At Long Last, Lindows

eLABorations: Forthcoming General Release could give Linux a lucrative, low-end foothold

There's been a lot of ink spilled over Lindows, the Linux-based operating system with the Windows-y name that saw its media fortunes spike when Microsoft took the firm to court over naming mimicry.

These, however, are the first words I've written about Lindows. The Lindows Insider program, in which individuals pay a $99 subscription fee in order to beta test free software, rubbed me the wrong way, as did the company's insistence on delaying any product reviews of Lindows to some indeterminate spot in the future.

I resolved against fueling any Lindows hype until the OS emerged out of the vapor and into some testable form-which it did when Lindows and Microtel sent me one of the $199 Lindows PCs now for sale at WalMart. I've had a few days to kick the tires of Lindows and those of the Microtel system, and these are my initial impressions.

Lindows is supposed to be an inexpensive Linux box appropriate for use by the uninitiated, and I think that it succeeds at that. The desktop environment for Lindows 2.0, the version I tested, is KDE, which matches Windows fairly closely in its appearance and operation. The interface is more utilitarian than attractive, and Lindows would do well to take some fit and finish cues from Red Hats 8.0 release, but its on the right track.

Lindows crown jewel is its Click-N-Run Warehouse, a place from which users may very simply download and install one of a large catalog of software applications. Most of these applications are freely available elsewhere, which has some questioning the $99 annual fee that Lindows plans to charge for the service.

I think that while the Click-N-Run subscription-scheme may not be for me, it's a fair deal, and it offers real value to Lindows users. Most of what's available in the warehouse is freely available elsewhere, but it isn't always easy to locate some of these applications.

For example, have you tried recently to find the Unix version of Real's RealPlayer software-or, for that matter, any of Real's free software offerings? It isnt easy (here's a link for it).

Also, the sort of bandwidth one can expect when downloading software from myriad ftp mirrors and other download sites fluctuates a great deal: The Click-N-Run warehouse can add appreciable value simply by ensuring speedy downloads.

With the Lindows box I've been testing, however, it was very easy to come up with the software I needed to catch my local NPR stream. I clicked on the Click-N-Run button in the Lindows task bar, searched for "real," clicked again, and after a brief download and install that required no further interaction, I was up and running.

Lindows has gone out of its way to make the process an easy one-perhaps too far. In order to make software installation as painless as possible, Lindows has followed Microsoft's lead in starting users out as root, analogous to Administrator in Windows.

Putting to one side arguments surrounding the danger of running as root, probably the biggest drawback to this decision is that it effectively removes in Lindows the multi-user capabilities that stand as one of Linux's greatest strengths. Again, security concerns aside, home users appreciate and have come to expect having multiple log-ins on their computers for things like keeping e-mail accounts and bookmarks separate. Even Windows 9x could do this, and I think that Lindows users will find its lack disappointing.

The developers at Lindows ought to turn to their brethren in the Linux distro business, who've shown that requesting root access from the user when its required can be accomplished fairly smoothly and with little confusion.

The other big-name feature in Lindows, albeit one for which the firm has been backpedaling on its initial promises, is the capacity for running Windows applications through Wine, an open-source implementation of the Windows APIs.

Based on what I've seen so far, Lindows is no panacea for Windows/Linux application compatibility, but the OS does a better job integrating Wine into itself than any other Linux distribution I've so far used.

There'll be plenty more to say about Lindows as it nears its next major version, slated to be the first "General Release" of the OS, suitable for installing on whichever PC hardware you choose-Version 2 is intended primarily for use with Walmart's Microtel box.

If the improvements that Lindows underwent moving from its much-maligned Version 1 to this fairly effective Version 2 are a fair indicator of its rate of development, the Lindows General Release should make waves in the value desktop space, and give Linux a new and lucrative low-end foothold.

Have you used Lindows? Howd you like it? Let me know at