For an Alternative to Windows, an Unclear Future

For an Alternative to Windows, an Unclear Future

The recent appearance of Lindows, a novel fusion of the ubiquitous Windows and the maverick Linux operating systems, could mean a changing of the guard for academic computing in this new century.
Why? It’s not often that a new operating system comes along offering a combination of the familiar — Windows — with the free and flexible — Linux. It’s enough to cause salivation in anyone responsible for buying a whole college’s software.
But there is a long road ahead for Lindows, with many obstacles it must overcome if it is ever to become a truly viable alternative to the dominant PC paradigm.
If you’re wondering what Linux is, you’re not alone, and that’s one of the strikes against it. Linux is an operating system originally created by Linus Torvalds in conjunction with developers around the world. The source code for Linux is freely available to everyone, making it possible for college IT departments to adapt the operating system to the specific needs of faculty, staff and administrators. And the fact that there’s no charge for downloading the operating system could make one very popular at a board of trustees meeting.
Sounds great, right? But Linux has yet to make much of a dent in the desktop Windows monopoly for three very good reasons:
• Lack of hardware support: It’s essential to know that your operating system supports the majority of hardware devices you might need, but Linux is rarely listed on the operating system compatibility list of popular hardware. Don’t believe me? Check your local retailer. It is doubtful that manufacturers will start making native Linux drivers to support their devices (modems, scanners, printers, etc.) unless and until the operating system gains more mainstream popularity.
• Unease of use: Until recently, just the installation of the Linux operating system was a difficult chore. Loading additional software and configuring the operating system was even more taxing. Now the operating system has adopted an icon-based installation similar to that of Windows.
• Slim software pickings: Finding useful software for Linux can quickly turn into a fruitless treasure hunt. Popular applications frequently used by colleges, such as Microsoft Office and Adobe Photoshop, cannot run natively on Linux.
The makers of Lindows are trying to change all that, while remaining true to the low-cost, open-source model that has made Linux so popular among computer server administrators.
In Lindows, former MP3.com CEO Michael Robertson and his 20-person San Diego software startup Lindows.com have managed to create a new flavor of Linux designed to run both Linux and Windows software on top of the Linux operating system.
Lindows’ ability to run Windows applications stems from the company’s proprietary software, embedded within the operating system, which mimics the look and feel of the Windows operating system. This includes the ability to make fonts appear better and software install more seamlessly.
In addition to the application compatibility, the Lindows team has added features to the operating system to make it much easier to use. Computer configuration/maintenance is easier, and software installation can be accomplished with just a few clicks.
The preview release of LindowsOS, now available, costs $99 — about half what Microsoft’s new Windows XP does. And Lindows’ licensing system — charging per person rather than per computer — should make it doubly attractive to budget-conscious systems administrators.
But all these remarkable technological and other innovations may never see the light of your computer lab. On Dec. 20, Microsoft sued Lindows for infringing on the Windows brand name. The complaint seeks to force a name change for the Lindows software.
Microsoft spokesman Jon Murchinson told InformationWeek.com, “We’re not at all asking the court to stop or prevent the company from making the product, we’re simply saying it shouldn’t use a name that confuses the public and infringes our trademark.” If a settlement can’t be reached, the case — and the product — could languish in the courts for years.
Even if it survives the legal scrum, however, it isn’t clear how many applications will be able to run on the Lindows operating system in the near future. A statement on Lindows.com’s Web site is disquietingly ambiguous: “Our goal is to run all Windows software, however, that’s an ambitious objective that will take time to achieve. …  We’ll make available a database of known useable applications in the near future.”
Still, the mere appearance of a potentially viable alternative to the Windows operating system is encouraging. If Lindows is successful in its court battle and manages to carve out some of Microsoft’s monopolistic market share, it could bring down the price of computing — an issue particularly relevant to colleges and universities, which must buy their software in bulk. While prices have dropped considerably in the highly competitive hardware and software markets over the past few years, the price of operating systems (the market for which Microsoft dominates almost completely) has not followed suit. Being able to choose not only cuts prices all around, it empowers consumers and frees them from the policies and products of one or two companies. Viva l’alternative. 

Webmaster Aaron Richardson, MCSE, MCDBA, is a Microsoft-certified systems engineer and multimedia web developer. He can be reached at aaron@rubberdoor.com or at his Web site,<www.rubberdoor.com>.



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