01:17 PM
Fred Langa
Fred Langa

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.

Windows Compatibility Still Present, But De-Emphasized
Lindows version 3.0 offers the same level of compatibility as previous versions, but you'd almost not know it because the issue has been played down so significantly. Now, instead of encouraging users to install their native Windows applications under Lindows, the operating system tries to steer users to install and use native Linux applications that offer file-level compatibility with Windows applications.

This gentle steering away from the use of Wine, and toward native Linux applications, starts in the up-front chatter that greets new and prospective users of Lindows, such as in one the FAQs. But it also is built into every page--at least every page I could find--where a user might go exploring for information on Wine or on Windows compatibility in general. It's even coded into the actual operating-system software itself:

For example, to see what would happen, I inserted a Microsoft Office 2000 setup CD into the CD drive on a fresh install of Lindows 3.0, and was greeted with this dialog:

Microsoft Windows CD Found
It appears you've inserted a CD into your computer that is designed to be run on Microsoft Windows. LindowsOS is based on the Linux operating system. The easiest way to install new software on your LindowsOS computer, is using Click-N-Run. Below are several popular programs from the Click-N-Run Warehouse that you might consider which perhaps may perform many of the same functions you're looking for from the CD you're trying to install. These programs can be added to your LindowsOS computer with one simple click...

Click here for a complete listing of all the software in the Click-N-Run Warehouse, sorted by popularity and category.

Click here for information about running MS Windows-compatible software on LindowsOS.

If you choose the first-offered option, you're then given a choice of free-for-the-download Linux-based Office suites (such as Star Office or Open Office). These are replacements for Microsoft Office that can read and write files in Windows-style formats (such as DOC files for Word or XLS files for Excel) without using any element of Microsoft Office itself. This is clearly the option that Lindows now wants you to take.

If you chose the second option--"information about running MS Windows compatible software on LindowsOS"--and if you dig deep enough, you'll eventually find the Lindows implementation of Wine still present, but now buried in the "Components & Libraries" section of the download area under the heading Software Development, a placement sure to scare off just about all casual users. But there's more, because Lindows' description of Wine now also includes the warning, "Success with installing and running various Microsoft Windows programs varies greatly from user to user."

Clearly, Lindows is trying (1) to steer users away from the Wine option in the first place, and (2) to lower the expectations of users who do choose that route anyway. In fact, about the only thing they don't do is paint a skull and crossbones on the download page.

But, ironically, despite all that, Wine on Lindows worked fine for me; the Windows compatibility is still there for those who want it.

Fine Wine And More
I was able successfully to install and use Microsoft Office 2000 on Lindows 3.0; in fact, my whole Lindows experience was impressively glitch-free: The base operating system set up in about 10 minutes and correctly identified and worked with all the hardware in my test system--an AMD-based Micron Millennia equipped with an nVidia graphics system and Creative Labs sound card. The only thing that didn't work right after installation was the networking, but that's my fault because of an unusual configuration I use for security purposes: No operating system I've ever tried has gotten my network setup right the first time, so this is not a slam against Lindows. And, with just a couple of manual entries in the networking control panel (exactly the same manual tweaks I need to use with Windows XP, by the way), I was online.

And getting online is key to the Lindows experience, as it is with most flavors of Linux. Although Lindows 3.0 is available by CD, it's normally installed by downloading a 397-Mbyte ISO-standard CD image of a setup CD, which you then burn to a blank CD and use for installation. Once online, one of the first tasks is to connect back to the Lindows site to download updates, additional components, add-in applications, and utilities. Moving all those bits consumes a fair amount of bandwidth; Lindows (like most flavors of Linux) really is meant for use on a broadband or LAN-based setup and would be painfully slow to set up via dial-up. But with a reasonably fat data pipe, it all goes smoothly.

In fact, the online component is a real strength of Lindows and is the true center of its business strategy. The purchase price for Lindows not only gets you a copy of the operating system but gives you a year's access to the "Click-N-Run" site, which features a selection of software (currently, some 1,600 titles) optimized for or known to work well with Lindows. (Although most of these titles are available from other sources, it would be daunting to track them all down.) What's more, the Click-N-Run facility isn't just a download service; it's an integrated download-and-install utility that automatically sets up whatever downloads you choose, making software selection and use incredibly simple. Plus, by aggregating good software in one place and hosting it on private servers, Lindows lets its users avoid the sometimes-long delays or slowdowns common to more trafficked Linux search-and-download sites.

What It Is And Isn't
As this brief overview has shown, Lindows' strength isn't its technology. In fact, virtually all of Lindows' technology is nonproprietary and available from many sources: The base operating system itself is the open-source Linux; the Windows-lookalike interface is provided through the open-source KDE interface; and the Windows compatibility is provided through the open-source Wine. In fact, any sufficiently motivated individual could cobble together essentially the same pieces as Lindows offers, for free.

But Lindows is providing an added value to its customers beyond the bits themselves by doing the aggregation of components for you, ensuring that the pieces all are easily accessible, easily downloadable, and easy to get working together. In fact, I've never seen a distribution of Linux quite as polished and easy to get going as is Lindows.

Of course, it's not wart-free. More-experienced Linux users probably will chafe at some of the choices and biases that Lindows has built into the operating system. As one example, most Linux distributions either have reasonable security settings and permissions in place or can be locked down without a lot of hassle. But Lindows glosses over security issues and features to an amazing degree. For example, a very broad Google search of the entire Lindows site for any instance of the word "security" turns up just 20 hits; the same search on the Red Hat Linux site turns up nearly 4,000 hits; the same search on the Microsoft site turns up almost 90,000 hits.

On the flip side, some fairly unpolished elements of Linux that you might expect Lindows to bury or disguise are left in plain view where they're bound to confuse less-experienced users. Imagine the confusion when new converts from the world of Windows see their hard drive listed in some places as "Root Direct (Z:)" or when they install a Microsoft Windows application and find the default user name is "Root." (This also highlights another security issue in Lindows.)

Who Is Lindows For?
It's a little overstated--but only a little--to think of Lindows as "Linux with training wheels." To be sure, experienced Linux users probably won't like it. But it could be a good choice for people whose only previous computing experience has been with Windows or for people and businesses looking for the smallest possible initial speed bump in transitioning to a Linux environment from Windows. Lindows is easy to set up and use--and that goes a long way toward making converts.

That said, I'm just one person--not a testing lab full of technicians. To broaden the data for this article, I recently asked the readers of my newsletter to describe their experiences with Lindows, good or bad. I've collected the most-representative replies and posted them in the Listening Post discussion area.

If you've used Lindows or any other Linux distribution, please see what your fellow readers have to say, and then add your comments.

Or, if you're just thinking about Linux or Lindows, or any alternative to Windows, come check out the additional information in those reader posts to get a broader picture.

Join in our discussion!

To discuss this column with other readers, please visit Fred Langa's forum on the Listening Post.

To find out more about Fred Langa, please visit his page on the Listening Post.

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