Langa Letter: Lindows: Beyond Windows, Before Linux - InformationWeek
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Langa Letter: Lindows: Beyond Windows, Before Linux

Fred Langa test-drives the latest version of this Linux-based Windows work-alike operating system to see if it's ready for prime time.

Lindows, a commercial version of Linux that looks and feels very much like Microsoft Windows, made news in three major waves during the past year.

First was its splashy arrival on the scene: Lindows garnered instant attention with its claims that it would be able to run many native Windows applications as-is, letting you, for example, install and use your familiar Microsoft Office tools in a Linux environment. This was touted as a major advantage for Lindows because businesses and users could switch to the new non-Microsoft operating system without necessarily having to replace all their Windows-based applications.

Next, several months later, Lindows attracted still more attention through an aggressive bundling deal that packaged the Lindows operating system on Microtel PCs sold though the retailer Wal-Mart, all for less than $200--an incredible price on the face of it, and fully $100 less than a comparable PC equipped with Windows XP Home edition.

At around the same time, Microsoft inadvertently helped Lindows capture still more attention by suing the tiny software vendor for trademark infringement on the basis that some consumers would be confused between names "Lindows" and "Windows." Although the full legal wrangling isn't over yet, Microsoft has for the most part lost its legal challenges so far.

All that made for a tumultuous year, and the new, just-released version 3 of Lindows shows some of the effects: It's a little more expensive than before ($129, up from $99) and has a new focus that de-emphasizes Windows compatibility, probably in part to avoid further legal hassles and in part because Windows compatibility caused problems for Lindows on many fronts. Here's why:

Wine And Whines
For one thing, Lindows' initial emphasis on Windows compatibility alienated large portions of the Linux community who knew what was going on behind the scenes. You see, Lindows gets its Windows compatibility through the same Wine subsystem that is freely available for virtually all Linux and Unix implementations. When Wine is installed on any *nix platform, it gives that system the ability to run some native Windows applications that normally run only on the Windows operating system.

The name "WINE" is actually a recursive acronym: Wine Is Not an Emulator. Despite the silly name, Wine is an amazing software project that has done a very impressive job to date, generating more than a million lines of code and indeed letting many major Windows applications run usably under most flavors on *nix, including Lindows. But Wine is an open-source project, so any changes made by any Wine implementer are supposed to be released back to the Wine community as a whole, and vice versa. This means that there is--and cannot be--anything unique about the Lindows implementation of Wine. And so, to the Linux community, Lindows' early self-promotion about its ability to run native Windows applications seemed unfair and perhaps a bit misleading: Wine works on almost any flavor of Linux, and not just Lindows.

What's legitimately unique about the Lindows approach was that it included and promoted Wine not as an afterthought or as a curious add-on, but as a core strategy to win Windows users over to the new operating system. Alas, the law of unintended consequences kicked in and even that benign intent caused problems because--as the Wine project itself points out--Wine will never run all Windows apps perfectly. Even those its runs pretty well still may not have all features and functions available. The idea for Wine is mostly to allow important native-Windows applications to be more or less usable in a Linux or Unix environment, not to provide 100% compatibility in every tiny detail.

But, some early adopters thought they'd be able to fire up Lindows and immediately run all their current Windows applications as-is, with perfect fidelity. When that didn't happen, some of those users felt misled.

And finally, as mentioned above, Microsoft also took issue with Lindows' early claims of Windows compatibility, as it added to the potential for confusion in the minds of some users.

For all these reasons, Lindows has backpedaled in a major way from its initial heavy focus on Windows compatibility.

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