Cross-platform interoperability importance to fade

Acceptance of alternative operating systems will lower focus on cross-platform tools for Linux, specifically with Windows platforms, but this may still be in distant future, say industry observers.

Cross-platform efforts to provide interoperability with Windows on Linux systems may cease to be of importance in future as the acceptance of alternative OSes widens, say industry watchers.

Linux users have relied on various methods to access Windows programs, one of which is the Wine project. The open source effort offers users a way of running some Windows programs by providing a substitute layer that encompasses APIs (application programming interfaces) and DLLs (dynamic-link libraries) for the Windows kernel.

But as Linux-based systems and Apple Macs gain popularity, more software vendors are catering to these OSes, said Ovum senior analyst, Vuk Trifkovic.

In an e-mail interview with ZDNet Asia, he explained: "Previously, Microsoft had a distinct advantage. It was not just the most ubiquitous platform, but plenty of desktop applications were also running exclusively on Microsoft Windows."

Trifkovic also pointed out that alternative methods of providing cross-platform interoperability are also on the rise, including virtualization and collaborative efforts with Microsoft such as Novell's Mono.

Virtualization and efforts such as Mono differ from Wine.

Mono is a cross-platform implementation of Microsoft's .NET application runtime, allowing organizations to port Windows app to Linux systems. This requires access to proprietary codes and may not be suitable for companies that only need to take a Windows app and run it on their systems.

Virtualization, on the other hand, allows users to run programs for other platforms in a hypervisor but requires users to have a licensed copy of Windows in order to run Windows programs.

In comparison, Wine--as a substitute layer for Windows-is free.

Another analyst, Jay Lyman from 451 Group, agreed that the "dramatic increase" in support for Linux may eventually lower the need for tools such as Wine, but noted that overall cross-platform tools are still growing in acceptance among enterprises.

In an e-mail interview, Lyman attributed this to the presence of legacy applications that organizations still rely on today, and that may not be ported to Linux.

He added that the future of interoperability has also been aided by moves to bridge the gap between different platforms, both on Microsoft's part by working with open source developers as well as through various projects supporting interoperability.

"While it can be a challenge to keep up with changes and patches made [to the Windows OS], the process for Windows and its ecosystem is pretty well-established," he said.

Wine continues to brew
Wine's project lead, Alexandre Julliard, told ZDNet Asia in an e-mail interview that development efforts for Wine at times have dealt with maintaining compatibility with Windows as the Microsoft platform changes, but the project's priority is in enabling older applications to work.

"[Windows compatibility is] certainly a moving target, but it doesn't move that fast," he explained. "We don't really care about new Windows releases, rather, we care about the features that applications require. And since applications need to remain compatible with the existing user base, this leaves us plenty of time to catch up."

To illustrate his point, Julliard said maintaining compatibility with Windows XP is good enough for now because its installed base is still very big. As such, catching up with Windows 7 will only be necessary after Wine developers complete the implementation of Vista-specific features, which they are only seeing a need for now.

He noted that increased support for alternative OSes has extended the demand for Wine beyond popular Windows applications such as Microsoft Office and Photoshop--which have Mac versions--to other "less famous" Windows apps.

Julliard, however, acknowledged that the "distant future" is hazy for Wine. "It's clear to me that Wine is a transition technology that should enable people to switch to alternative systems, which will then hopefully result in more applications being available for these systems."

But he believes this process will be a long one, keeping Wine relevant for many years more.

The Wine project is slated for its next major stable release, version 1.2, and will be released in the next few weeks, he said.

CodeWeavers, the main corporate sponsor behind Wine, which Julliard works at, also recently released a new Wine-based games client called CrossOver Games, which will bring a selection of Windows games to Unix- and Linux-based platforms.