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A Review of LindowsOS 4.0

October 15, 2003

This article was contributed by Ladislav Bodnar

Introduction

Lindows.com was established in October 2001 in San Diego, California, USA by Michael Robertson, the founder and former CEO of mp3.com. It was a stormy start. The company had initially succeeded in attracting media attention on two fronts - by ambitious claims about the future ability of LindowsOS to run many popular Windows applications, and by engaging in a legal battle with Microsoft over alleged trademark infringement. While in the following months Lindows.com quietly shelved their original plans, they were successful in defending the right to use the word "Lindows" both in their company name (Lindows.com) and their product name (LindowsOS).

After many months of development, Lindows.com finally announced the first general release of LindowsOS, version 3.0, in November 2002. Unfortunately, many reviewers found the comparatively expensive product buggy and still a lot harder to use than the operating system it was meant to replace. Yet, it wasn't all bad news. The company's developers had clearly done some much needed usability studies to bring Linux closer to general population and developed an excellent software installation utility called Click-N-Run. Lindows.com also sponsors several open source projects, including Mozilla, GAIM and KDE-look.org.

LindowsOS 4.0 was released in June 2003 and the first reviews gave an indication of a vastly improved product. For this brief overview, LindowsOS 4.0 was installed on a fairly standard system with Intel Pentium 4 1.4 GHz processor, ASUS P4T motherboard, 384 MB RDRAM, nVidia GeForce4 Ti4200, onboard Realtek 8139too network card and Lemel 17" TFT monitor.

Installation

The installation of LindowsOS 4.0 was uneventful. As expected, the user is not required to make many decisions, with the only exception being the screen prompt to select between the "take over an entire hard disk" option and the "advanced install" option. The term "advanced install" is grossly misleading as the sole available "advanced" choice is the selection of a pre-existing partition on which to install the operating system. There are no options to create/resize partitions or select more than one partition for installation, and neither there are options for specifying the file system or boot sector. LindowsOS automatically formats the hard disk or the selected partition with ReiserFS, while lilo simply overwrites the master boot record, no questions asked. There is no package selection screen either, but users are prompted to enter an optional root password if they so desire.

The entire installation took no more than a few minutes. In fact, in took less time than the subsequent first boot - presumably due to all the behind-the-scenes hardware autodetection and configuration, and also because the OS laboriously mounted all 22 partitions on my two hard disks. Some, but not all of the Linux distributions on these partitions and their correct names were present on the LindowsOS boot menu. Once the long boot completed, I found myself inside the KDE desktop environment and the first window calling for attention was a message asking me to accept the LindowsOS license agreement together with a chance to adjust a few simple configuration options. The hardware detection was flawless.

I was logged in as root with no password requested. Although LindowsOS does provide a place to add individual users to the system from within the initial configuration screen, it makes no effort to encourage the user to do so. Neither is user addition mentioned in the accompanying "Getting Started" guide. As such, it is probably fair to assume that the majority of LindowsOS users do run their operating system as superusers with no passwords set.

Applications and System Configuration

The first impression was extremely favorable. It was immediately obvious that a lot of thought had been put into making the desktop as pleasant as possible and LindowsOS has certainly succeeded in creating an intuitive and highly likable working environment. From the desktop, panel and system tray icons to careful menu design, one could immediately see that this is not just a standard default desktop as designed by KDE developers, but a highly polished and well organized setup by professional usability experts. Unlike Lycoris Desktop/LX, LindowsOS does not go out of its way to create a Windows XP lookalike, choosing instead to retain a distinct LindowsOS look and style.

The basic edition of LindowsOS does not come with many applications. Mozilla serves as a default program for web browsing and email, while GAIM is the preferred instant messenger. It is interesting to note that LindowsOS keeps GAIM up-to-date, despite never-ending changes in authentication schemes of Yahoo! Messenger and other popular instant messengers. Among the multimedia tools, only basic CD and MP3 players are supplied, while the system lacks a video player. Office applications are also missing. A simplified KDE Control Center, called LindowsOS Control Panel, is used for system configuration tasks.

Click-N-Run

The Click-N-Run warehouse is the major selling point behind the distribution. While it is essentially just a giant repository of Debian packages, its design, execution, features and general user-friendliness make this service unique among Linux distributions. At $50 per year, it is a bargain. Click-N-Run not only provides for a single-click installation, it also serves as an all-purpose tool for system and security updates (inclusive of automatic download and installation of critical updates), with useful information about the hundreds of available packages. These can be grouped into custom categories, or "aisles" in LindowsOS terms, based on user preferences. Many aisles containing task-specific package groups are already pre-configured for a single-click installation, and although they often include proprietary software requiring extra payment, they are generally useful for installing a whole group of packages without going through a tedious search process. Installed packages immediately appear on the system menu, as well as on the desktop as icons.

For those who are unable or unwilling to part with the necessary cash to join Click-N-Run, LindowsOS comes pre-configured with apt-get, with its sources pointing to Debian's testing branch.

Pros and Cons

The overall experience using LindowsOS was surprisingly positive. Besides the excellent Click-N-Run warehouse, there are many small touches where the product's attention to detail is immediately visible, such as CD automount or automatic MIME type configuration after installing new applications. Inserting a CD into the CD tray magically starts the relevant application or the file manager, just like in Windows. The Audio Assist Tutorial set provides a convenient introduction to the system, while the brief, but well-designed "Getting Started" guide is all that a new user needs to get up to speed with the new software. Hardware autodetection and configuration was amazing and even the K3B CD-burning application was all set up and ready requiring no further configuration. Lindows.com also provides active user forums with Lindows.com staff (including Michael Robertson) actively participating in the discussions.

On the negative side, the system defaults to running as a "passwordless root" and LindowsOS makes no effort to encourage proper user setup. Excessive commercialization has to be noted as another shortcoming - even inserting an unencrypted DVD promptly directs the user toward purchasing a Lindows DVD player - a commercial edition of xine with a license for DVD decoding, although even a plain xine would play the DVD just fine. The default system tray includes icons for commercial Lindows.com products, such as Virus Safe and Surf Safe, some of which are of questionable value.

Conclusion

Lindows.com has done an excellent job with LindowsOS 4.0. While some of the earlier editions came under heavy criticism by reviewers, it is clear that the developers had read those reviews and made the necessary improvements. LindowsOS 4.0 is an aesthetically pleasing, highly usable operating system with superior hardware autodetection and excellent Click-N-Run software warehouse. However, the system's default of running as a passwordless superuser is a sore point, which from a point of view of any veteran UNIX user, makes it hard to express wholehearted recommendation for the product - it would be unfair on the users and their data. There has to be a better solution to the convenience versus security compromise than the present default, or at the very least, Lindows.com should make more effort to educate and encourage users to set up proper user accounts.

Comments (10 posted)

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