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Testers ponder Lindows preview

A preview edition of the Lindows OS offers insight into how the software will aim to combine the benefits of Windows and Linux, but it leaves many unconvinced.

Lindows, the start-up that is promising to merge the worlds of Windows and Linux to create an alternative to Microsoft software, has released a preview that has left some Linux customers and analysts with more questions than answers.

LindowsOS is based on Linux and a technology called WINE, which allows Windows applications to run under Linux. It's a simple concept: an open-source operating system that lets people run mainstream applications such as the Internet Explorer browser, Microsoft Word and Microsoft Outlook e-mail software.

Late last month the company released a "preview" version of LindowsOS to a few of the site's subscribers. Company founder Michael Robertson, who is best known for launching music site MP3.com, admits that the preview is unfinished. However, he said it does offer 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 program CD inserted under other versions of Windows. Unlike conventional Linux installations, the tester isn't asked to make any choices during the process, and the whole procedure takes under 10 minutes, according to people who have tested the preview version.

To keep things easy, certain key items are carried over to the Lindows desktop, including an icon for the C drive, the "My Documents" folder, bookmarks and e-mail settings, Robertson said.

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.

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."

Decisions questioned
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 customer 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 while common Outlook viruses also functioned, Windows antivirus software did not.

In some respects, Lindows was able to function as just another Linux software version. It is based on a pre-release version of Xandros' Linux software, which is itself based on a Linux distribution called Debian. Debian applications are able to install normally on Lindows, testers have said.

One tester was also able to separate Lindows into its component parts, running its version of WINE on Red Hat Linux.

What audience?
Generally, Linux enthusiasts familiar with the Lindows preview questioned exactly for whom the new software was targeted. The lack of tester accounts doesn't appeal to those already using Linux, but the software also isn't easy enough to use to make the transition simple for Windows customers--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 said.

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.

Matthew Broersma reported from London.