Linux options still boxed in


For some, there is a driving urge to live without Windows, a digital-age-old quest to shed the Microsoft coil worn by most who have ever used a computer.

Imagine being able to do all those computer tasks you've grown accustomed to - checking e-mail, writing Word documents, balancing your checkbook, storing photos, and listening to MP3 music - on a PC that doesn't run Windows.

The thought has crossed many people's minds in this Microsoft-monopoly world, but the chief alternative to Windows - the Linux operating system - has provided little hope for anyone but true geeks and Macintosh users.

I'm not going to kid around with you. The Linux scene is still a pretty bleak one for most people, as this primarily free operating system has a long way to go before it offers the ease of set-up and use that Windows provides.

But the outlook for the future holds some tantalizing possibilities as a handful of companies are coming up with ways to make Linux a little kinder, gentler and easier. You can even buy a version of Linux called LindowsOS that tries so hard to re-create the look of Windows that you can barely tell the difference - its Window dressing even includes the familiar Start menu and a My Computer icon on your desktop.

So why do it? Why run look-a-like Windows when you could just run Windows? Well, for a long time people have wanted options to Windows (which I personally think is a wonderful operating system), which is prone to crashes and lockups unlike Linux. Even good things get old, and just because you're happy with your Chevy doesn't mean that you wouldn't want to try a Toyota after a while.

Problem is, switching isn't easy. Let's face it, more than 100 million people in the United States alone have been using Windows for much of the past decade, and they're not going to make a change to something new without some phasing in.

"A lot of people out there are saying, 'I'd go to Linux if only there were some software to use,'" says Jon Parshall, the chief operating officer for CodeWeavers, based in St. Paul, Minn., which sells software that allows Windows programs to run on Linux. "But it's a Catch-22 situation. There's no software, so they don't switch."

A 'Crossover' hit

Parshall's company hopes to change that. It sells a $55 program called Crossover Office that is one of the slickest applications you'll ever find for any computer. With it, you can run Microsoft Word, PowerPoint, Excel, and Outlook Express, among several others, on a Linux PC. All of these Microsoft programs, in many ways the heart and soul of a Windows system, run just about perfectly in Linux.

"What we're going after are those people out there who have been saying, 'Hey, this Linux stuff is really pretty cool. If I could just get Quicken to work on it, maybe my wife would use it, too,'" Parshall says.

Crossover Office does run Quicken 2002, and quite nicely. It also runs Internet Explorer 5.0 and 5.5, Lotus Notes and Microsoft Visio. For any of these programs, including Microsoft Office 2000, you'll need the original software disc to install the programs; Crossover Office is simply a bridge that allows you to install programs you already own on to Linux.

Another program by CodeWeavers, Crossover Plugin, will allow you to run numerous Windows plugins in Linux, including QuickTime, RealPlayer, and Windows Media Player. Pretty neat stuff to see the staple programs of Windows splashing on to your Linux screen.

Compatible 'Wine'

What makes it all work is a popular Linux application called Wine, which comes bundled with Crossover Office. Described as a Windows compatibility layer, Wine uses the Windows Win32 and Win16 APIs (application programming interfaces) on top of the underlying code of Linux. APIs are the key ingredients that give software a platform with which to run. In essence, Crossover is enabling you to install Microsoft programs by building a piece of the Windows foundation into Linux.

How does Microsoft feel about all this? Well, it can't say much. Last summer, Microsoft, as part of the settlement it reached with the Department of Justice over anti-trust issues, disclosed 272 of its APIs that would allow competitors to design applications. So it's likely we'll be seeing more programs porting from Windows to Linux; CodeWeavers is working on adding Adobe Photoshop to its next release of Crossover Office.

Of course, if you're interested in trying Linux and don't want to fuss with a high learning curve, you can jump right into the pool by trying Lindows OS, which is an interesting attempt to cloak Linux in the familiar look of Windows. It also smooths over some of the more traditionally difficult aspects of using and installing Linux (the installation of Lindows takes about five to seven minutes and is quite easy compared to a traditional Linux installation that can take an hour or more).

Problem is, there is no free option of this operating system, much like true versions of Linux. Lindows costs $50; it also will allow you to run Microsoft Office 2000, but little else -an about-face from what many people were expecting. Lindows originally was billed as a third-party operating system that would allow the installation of many Windows programs, but that's never really happened.

Lindows has a neat look and feel, with a handful of familiar applications on it (RealPlayer and Netscape 7, to name a few,) but its most attractive feature is its "Click-N-Run" option, which allows a user to install programs by going to the Web site and clicking on a link. It's convenient - but it comes with a price tag. A year's worth of Click-N-Run accessibility costs $99. All these costs start to make you wonder if Linux is really as free as everyone says.

Wait a while

If you're still nervous about taking the plunge into Linux, I'd advise you to wait a little longer. Linux is still tough to install and use, even with more programs becoming available.

On Lindows, for instance, the operating system refuses to recognize my network card, even though I have a garden variety adaptor.

While the Linux scene is looking better, it's still got a way to go.

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