Critical Apps Missing From Linux

Monday May 18th 2015 by Matt Hartley

If users are going to migrate from Windows, these Linux apps need to step up.

Most people believe that moving from Windows to Linux isn't possible because it lacks critical software and tools they need. Perhaps in some limited instances they're right, but I believe the bigger challenge is making sure critical workflows remain intact.

In this article I'll examine two application workflows that are often not considered until the need for these tools arise.

Parental controls

Windows: I've been told that the ability to control a teenager's computing habits with software isn't very effective. To this, I whole heartily disagree.

When you're dealing with a teen, simply setting rules isn't going to cut it. You've got to follow up and install the correct software. In Windows, it's not uncommon to use a third party software program to handle content filtering and even limit access to the computer itself. Though most people simply use the provided software installed with Windows to handle their PC usage and content filtering.

Linux: Like most things in Linux, the solution isn't an all-in-one program like you might find with Windows. Instead, I recommend using the following setup for parental controls under Linux -- buy a decent router. Okay, that's just the first step. But if you own a reasonably decent router, you're able to setup rules to restrict Internet usage at specific times. This is helpful for limiting time spent online with any web enabled device.

If you’re looking to limit physical access to the computer under Linux, I’ve found that Timekpr is the best option. This software allows you to set restrictions on when a Linux computer can be logged into and used. This is far more convenient than taking more draconian measures such as removing power cords. It’s a great application for setting up boundaries, based on the user.

The third piece of the puzzle is the content filtering aspect. This is done through OpenDNS. I’ve found the easiest approach to using OpenDNS is to use a router that supports it. The alternative is to run a piece of software called the ddclient. Once installed, it takes care of itself and ensures OpenDNS always has your current ISP provided IP address.

In any event, using OpenDNS is by far the most effective way to provide reliable content filtering. While there are locally installed software solutions available, all of them require extensive configuration.

So is it fair to say that Linux provides proper parental controls? The answer is yes, but it’s up to the end user to setup the right environment.

Audio dictation

Windows: When using Windows, there are multiple options for audio dictation. The most common choice is Dragon Naturally Speaking. This software is useful not only with dictation, but various computer controls. One can use this software to search the web, send email or control other aspects of your PC.

Despite not being free, it does allow for a trial period so end users can test out the software before making a final purchase.

Linux: Most people don’t realize it but when you combine a couple of applications; audio dictation is possible under Linux. So is the ability to control your desktop environment. If you’re a fan of Naturally Speaking, then you’re going to love these three programs.

For desktop environments such as GNOME, I found that Blather is the best application for my needs. It provides both a GTK and Qt front end, so the options are available for any desktop environment you happen to prefer. By itself, Blather is simply an application for controlling your desktop environment. Blather combined with a Chrome add-on will allow you to also use dictation in a similar fashion to Naturally Speaking. The downside to using Blather is that it's buggy on some distros, with seg-faulting easily. And that was the two instances I had it responding at all.

The second application is called Simon. Like Blather, Simon allows you to control your desktop environment by using your voice. If you would like to have dictation options you’ll need to use a Chrome add-on in order to make that happen. Another thing to consider when using Simon is that this is designed for the KDE desktop. This means that while it can be used under other desktop environments, it’s best suited for KDE-centric distributions. Once again, it installs fine...but it won't connect. An added issue is the documentation was in another a PDF.

The final application I want to feature is called LiSpeak. Like the previous two applications, will speak allows you to control your desktop as well as allows you to perform dictation. This software is awesome because I’m able to get both automation of my desktop and dictation in one application. One downside to this application is that it requires you to press a hot key before each use. Normally, this would not be a big deal. However if you’re someone that needs this application to be truly hands-free, pressing a hot key with each use might be a deal breaker. On Ubuntu, you'll need to install python-serial just to be in a position to run ./lispeak --setup or lispeak --setup.

Once the missing dependency is installed, the setup tool will handle the rest of the missing components for you. Another nice thing about this software is that it installs the plugins of your choosing to better extend the software's functionality. Of course after getting excited, it turns out that while the software is "fairly" good at opening applications, it seems to not be able to close them. I also found the software titles it was able to open was quite limited. The previous version of this software had a "manager" where I could add these missing options. This release, however, doesn't have the key-binding manager found in the previous fork of the software.

Windows wins this round as their software simply installs and works without crashing or hunting for documentation. In the long haul, Simon is most likely the best candidate for Linux. But it requires far more time researching how to set it up than I had at this time.

Why these applications matter

On the surface, access to parental controls and voice dictation/PC control software might not seem like a big deal. Yet the reality is that both examples above are often not considered at all until the end user needs them. And by this point, it might be too late.

Being able to maintain a fairly consistent user experience when migrating from one OS to another isn't critical for everyone. But it’s a big issue for those who come to rely on specific technologies.

On the parental control front, things are fairly easy to work with. However, even in 2015 being able to control your PC with your voice remains hit and miss in Linux. I believe with proper development, LiSpeak is the most promising. It utilizes Google's voice API and its UI is far simpler than with Simon. Going forward, I plan on spending additional time with LiSpeak and perhaps even reaching out to the developer(s). I think it holds the best chance for a bundled transcribing/PC control application in one software title.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

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