Lindows, the start-up that is promising to merge the worlds of Windows and Linux to create an alternative to the Microsoft empire, has released a preview version of its controversial software, and it has some Linux users and analysts scratching their heads.
The firm was created by Michael Robertson, best known for launching MP3.com, which helped propel the online-music craze of the late 1990s. Robertson bowed to pressure from the big music labels and sold the site to Vivendi Universal for £243m, but now he's taking on another industry giant in the form of Microsoft.
LindowsOS is based on Linux and a technology called WINE, which is aimed at allowing Windows applications to run under Linux. The conception is simple: an open-source operating system that lets you run mainstream applications like Internet Explorer, Microsoft Word and Outlook.
Late last month the company released a "preview" version of LindowsOS to a few of the site's subscribers. Robertson admits that the preview is unfinished, but it offers a glimpse at the direction Lindows is taking.
One key feature is a streamlined installation for Windows users. Lindows can be installed from within Windows 98, or by restarting with the CD inserted under other versions of Windows. Unlike conventional Linux installations, the user isn't asked to make any choices during the process, and the whole procedure takes under 10 minutes, according to users.
The preview CD was only made available to a few Lindows newsletter subscribers, but a copy was obtained by the open-source Web site Newsforge, which published the details.
To make things as easy as possible for Windows users, certain key items are carried over to the Lindows desktop, including an icon for the C drive, the My Documents folder, and bookmarks and email settings, according to Robertson.
Applications installed under Windows are listed under Lindows' main menu, although not all will work even when Lindows reaches its commercial release. "Some programs will work well and others will not work at all," Robertson said in a note on the Lindows site. "Since we're focusing our efforts on productivity applications, those applications are most likely going to work at this early stage."
Some of the design decisions behind Lindows are already causing controversy with Linux users, however.
For example, Lindows eliminates the familiar Linux (as well as Windows 2000, Windows XP and Mac OS X) notion of different users. Instead, the Lindows user does everything in the administrator mode, called "root" in Linux parlance, and running applications under other user accounts can cause problems.
Normally, the administrator mode is used in Linux for heavy-duty tasks like installing applications and changing system settings. It's considered safer to carry out other tasks in a normal user mode.
Another security concern: one tester reported that he was able to run Outlook on Lindows, and that common Outlook viruses also functioned, while Windows antivirus software did not.
In some respects, Lindows was able to function as just another Linux distribution. It is based on a pre-release version of Xandros' Linux software, which is itself based on a Linux distribution called Debian, and Debian applications were able to install normally on Lindows, users reported.
One user was also able to separate Lindows into its component parts, running its version of WINE on Red Hat Linux.
Generally, Linux enthusiasts familiar with the Lindows preview wondered who the software was targeting. The lack of user accounts and configurability don't appeal to those already using Linux, but the software also isn't self-explanatory enough to make the transition easier for Windows users -- at least not yet.
Robertson hints that Lindows will change substantially before its public release, scheduled for the first half of this year. "LindowsOS is not ready for use as your everyday desktop, but hopefully (the) Sneak Preview demonstrates that we've shaken the vaporware label," he stated.
Lindows faces other practical difficulties. IDC analyst Dan Kusnetzky points out that even if users can get Microsoft software working on their LindowsOS, they will probably not have access to technical support. "It is quite doubtful that Microsoft will support users of Office on Linux/WINE regardless of how well it works," Kusnetzky said. "I suspect that other suppliers will follow Microsoft's example."
Most users will probably avoid Lindows if they have to download and install it themselves, Kusnetzky predicts, making it important to gain some presence in the pre-installed retail channel, where Linux has yet to gain a foothold.
Lindows has also been targeted by a Microsoft lawsuit for violating the Windows trademark with the LindowsOS name.