Web Browsers and Instant Messaging - Enjoying and Being Productive on Linux - Running Linux, 5th Edition (2009)

Running Linux, 5th Edition (2009)

Part I. Enjoying and Being Productive on Linux

Chapter 5. Web Browsers and Instant Messaging

For the everyday communications that millions of people love to use—web browsing and instant messaging, including Internet Relay Chat—Linux provides free software tools that match or exceed most proprietary offerings.

The World Wide Web

Everybody who has even the slightest connection with computers and has not heard about, or used, the World Wide Web, most have spent some serious time under a rock. Like word processors or spreadsheets some centuries ago, the Web is what gets many people to use computers at all in the first place. We cover here some of the tools you can use to access the Web on Linux.

Linux was from the beginning intimately connected to the Internet in general and the Web in particular. For example, the Linux Documentation Project (LDP ) provides various Linux-related documents via the Web. The LDP home page, located at http://www.tldp.org, contains links to a number of other Linux-related pages around the world. The LDP home page is shown in Figure 5-1.

Linux web browsers usually can display information from several types of servers, not just HTTP servers sending clients HTML pages. For example, when accessing a document via HTTP, you are likely to see a page such as that displayed in Figure 5-1--with embedded pictures, links to other pages, and so on. When accessing a document via FTP, you might see a directory listing of the FTP server, as seen in Figure 5-2. Clicking a link in the FTP document either retrieves the selected file or displays the contents of another directory.

The way to refer to a document or other resource on the Web, of course, is through its Uniform Resource Locator, or URL. A URL is simply a pathname uniquely identifying a web document, including the machine it resides on, the filename of the document, and the protocol used to access it (FTP, HTTP, etc.). For example, the Font HOWTO, an online document that describes the optimal use of fonts on Linux, has the following URL:

LDP home page on the World Wide Web

Figure 5-1. LDP home page on the World Wide Web


Let's break this down. The first part of the URL, http:, identifies the protocol used for the document, which in this case is HTTP. The second part of the URL, //www.tldp.org, identifies the machine where the document is provided. The final portion of the URL, HOWTO/html_single/Font-HOWTO/index.html, is the logical pathname to the document on www.tldp.org. This is similar to a Unix pathname, in that it identifies the file index.html in the directory HOWTO/html_single/Font-HOWTO. Therefore, to access the Font HOWTO, you'd fire up a browser, telling it to accesshttp://www.tldp.org/HOWTO/html_single/Font-HOWTO/index.html. What could be easier?

Actually, the conventions of web servers do make it easier. If you specify a directory as the last element of the path, the server understands that you want the file index.html in that directory. So you can reach the Font HOWTO with a URL as short as:

FTP directory as displayed in the Konqueror web browser

Figure 5-2. FTP directory as displayed in the Konqueror web browser


To access a file via anonymous FTP, we can use a URL, such as:


This URL retrieves the Linux FAQ. Using this URL with your browser is identical to using ftp to fetch the file by hand.

The best way to understand the Web is to explore it. In the following section we'll explain how to get started with some of the available browsers. Later in the chapter, we'll cover how to configure your own machine as a web server for providing documents to the rest of the Web.

Of course, in order to access the Web, you'll need a machine with direct Internet access (via either Ethernet or PPP). In the following sections, we assume that you have already configured TCP/IP on your system and that you can successfully use clients, such as ssh and ftp.

Using Konqueror

Konqueror is one of the most popular browsers for Linux. It features JavaScript and Java support, can run Firefox plug-ins (which allow you to add functions such as viewing Flash presentations), and is well integrated into the KDE desktop described in "The K Desktop Environment" inChapter 3. Actually, when you install KDE, Konqueror will be installed as an integral part of the system. In the section on KDE, we have already described how to use Konqueror to read local information files. Now we are going to use it to browse the Web.

Most things in Konqueror are quite obvious, but if you want to read more about it, you can use Konqueror to check out http://www.konqueror.org.

Here, we assume that you're using a networked Linux machine running X and that you have Konqueror installed. As stated before, your machine must be configured to use TCP/IP, and you should be able to use clients, such as ssh and ftp.

Starting Konqueror is simple. Run the command:

eggplant$ konqueror url

where url is the complete web address, or URL, for the document you wish to view. If you don't specify a URL, Konqueror will display a splash screen, as shown in Figure 5-3.

The Konqueror splash screen

Figure 5-3. The Konqueror splash screen

If you run Konqueror from within KDE, you can simply type Alt-F2 to open the so-called minicli window, and type the URL. This will start up Konqueror and point it directly to the URL you have specified.

We assume that you have already used a web browser to browse the Web on some computer system, so we won't go into the very basics here; we'll just point out a few Linux-specific things.

Keep in mind that retrieving documents on the Web can be slow at times. This depends on the speed of the network connection from your site to the server, as well as the traffic on the network at the time. In some cases, web sites may be so loaded that they simply refuse connections; if this is the case, Konqueror displays an appropriate error message. At the bottom edge of the Konqueror window, a status report is displayed, and while a transfer is taking place, the KDE gear logo in the upper-right corner of the window animates. Clicking the logo, by the way, will open a new Konqueror window.

As you traverse links within Konqueror, each document is saved in the window history, which can be recalled using the Go menu. Pressing the Back button (the one that shows an arrow pointing to the left) in the top toolbar of the Konqueror window moves you back through the window history to previously visited documents. Similarly, the Forward button moves you forward through the history.

In addition, the sidebar in Konqueror can show you previously visited web sites; that is a very useful feature if you want to go to a web site that you have visited some time ago — too long ago for it to still appear in the Go menu — but you do not remember the name any more. The History pane of the sidebar has your visited URLs sorted by sites. If you do not have a sidebar in your Konqueror window, it may be hidden; press F9 in that case, or select Window → Show Navigation Panel from the menu bar. The sidebar has several panels, of which one at a time is shown; the one you want in this case is the one depicted by a little clock. Click on the clock icon to see the previously visited sites.

You can also bookmark frequently visited web sites (or URLs) to Konqueror's "bookmarks ." Whenever you are viewing a document that you might want to return to later, choose Add Bookmark from the Bookmarks menu, or simply press Ctrl-B. You can display your bookmarks by choosing the Bookmarks menu. Selecting any item in this menu retrieves the corresponding document from the Web. Finally, you can also display your bookmarks permanently in another pane of the sidebar by clicking on the yellow star. And of course, Konqueror comes with ample features for managing your bookmarks. Just select Bookmarks → Edit Bookmarks, and sort away!

You can also use the sidebar for navigating your home directory, your hardware, your session history, and many other things. Just try it, and you will discover many useful features.

Besides the sidebar, another feature that can increase your browsing experience considerably is the so-called tabbed browsing . First made popular by the open source browser Mozilla (see later in this chapter), Konqueror has really taken tabbed browsing to its heart and provides a number of useful features. For example, when you are reading a web page that contains an interesting link that you might want to follow later, while continuing on the current page now, you can right-click that link and select Open in New Tab from the context menu. This will create a new tab with the caption of that page as its header, but leave the current page open. You can finish reading the current page and then go on to one of those that you had opened while reading. Since all pages are on tabs in the single browser window, this does not clutter your desktop, and it is very easy to find the page you want. In order to close a tab, just click on the little icon with the tabs and the red cross.

As mentioned previously, you can access new URLs by running konqueror with the URL as the argument. However, you can also simply type the URL in the location bar near the top of the Konqueror window. The location bar has autocompletion: if you start typing an address that you have visited before, Konqueror will automatically display it for your selection. Once you are done entering the URL (with or without help from autocompletion), you simply press the Enter key, and the corresponding document is retrieved.

Konqueror is a powerful application with many options. You can customize Konqueror's behavior in many ways by selecting Settings → Configure Konqueror. The sections Web Behavior and Web Shortcuts provide particularly interesting settings. In the section Cookies, you can configure whether you want to accept cookies domain by domain and even check the cookies already stored on your computer. Compare this to browsers that hide the cookies deep in some hidden directory and make it hard for you to view them (or even impossible without the use of extra programs!).

Finally, one particular feature deserves mention. Web browsers register themselves with the server using the so-called User Agent string, which is a piece of text that can contain anything, but usually contains the name and version of the web browser, and the name and version of the host operating system. Some notably stupid webmasters serve different web pages (or none at all!) when the web browser is not Internet Explorer because they think that Internet Explorer is the only web browser capable of displaying their web site.[*] But by going to the Browser Identification section, you can fool the web server into believing that you are using a different browser, one that the web server is not too snobbish to serve documents to. Simply click New, select the domain name that you want to access, and either type an Identification string of your own, or select one of the predefined ones.

Other Web Browsers

Konqueror is not the only browser that reads web documents. Another browser available for Linux is Firefox , a descendant of Mozilla, which in turn started its life as the open source version of Netscape Navigator , the browser that made the Web popular to many in the first place. If your distribution does not contain Firefox already, you can get it from http://www.mozilla.org/products/firefox/. Firefox's features are in many aspects similar to Konqueror's, and most things that you do with one you should be able to do with the other. Konqueror wins over Firefox in terms of desktop integration if you use the KDE desktop, of course, and also has more convenience features, whereas Firefox is particularly strong at integrating nonstandard technologies such as Flash. Firefox also comes with a very convenient pop-up blocker that will display a little box at the top of your browser window when it has blocked one of those annoying pop-ups. You can select to always block it (and not be told about it anymore), always allow pop-ups from that site (they could be important information about your home banking account), or allow the pop-up once.

Firefox has one particular powerful feature that is often overlooked: its extensions. By selecting Tools → Extensions from the menu bar, a dialog with installed extensions pops up; it is quite likely that you initially don't have any (unless your distributor or system administrator has preinstalled some for you). Click on the Get More Extensions link, and a long list with extensions that have been contributed to Firefox will show up. By default, you will see the list of the most popular and the list of the newest extensions, but take some time to discover all categories that seem interesting to you, there are a lot of goodies in here.

We would like to point out two extensions that we have found particularly interesting. Adblock adds a small overlay that looks like a tab to parts of the rendered web page that it suspects to be banner advertising. Just click on that little tab, click OK in the dialog that pops up (or edit the URL to be blocked, maybe to be even more general), and enjoy web pages without banner ads. It can actually become an addiction to refine the blocking patterns so much that you do not see any banner advertising anymore while surfing the Web. But just zapping a single one is a source of joy.

The other extension that we found particularly interesting is ForecastFox. It lets you select a number of locations on the earth and then displays small icons in the status bar (or other locations at your discretion) that show the current weather at those locations. Hover the mouse over one of those icons, and you will get a tooltip with more detailed information.

As with Konqueror, you should plan to spend some time with Firefox in order to explore all its possibilities. In many aspects, such as security, privacy, and browsing convenience, it beats the most often used browser on the Web these days hands down.

Yet another versatile browser is w3m . It is a text-based browser, so you miss the pictures on a web site. But this makes it fast, and you may find it convenient. You can also use it without the X Window System. Furthermore, when you want to save a page as plain text, w3m often provides a better format than other browsers, because text-based rendering is its main purpose in life. Then there is the ad-financed browser Opera, which has become quite popular lately, and finally, for those who never want to leave Emacs, there is Emacs/W3, a fully featured web browser you can use within Emacs or XEmacs.

[*] A web site that can be browsed with only one browser or that calls itself "optimized for browser X" should make you virtually run away, wringing your hands in wrath over such incompetence on the part of the webmaster.

Instant Messaging

Although various forms of chat have been widespread among computer users for decades, a very rich and easy-to-use kind of chat called instant messaging (IM ) has become popular with the growth of Internet use. AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) , Yahoo! Messenger , and MSN Messengerare just a few versions of this medium. Although each service provides its own client (and prefers that you use their client, so they can send advertisements your way), you can get access to all the most popular IM systems through open source programs such as Gaim, Kopete, and a variety of Jabber clients. These are very full-featured clients that have a number of powerful features that in terms of functionality put them ahead of the clients that the commercial services foist on you (although the open source clients are missing some of the eye candy in the commercial clients).

Unfortunately, instant messaging has as many different protocols as there are commercial services. None of the protocols communicates with the others. This is because each instant messaging provider wants to force people to use its client and receive its ads. And since the services are offered for free, one could make a good case for their right to recoup their costs this way. At least one popular service (Yahoo!) offers a Linux client, and it's quite decent.

But this is an age where digital recorders can zip right through the ads on TV. In the same way, open source clients can serve up instant messaging plain and simple, without pushing weather updates or pictures of last month's pop star in your face. Most important, open source clients let you use a single program to control all your accounts; you don't need to run multiple programs in the background and enter configuration information in each one. Eventually, commercial providers may give in and standardize on the Extensible Messaging and Presence Protocol (XMPP ) , which is the stiff-sounding name Jabber had to adopt to be accepted as a bona fide standard (more specifically, a set of RFCs put out by an IETF committee). For now, use a multi-protocol client.

All these clients are intuitive to use, but there are some neat tricks you should be aware of. This section shows how to use Gaim, the most popular messaging program among Linux users. Kopete, a KDE client, is probably the next most popular.

Most Linux distributions put Gaim right on your desktop, usually somewhere under a menu item for Internet services. If you see a menu item labeled something such as "instant messaging," it probably runs Gaim (or Kopete ). Naturally, if Gaim is installed, you can run gaim from the command line. And if it isn't installed, it's easy to get from http://gaim.sourceforge.net and install yourself.

Here we'll cover Version 1.2.1 for Linux. A new version was expected at the time of this writing that would have different pull-down menus and other interface changes, but would offer the same functions overall.

Initial Configuration

This book doesn't deal with how to set up an instant messaging account; for that you have to go to the web site provided by the service you want to use and follow its simple procedure. After you get an account (which involves finding a screen name no one has taken yet—not always so easy), you have to configure Gaim to know about it. Gaim should show you an Accounts screen the first time it runs (see Figure 5-4). If Gaim shows you its Buddy List screen instead, press Ctrl-A to show the Accounts screen, or pull down the Tools menu and select Accounts.

Gaim's Accounts screen

Figure 5-4. Gaim's Accounts screen

Press the Add button, and fill out the information on the Add Account screen that pops up:


Make sure to choose the service you're using. The default is AIM/ICQ, which is the most popular service, but if you're using a different service you can just choose it from the drop-down menu. One of the options is IRC, so Gaim can be used to participate in the IRC sites that are so popular among Linux users and developers.

Screen name

This is the account name you use to log in, such as simplesimonpi or alljazzedtogo.


You chose this when you signed up for the account.


This is the name you see for yourself when you're typing in a chat; it has no effect on what other people see when they chat with you.

There are also a variety of options in this dialog box. For instance, if you need to connect through a proxy, you can specify the protocol after pressing the "Show more options" button. You can also get access to this option (and scads of others) from the Buddy List screen, by pulling down the Tools menu and choosing Preferences, or simply by pressing Ctrl-P. Note that the Preferences menu sets a default for all accounts, and that you can override the default for individual accounts.

If you have a desktop or laptop that's usually Internet connected, it's extremely convenient to have Gaim remember your password and log you in automatically. But if you don't use instant messaging often, or are afraid of nosy people getting their hands on your system while you're logged in, you may decide to leave these options unchecked.

We haven't yet done anything special to give you a real personality on the Internet (we do that later under "Advanced Configuration"), but you have accomplished enough to communicate.

When you're done, save your account. Back in the Accounts screen, click the Online box. If you have Internet connectivity, it will log you in and you're ready to go. If the login fails, click Modify and check all the items you entered. Did you choose the right protocol? Try re-entering your password.


At this point, using Gaim is straightforward. Most people allow IM only with people they know, and only after explicitly adding them to a list of accounts called a buddy list. If you have already added buddies in another client, most services store the information, and they'll show up in Gaim's buddy list.

To add new buddies, pull down the Buddies menu . First add a few groups such as Work, Family, and Political Debaters. (You'll appreciate having groups after a few weeks, when you realize how many people you want to chat with. Some authors of this book chat with family members who are in the next room. Hey, isn't it better than shouting?)

Then add buddies to these groups. How do you find the buddies? Like signing up for an IM account, that's an "out of band" procedure—a computer science term meaning "It's up to you to do it and we don't care how." Most people exchange account names through email or written slips of paper. But one convenient search method for AIM/ICQ is through Tools → Account Actions → Search for Buddy by Email.

To start a conversation, double-click on somebody from the buddy list who's logged in. To start a multiperson chat with two or more buddies who use the same service, pull down the Buddies menu and choose "Join a chat." Here you can pick the service you're using and any name you like; then invite other buddies in one at a time by pressing the Invite button, choosing a buddy from the pull-down menu, and entering a bit of text to let her know what you're inviting her to. You can carry on separate chats with buddies on different services (for instance, AOL and MSN) but you can't combine buddies from two different services in a single chat because each service uses its own protocol.

One of the most valuable features of instant messaging—making it a real business tool, not just a pastime—is the ability to save the text from chats so you can refer later to your "speech acts" (the promises you made). During the chat, choose Conversations → Save As and you can save the text in HTML format. What you save is what has already appeared in the window; if more text you want is added later, you have to resave it. It may be convenient for you to make all chats or instant messages logged by default; you can do this through the Logging item on the Preferences menu, but you will probably end up saving a lot of trash you don't care about.

The HTML in the logs is ugly, but it's sufficiently human-readable for you to extract the text you want later. If timestamps are just a lot of junk to you, turn off timestamping under the Options drop-down menu.

The little boxes with A in them show different types of formatting (italic, bold, and even color) that you can apply: use a mouse to highlight the text you want to change, and click the button. Instead of a button, you can change highlighted text to bold with Ctrl-B or to italic with Ctrl-I, put a strike-through line through it with Ctrl-S, or underline it with Ctrl-U. If something is highlighted and you want to remove the formatting, click the button or Ctrl key again to undo the action.

Long before IM, users of text-only programs such as email, Net news, and Internet Relay Chat (IRC) exercised a great deal of ingenuity making up the famous little strings such as :-) and :-< that are known as smileys or emoticons. Running in a graphical environment, IM adds another dimension by providing sets of graphical smileys. And if you're bold or uncivilized enough to use a smiley, you might as well replace the defaults in Gaim with a bold or uncivilized set downloaded from the Gaim web site. (Choose the Themes link on the right side of the main page.) Download a tarball that looks intriguing—unfortunately, you get to see only one representative smiley until you install the theme—and unpack the tarball into its constituent .png files in the smileys subdirectory of your Gaim configuration directory, usually ~/.gaim/smileys.

You can type or paste a URL into a chat, and it will automatically turn into a link. But if you want more sophisticated formatting, where an arbitrary piece of text such as My Home Page turns into a link, press the little button with a metal chain link. You can then enter both a URL and the text that appears in your message to link to the URL. Sending a file from your system to your buddy is as easy as choosing Conversation → Send File. However, the transfer does not take place until the buddy accepts your request.

Advanced Configuration

You wouldn't leave home without your shadow, and you should similarly feel that your IM experience would be incomplete without a number of personalized items to present to the world:

§ Buddy information (known in some other clients as a profile)--free-form text that describes you

§ A small icon

§ A punchy set of Away messages to tell your buddies your status, a hot topic in communications research called presence

We'll also discuss some other customizations you'll find useful in this section, including how to find out what your buddies are doing.

Buddy information can be entered and changed from Tools → Account Actions → Set User Info. Note that this information (and all the items set in this section) is tied to the Gaim client you're working in. If you use Gaim on a different system or run a different IM client, you have to re-enter all the information to make it appear to buddies. Consider typing a small summary of your work and including a URL that points to a web page with more information.

Like other IM clients, Gaim lets you attach a picture to your account, so it will show up when people include you in their buddy lists and chat with you. When you configure your account using the Add Account or Modify Account dialog, click the Open button next to the "Buddy icon" label and drill through your file hierarchy till you find an image you like. You can also pull up, in the file manager on your desktop, a folder containing the picture you want to use as your icon, and drag the icon from the desktop folder to the Modify Accounts window. Gaim supports lots of popular formats, including JPEG, GIF, and PNG. Depending on the support available in the GTK+ libraries, Gaim converts the file's format to a format your service accepts if necessary.

AIM imposes quite restrictive size limits on the image you use, and Gaim does not tell you that you have exceeded the limits. For many services, furthermore, you must be careful to provide a perfect square, because the image may otherwise be stretched and come out quite unflattering. The GIMP (described in Chapter 9) is useful for adjusting pictures to fit requirements, once you have determined what they are.

Now create a series of apt Away messages that you can put up when you leave your terminal. From the Tools → Preferences dialog, choose "Away messages" and press the Add button to bring up a dialog that lets you add and save a new message. (Or use Tools → Away → New Away Message.) For each message, assign a title that will appear in your menus, and in the larger box underneath the title type the actual text that buddies will see.

When you leave your desk, you can choose an appropriate Away message from Tools → Away → Custom, and it's very helpful to your associates to do so. But setting a message can often be too much trouble to remember, so Gaim sets one automatically when your terminal is idle for a while. We recommend you replace the boring default (if you don't think it's boring, look at what it says) with a message of your own choice. Do this from the Preferences dialog, reached by pressing Ctrl-P. The Away/Idle item in this dialog lets you set the default Away message, as well as how long the terminal has to be idle before it appears.

If your Away message is set through the idle timer just described, Gaim automatically replaces it with an Available message when you move the mouse or start typing again. If you have set an Away message explicitly, you need to explicitly indicate when you've returned by choosing Tools →Away → Back. The Available message shown when you're at your terminal can be set through Tools → Account Actions → Set Available message.

Gaim automatically checks your spelling and underlines misspelled words as you type. Because a rebellious air of reckless informality has always hung over instant messaging, it strikes us as the tool where accurate spelling is least important. The feature works quite well and adapts to the user's locale (that is, the language and nationality you chose when installing your distribution), but it can be turned off in the Message Text box under Preferences if you like.

A more useful feature for busy and bumbling typists is text replacement. This is provided as one of the many plug-ins you can enable in the Preferences dialog. Click on Plugins and enable "Text replacement." Then type in abbreviations you'd like to use for common phrases. For instance, one author of this book has defined the string newrl to expand to Running Linux, 5th Edition to make it easy to refer to that book. You must enter the string as a separate word for Gaim to recognize and expand it.

We described earlier how to let buddies know your changes in presence. Gaim can also display their presence, but by default it does not pop up a message (as some IM clients do) to let you know every time a buddy has arrived or left. You can add this feature through the guifications plug-in. Download it from http://guifications.sourceforge.net, install it, and enable it in the Preferences dialog box under Plugins.

Even without the guifications feature, you have fine-grained control over presence notifications: you can tell Gaim to notify you when a particular buddy has logged in, logged out, gone idle, returned, and so forth. Thus, you may choose on a particular day to be told when somebody logs in or returns, because you're in a hurry to reach him to discuss a particular task. The mechanism for doing all this is called a buddy pounce .

To use this feature, choose Tools → Buddy Pounce → New Buddy Pounce. In the dialog that appears, you can indicate exactly whom you want to track, what changes in presence you want to be notified about, and how you want to be notified. The buddy is not informed of any of this snooping unless you choose "Send a message." You could use that feature to have a box such as "Please call home right away" appear on the buddy's screen at the moment his or her presence changes.