Picking the best applications and solutions out of all the wonderful options that have become available for Linux is no small task. However in this first annual OfB Open Choice Awards, we attempt to do our best at just that. While some of our choices might prove somewhat controversial, we feel that all of the picks are uniquely situated as the best choice for deployment in the enterprise.
Best Internet Appliance Interface: OEone HomeBase
OEone took on a near impossible challenge - and succeeded. By combining the simplicity needed for an appliance-like PC with powerful applications, they created a not-quite-PC environment that is actually worth using. Unlike its forerunners such as the MSN iPaq and the 3Com Audrey, OEone's unit provides enough functionality to allow you to accomplish basic office tasks.
OEone HomeBase includes the Mozilla 1.0 web browser, OpenOffice.org office suite, AbiWord for light word processing, a calendar, e-mail client, and even a handy customizable information portal. All said, it feels complete and is extremely easy to use. Currently OEone's desktop comes as a complete Linux distribution, however we were informed by the company that they are planning to launch a version that installs on top of RedHat Linux 7.1 or 7.2 in soon.
RUNNER UP: TrollTech Qtopia - Combining the embedded version of the popular Qt toolkit with an interface that feels like a merger of PocketPC 2002 and PalmOS makes Qtopia highly likable. We tested the system on the Sharp Zaurus SL-5500 (see below), and found it to be ready to take on the more popular embedded environments.
Best Services Company: HostingMatters, Inc.
If you are looking for the stability of a Linux web server, but find a dedicated solution too costly, most likely you will head out to find a reasonably priced hosting company. While there are some good providers, many have dismal uptimes and poor customer service. In our analysis of the hosting industry, we found that most customers were not satisfied with their current web host, especially at the large, over 10,000 account, companies.
HostingMatters, is undoubtably a real gem, sticking out from the less than spectacular service provided by most hosts. Their affordable packages come loaded with all of the features you would expect from a high quality UNIX hosting provider, making them ideal for almost any size business.
HostingMatters also has an excellent staff that is on call at almost all hours of the day, and oddly enough is actually personable (something very unusual in this industry). Even more unusual is HostingMatter's uptime - it is a normal occurrence for their servers to stay up for several months without requiring a reboot. In fact, one of their servers is just a few days short of being up for an entire year, something that will allow your web administrator to sleep much easier at night.
RUNNER UP: Mandrake Club - Mandrake Club provides access to the commercial software from Mandrake's PowerPack, exclusive offers, the ability to ask MandrakeSoft developers questions, and even to vote for new additions of software to the distribution. This is an ideal way for you or your company to support and influence the future of this distribution, while also gaining lots of convenient perks.
Best Communications Software: Gaim 0.59
Gaim started a few years ago as a simple AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) client, but has grown into a universal instant messenging client that supports AIM, Yahoo Messenger, MSN Messenger, ICQ, and Jabber. This makes it an ideal way to take care of business communication, saving you from the hassle and lost computer resources caused by running multiple IM clients simultaneously.
This program also comes with a modest Internet Relay Chat (IRC) client, which integrates private messenging into the instant messenging part of the program, and also allows you to easily login to normal chat rooms. Finally, Gaim has a plug-in architecture, meaning you can add functionality to it without touching the core code of the package.
RUNNER UP: Kopete - This instant messenging client for KDE came out of nowhere in February to offer a package that already supports most of the protocols available through Gaim. While its lack of support for AIM's newer protocol (OSCAR) and some bugs keep us from giving it the award this year, we expect it to become a serious competitor to Gaim in the future.
Best E-mail Client: KMail 1.4.1
A year or two ago, we would have guessed that theKompany's Aethera software would be our pick for an e-mail client by now. However, due to some false starts by the development team, Aethera is still rather buggy, while KMail has increasingly become one of the most stable e-mail clients available.
KMail offers an excellent filters facility, integrated OpenPGP support, and an intuitive profiles system for providing the ability to easily send e-mail from multiple identities (for instance, a work identity and a personal one). KMail also offers the extremely useful Maildir format, that keeps each message in a separate file to avoid the potential for mass corruption, integration with KDE's excellent address book, and lots of other useful features.
It is extremely impressive to see the gains KMail has made in the last year, transforming it from an average e-mail client into a client that rivals Eudora and Outlook in its feature set. KMail's only real weakness compared to Outlook is its lack of integration with the KDE-PIM suite, hopefully this will change in the near future.
RUNNER UP: Ximian Evolution - Considering its complete PIM integration alone makes this a great client for those desiring to have all of their information conveniently available in one place. However the real gem in Evolution is the availability of Ximian Connector, with it you gain the ability to seamlessly make Evolution a Microsoft Exchange client.
Best Development Tool: KDevelop
Linux has been quietly growing quite a collection of high quality development tools in the last few years. Borland's Kylix, IBM's Eclipse Project, and ActiveState's Komodo - to name a handful of them. Still, Open for Business' development environment expert and associate editor, Steven Hatfield, chose the KDE Project's KDevelop as the best tool available.
While KDevelop's main purpose is clearly to write KDE C++ software, Steven found that the IDE was also quite good at developing console/text based C applications. It is worth noting that KDevelop also has built in templates for plain QT and GTK applications, meaning that KDevelop is a good choice no matter what GUI toolkit you prefer.
When discussing the software, Hatfield's favorite features included the handy ability to jump from a variable or function to its declaration, and also the nice project management functionality and integration with CVS. Finally, it is worth noting that KDevelop works well with TrollTech's Qt Designer, allowing you to use a WYSIWYG GUI designer for any Qt-based software you develop.
RUNNER UP: theKompany.com KDE Studio Gold - While he prefers KDevelop, Steven Hatfield noted that KSG offers some useful functionality not available in the former package. If you are looking for another option in C or C++ development, this is a package worth considering.
Best Legacy Software Tool: Win4Lin 4.0
It was a hard choice to choose between CodeWeavers' CrossOver Office and NeTraverse's Win4Lin, but in the end we decided to give the award to the latter product. While both packages are very good ways to run Microsoft Office, Win4Lin is useful in much broader ways.
Win4Lin is what is known as a virtualizer, running a full copy of Windows 9x or ME in a window under Linux. This allows you to easily run virtually any Windows software, including Quicken, Microsoft Publisher, and WordPerfect, not to mention custom developed legacy software.
All of this, combined with Win4Lin's flawlessly easy installation tool, fast booting capability, and virtual networking (allowing the emulated system to have its own IP address) really says something about NeTraverse's development team. If they can add support Windows 2000 or XP, they should secure their product's future for a long time.
RUNNER UP: CodeWeavers CrossOver Office - As we noted in our review of these two products a few months ago, if all you are looking for is to run Microsoft Office under Linux, CO Office is the best way to go. CodeWeavers has really done a great job with their CrossOver programs, and it is extremely cost effective.
Best Server Software: Metadot Groupware Portal
While not a commonly known package in the Free Software community, Metadot Groupware Portal is an excellent choice for an intranet or extranet portal. Whether your portal will be public or private, Metadot seems ready for the task, and its status as Open Source makes it a clear leader in the market.
We at OfB Labs have had the pleasure of doing extended real-world tests on Metadot at our sister site, FaithTree.com, and the results are very positive. The said site has been using Metadot's MyPage functionality for over a year without any problems. Metadot's modular design makes it very easy to customize the system, and its support for standards such as XML/RSS and LDAP make it very easy to integrate with existing solutions.
RUNNER UP: PHP Nuke - Often maligned for security problems in earlier releases, PHP-Nuke's 5.5 release emerged as a well polished content management system. Its long feature list, combined with a large variety of modules has made it the CMS of choice for Open for Business and many others, including LinuxandMain.com, LinuxDailyNews.net, and Linux Journal.
Best Desktop Environment: KDE 3.0
If the KDE Project had been content to stick with KDE 2.x, this may very well have been GNOME's year to shine. Unfortunately for the younger project, KDE moved forward at such a rapid pace this year, some people thought the project's development process might crumble under its own weight. It did not, and KDE 3.0 emerged as the most polished, professional desktop available for Unix and Unix-like systems.
KDE 3.0, which is built on top of the greatly improved Qt/X11 3.0 toolkit, boasts a thick stack of improvements. Konqueror, KDE's web browser, now renders pages virtually as well as Internet Explorer, KMail gained some much needed functionality, and the intuitiveness of the environment was increased across the board. The file management and internationalization functions of KDE also improved sizably, making them quite possibly better then any of the alternatives.
RUNNER UP: Enlightenment - While not exactly a desktop environment in the sense of KDE and GNOME, Enlightenment provides a beautiful interface that is a pleasure to work with. It is unfortunate that E is not a full desktop environment with basic applications sharing the core system's look - that would have made it a real winner.
Best Innovation: Sharp Zaurus SL-5500
Linux-based personal digital assistants (PDA's) have been on the horizon for several years, but none of them seemed to present a wholehearted challenge to the incumbent PalmOS and PocketPC units. However, rather then be deterred by this, it seems Sharp has taken it as a challenge.
The SL-5500, which was introduced in March, is based on TrollTech's highly polished Qtopia Palmtop Environment, Lineo's Embeddix GNU/Linux distribution, and a special Java virtual machine from Insignia Solutions. The result is a PDA that has much of the elegance of PalmSource's operating system fused with the robust power of Microsoft's PocketPC. The included software package sports Microsoft Office compatible word processing, spread sheet, and presentations software, plus the Opera web browser, and a standard issue PIM package.
That alone makes the Zaurus a worthy contender in the embedded market, but its hardware is what really shines. The unit has a slide-in miniature QWERTY keyboard that normally hides under the color front-lit LCD. To use the keyboard, you just pull a bit on the lower part of the unit, and then enjoy the easiest, most convenient data entry on a Palm-sized PC form factor.
RUNNER UP: OEone HomeBase - As we noted in our review of the platform in March, OEone presents the most innovative take on a desktop computer interface we've seen. Its design is intuitive and powerful, presenting everything you need for basic office tasks.
Best Linux Distribution: Mandrake Linux 8.2
In the last year, Linux distributions have improved so much, that we think it would be fair to say that if we pitted any major player's offering from this year against the others from last year, it would be the recipient of our award. However, as it stands, we feel that Mandrake has kept a clear lead in usability above the other distributions.
Mandrake Linux 8.2 presents a clean and compelling interface that shows they are clearly focused on desktop GNU/Linux. While SuSE 8.0's installer is definitely nicer to look at, Mandrake's installer's functionality and intuitiveness more then makes up for this. By sticking to a very orthodox wizard-style interface you won't miss things that need your attention like you can in SuSE 8.
Their default KDE desktop has been left very simple with only the necessary icons and a very small taskbar similar in size to that included with Windows 9x. Additionally, we found their application menus were much cleaner and more precise then those of competing distributions, allowing for easy access of all the applications we installed.
Finally, Mandrake clearly shines over the UnitedLinux distributions by sticking with the community's proven formula - Open Source/Free Software. This is a two-stage commitment on their part. First, all of MandrakeSoft's code is released under the General Public License, and second, the distribution is developed openly, allowing everyone to see and test the latest code from “Cooker.” We feel this dedication to Free Software is part of the reason their distribution has such a low amount of bugs and seems so polished.
RUNNER UP: SuSE Linux 8.0 - A worthy competitor, but with several weaknesses compared to Mandrake Linux. SuSE's involvement in UnitedLinux and their closed development cycle also concern us.
So now you have read our picks - what are yours? For those of you already using Linux and Free Software solutions, click the comment button below to weigh in with your picks for the best of 2002.