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4 newbie questions about Linux answered

Trying Linux has never been easier

(LinuxWorld) — If you run Gentoo Linux or Sorcerer, patch your kernel code by hand or compose complicated HTML pages using vi, this URL isn't for you.

If you're new to Linux, read on. This story was inspired by the following letter-to-the-editor I received recently:

I want to shift from Windows to Linux and have some questions.
  1. Can I run any Linux application on Windows and any Windows application on Linux? If yes, how?
  2. Where can I get a tutorial on starting with Linux and its benefits?
  3. How can I install Linux on my system?
  4. From where I can get Linux applications?

Basic questions? Yes! Are there more people trying Linux? Yes! Will we see more of these types of questions? Probably! Can we help them? You bet!

1. Can I run any Linux app on Windows and any Windows app on Linux? If yes, how?

These are really two separate questions, so they get two separate answers.

There are some applications that began their lives on Linux and have since been ported to Windows. However, Windows does not have the ability to run a Linux binary without alteration. It would be like taking an engine part out of a Ford and putting it in a Jaguar. Wait, bad example. How about taking a part out of a Mercedes and putting into a Dodge. No, that's not right either. How about a Saab in a GM? No, let's not use a car example and just say this: Linux apps don't run on Windows.

However, with a little bit of help, the converse is true: Linux users can run Windows applications using one of three (or four, depending on how you count them) programs. Here are those options, with the least-expensive programs listed first:

  1. WINE "WINE Is Not an Emulator" is a nine-year-old project to create a compatibility layer for Windows applications. According to the WINE home page, "WINE is an implementation of the Windows Win32 and Win16 APIs on top of X and Unix." WINE runs common Windows applications in their own windows, making them appear as if they were native Linux applications. WINE costs $0, and it is developed and supported by both the Linux community and CodeWeavers. Users do not need a Windows license to run WINE.
  2. CodeWeavers CrossOver Office CodeWeavers has spent the last three years improving WINE to the point that it now runs many common Windows applications, including the Microsoft Office suite and Lotus Notes. CrossOver Office costs $55, which is money well-spent if you find the idea of compiling and installing WINE without help intimidating. Before you buy CrossOver Office, be sure to check the CodeWeavers-compatibility page to make certain your mission-critical applications run successfully. Be aware that some applications will load but won't function completely. Other applications will run only after you perform a special incantation during installation.

    For example, in my informal testing, I installed and ran Office 2000 SP1 just fine. AOL Instant Messenger installed but didn't run. Earlier versions of AIM, however, reportedly run. Caveat emptor.

    A related product called CrossOver Plugin allows Linux users to install Windows browser plugins, such as Quicktime, in Linux browsers.

  3. NeTraverse Win4Lin 4.0 Win4Lin 4.0 is an emulator that creates a container in your Linux operating system that's suitable for installing your previously existing Windows 95, 98 or ME operating system. Unlike WINE, Win4Lin depends on actual Microsoft Windows code to operate. Therefore, after installing Win4Lin, you'll need to dust off your old Windows CDs and license certificates and install Windows 9x on your Linux system.

    Installation is a lot less cumbersome than it sounds, as NeTraverse has made installation idiot-proof (and I would know). While Win4Lin and Windows occupy more disk space than WINE, the benefit is a virtual machine that runs most non-game Windows applications. On the other hand, Win4Lin only runs Windows applications inside of a Windows screen. I recommend running Win4Lin in its own virtual desktop so that you can spread out your Windows applications and avoid virtual claustrophobia. Win4Lin allows you to cut-and-paste to and from Windows applications.

  4. VMware VMware Workstation sounds similar to Win4Lin, but it's really in a different class in terms of both scope and purchase price. VMware Workstation is designed to create multiple "guest" operating system environments on a computer; it's seemingly built for the customer-support worker who needs to help users running all six (or is it seven?) versions of Windows but doesn't have room for all those PCs under his or her desk. VMware Workstation also seems ideal for developers who need different versions of Windows to test their work but also don't want multiple PCs heating their cubicles.

    At a cost of $300, VMware Workstation is overkill if all you want to do is run a few Windows applications. It's a serious tool if you need access to multiple Windows environments and applications without using several acres of office space.

2. Where can I get a tutorial on starting with Linux and its benefits?

All over the place, as it turns out. Most bookstores large enough to have a computer section offer Linux books. Some are of the tutorial nature and seem designed for use in college courses. If you learn by following a programmed course, the tutorials are for you.

If you buy your Linux distribution from a retailer, most boxed versions of Linux have useful paperback documentation. I like the documentation that SuSE and Red Hat provide.

The Web is also a trove of Linux documentation. See the resources section below for a brief list of documentation.

3. How can I install Linux on my system?

There are four ways to install Linux on your computer:
  1. Get a CD- or DVD-ROM from a retailer or friend. Stick the disc in your machine and reboot. If the machine boots from the CD, then follow the directions on your screen. If it doesn't boot from the CD, then learn which keys you need to press in order to make your machine boot into its EPROM control center. Once you are in this control center, navigate to the boot device area and make your CD- or DVD-ROM drive the first boot device.
  2. If you want to run Debian, you can download a floppy-disk image from a remote server that you can use to bootstrap a Debian installation. See this LinuxWorld story to learn more about installing Debian.
  3. You can also install Linux from a machine on a local network. See this LinuxWorld story to learn how to complete a Red Hat network installation. This one will show you how to perform a network installation of Slackware.
  4. Get a copy of Knoppix. Knoppix is a complete Linux distribution on CD that allows you to try it before you install it on your local hard disk (see Joe Barr's review).

Linux is getting easier to install, and LinuxWorld columnist Joe Barr has found that installing Linux is a faster process than installing Windows XP (see Resources below).

4. From where I can get Linux applications?

Like Windows and Macintosh, you can find applications in all corners of the Internet. Freshmeat.net features one of the largest lists of Linux applications and applications in various stages of development. LinuxWorld also has an abbreviated list of links to the most-popular Linux applications, which you can find here.

Perhaps the greatest place to find Linux applications is on your distribution's CD-ROM. All well-known commercial Linux distributions come bundled with hundreds of applications, including office applications, mail clients, chat and instant-messaging clients, Web browsers, image tools, PIMs and games. The quality and functionality of this software ranges from barely usable to rock-solid and complete.

A typical Linux distribution costs about $50 and is chock-full of applications. By comparison, Windows XP costs $200 and offers little in the way of applications and extras. If you're a Windows user new to Linux, Linux's ease of installation and plethora of apps will likely surprise and amaze you.

More Stories By Mark Cappel

Mark Cappel is the editor of Linux.SYS-CON.com.

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