The OS in the middle

Growing number of apps support Lindows' hybrid approach

The Linux operating system's reputation for stability and efficiency has made it a top server OS. It's also making some headway, though not as dramatically, onto desktop PCs. Last spring, for example, the municipal government of Munich, Germany, opted to switch its 14,000 workstations from Microsoft Windows to SuSE Linux.

In the U.K., both the National Health Service and Office of Government Commerce are evaluating Linux for their combined 1.3 million desktops.

According to International Data Corp. of Framingham, Mass., Linux will surpass Apple Mac OS this year in terms of paid desktop market share.

But that will still total only about 3 percent, compared with more than 90 percent for Windows. Even Linux creator Linus Torvalds has said he expects it to be five to 10 years before the OS finds broad acceptance among nontechnical users.

Part of the problem is that Linux has a somewhat deserved reputation for being difficult to install and configure. So, although programmers may like it, it still has a way to go before gaining widespread acceptance with users lacking in technical savvy.

They have grown used to being able to buy a computer off the shelf, take it out of the box, plug it in and start working.

For now, the midpoint between Windows and Linux comes from Lindows Inc., a San Diego company that is bringing plug-and-play simplicity to Linux. The LindowsOS, an implementation of Debian Linux with the K Desktop Environment, loads and configures itself in less than 10 minutes.

Manufacturers have shipped hundreds of thousands of desktop laptop PCs and hard drives with the OS preloaded.

Just as important, from a user standpoint, is the approach Lindows takes toward applications, making them simpler to install and run, even for those who have never seen a line of code in their lives.

The key to any operating system is not the OS itself, but what you can run on it. For servers, that was simple. Linux could draw on three decades of applications built for Unix. On the desktop, it's a different story entirely.

Here Linux is up against two decades of development of noncompatible Windows applications loaded on millions of PCs, both desktop and notebook.

There are thousands of Linux applications available, but they are not necessarily up to the level of what people have come to expect from Windows.

'It works 98 percent of the time,' said Jeremy White, CEO of Codeweavers Inc., a St. Paul, Minn., company that makes middleware to let Windows applications run under Linux. 'But it's the 2 percent of the time that it doesn't that kills you.'

Going native

Lindows' initial goal was to create a Linux computer to run Windows applications through the use of Wine, an open-source implementation of the Windows application programming interface. More recently, though, it abandoned that approach in favor of using native Linux applications.

As company CEO Michael Robertson said, 'It doesn't make much sense to convert to an affordable operating system, such as LindowsOS, only to turn around and continue spending thousands of dollars on expensive Windows software.'

Like Apple Computer Inc., Lindows provides an entire system'OS, hardware and applications. Unlike Apple, it targets the low end of the market.

This starts with LindowsOS 4.5, which sells for $49.95. If you also want the hardware to run it on, a Lindows webstation sells for $169. Wal-Mart sells a Microtel PC with 128M of RAM, a 40G hard drive and 1.4-MHz AMD Duron processor running Lindows for $200.

To make the Lindows the interface user-friendly, applications are called by their functional names, rather than their application names. The name next to the e-mail icon says 'email,' not 'Mozilla 1.6,' even though Mozilla underlies the function.

Lindows ships with a limited number of key applications, which automatically load with the operating system. The programs consist of an office suite, Internet access, e-mail, browser, multimedia applications, CD burner, search, remote desktop sharing, spam filter, voice over IP, some games and instant messaging.

These applications will be good enough for most people to sit down and start working. But they are just the start. Lindows also has another 1,800 applications available on its Web site in something called the Click-N-Run Warehouse.

Access to the warehouse for a trial period comes with the operating system. Afterward, access costs $49.95 annually. Members can download nearly all the applications for free, though some have an additional price. Sun Microsystems Inc.'s StarOffice 7.0 lists for $75; the warehouse member price is $30.

At the moment, Lindows isn't likely to turn up in many offices. It's an easy-to-use, consumer-level version of Linux, good for standalone use but lacking in normal management functions for enterprise deployments.

A professional version is slated for release this fall, which could be a better fit for networked installations, including remote deployment.

For average users who are not programmers or administrators, it's a cheap and easy way to go.
Lindows also offers an administrator the opportunity to look at the Linux OS, try it out and see what applications are available without having to prowl around the Web to download them.

At least until the professional version appears, however, it is not appropriate for an agency that wants to remotely deploy and support a few thousand locked-down PCs.

Drew Robb of Glendale, Calif., writes about IT.

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