only can you create and edit documents using the widely accepted Open Document Format, you can also view, create and edit documents using Microsoft’s commonly used formats too. So there is no need to worry about someone sending you an important document that you can’t view. Using the applications is easy and you can dive straight in. Calc uses the same system of formulae as Excel, so you won’t need to learn anything new to get working on a new spreadsheet.


What about e-mail? Ubuntu ships with Mozilla Thunderbird. Again, like the LibreOffice suite of applications, the look and feel can be roughly compared to Outlook from a few years ago. Unlike the LibreOffice applications, Thunderbird is not automatically added to the Launcher when you first install Ubuntu. It is easy to find though, just open the Dash and search for it. Once you have run the application, you can lock it to the Launcher if you wish, although that is not entirely necessary, as once you have configured an e-mail account to use, a Thunderbird option will appear in the menu bar at the top of the screen (near the time and other settings).

Mozilla Thunderbird
Mozilla Thunderbird with Lightning plugin

Thunderbird has a few differences to Outlook. When you first open a folder you will notice the default sort order is newest at the bottom and oldest at the top. To fix that just click on the Date column header and Thunderbird will remember the next time you use that folder.

Another difference is the way that replies and signature files are handled. By default your replies and signature will appear below the e-mail you are replying to. There are settings that allow you to change this behaviour.

Additionally for signatures, Thunderbird allows you to use either text, html or a file which you can import. I found a flexible way to create a signature was to create a draft e-mail and use that as the basis of my signature. Then using the Save menu option, you can save the draft message as an HTML file, which you can then set as the signature for your account. This way you can copy and paste logos, create hyperlinks and style the signature however you want, without having to know the ins and outs of the HTML language.

The default set up of Thunderbird does not include any calendaring or scheduling. Thankfully, Thunderbird is massively expandable with a plethora of plugins that you can install. Lightning is the calendaring and scheduling plugin provided by Mozilla and is a must have. Where Lightning outdoes Outlook is it’s support for the WebDAV standard, which means you can add online calendars and make changes from within Thunderbird. You can for instance add your Google calendar, which you could share with colleagues or family members.

There are a lot of plugins available for Thunderbird ranging from calendars, tasks lists, dictionaies, advanced signature handling, Google integration… If you can think of it, the chances are someone in the Open Source community has too and there will be a plugin for it.

Ubuntu Software Centre

Not everything you do on a computer involves writing an e-mail or letter, or creating a spreadsheet. So how do you get all of those other applications onto Ubuntu that you need?

Ubuntu Software Centre
Ubuntu Software Centre

The Ubuntu Software Centre comes to the rescue. To open the Software Centre, click on the icon in the Launcher. You can browse applications by category, or use the search field at the top to find something more specific. There are a whole heap of programs available, both paid for and free. As you can see from the screen shot above, Steam is also now available for Ubuntu, which will keep avid gamers very happy indeed.

Ubuntu Software Centre Games
Ubuntu Software Centre Games – Even without Steam, Ubuntu has a lot of games to choose from

While writing these blogs using Ubuntu, I needed to install something that would give me a little more control over images than the standard image viewer software that comes with the operating system. Knowing the application I wanted in advance (GIMP), I chose to search for it instead of browsing.

Ubuntu Software Centre - Searching for GIMP
Ubuntu Software Centre – Searching for GIMP

The Software Centre quickly gave me a list of applications that fitted the search terms I used. A nice touch is the star rating system, so you can see what overall rating other people have given any particular application. If you highlight an application, you can then either click on Install or More Info. To show you what it looks like, I chose More Info.

Ubuntu Software Centre - More Info option
Ubuntu Software Centre – More Info option

More Info gives you a short description of the application, as well as listing any available add-ons that you may need or want. Scrolling down brings you to the customer reviews for the application, which can be an invaluable source of information if you are still trying to decide whether to install or not.

Having decided I wanted the application, it was time to install it. After clicking the Install button, Ubuntu needs authorization. That just means providing the password you set up for your user account, the one you use to log into Ubuntu.

Ubuntu Software Centre - Authentication prompt
Ubuntu Software Centre – Authentication prompt

One of the reasons why Ubuntu (and Linux in general) is so secure and free from viruses, is because of that little prompt to authenticate. It just won’t allow software to infect your computer without that all important authorization. Anyway, moving on – once you have authenticated it’s just a matter of waiting for the process to complete.

Similar to the software centre is the software updater. You will occasionally see an icon appear on the Launcher when there are updates available for Ubuntu. You may be prompted to restart the computer to complete these updates.

We have had a brief glimpse at the applications available in Ubuntu, together with how to add more. Next time I will be exploring the cloud with Ubuntu One amongst other things.

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