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The latest and greatest ways to run Windows desktop apps

If you can't free yourself of desktop Windows apps, consider these two options.

(LinuxWorld) — I discovered recently I cannot yet commit to being 100 percent Microsoft free. When Evans Data contracted with me to do the Linux developer survey report, they sent me a Microsoft Word document with the statistics and graphs. None of the word processors I use on Linux could import this document properly. I had to use Microsoft Word.

Like it or not, this is going to remain a problem for the foreseeable future, and may even get a lot worse if the open source community cannot sufficiently penetrate the Microsoft Office installed base with an alternative like

In the meantime, it is fairly easy to get Microsoft Word 97 and Word 2000 to run under Linux. It is not as easy to get Office XP to run under Linux, and complications will simply increase as Microsoft releases new versions of Office.

Microsoft is also making Office executables more dependent on the latest versions of Windows so that it will become increasingly difficult to run Microsoft Office with Linux without a true virtual machine environment such as VMWare.

Whether clever programmers can get around these obstacles remains to be seen. Today, there are several good solutions for running Microsoft Office on Linux without resorting to VMWare or similar solutions. My two favorites are CodeWeavers CrossOver Office and Netraverse Win4Lin, and I reviewed earlier versions of CrossOver Office and Win4Lin a year ago. I can run Microsoft Office 2000 on both.

CrossOver Office 2.0

I tried CodeWeavers CrossOver Office 2.0, the latest release. CrossOver Office is based on the open source project, WINE, but CodeWeavers ironed out compatibility glitches and added a convenient installer and configuration tool. CrossOver Office not only runs Office 2000 well, it also runs other mainstream Windows applications such as Lotus Notes.

CrossOver Office installed without a hitch. It was just as easy to install Microsoft Office. CodeWeavers seems to have streamlined some of the installation steps, since I seem to recall having to install a bunch of fonts separately the last time I tried it. This time, all the fonts were pre-installed. (This was a fresh installation, so the fonts couldn't have been left over from a previous copy.)

CrossOver Office
Editor's note: The above image is reduced in size and color palette to allow it to load quickly. Click on this image to see the original. The graph in the Word document should have labels under the bars, but a font problem prevents them from showing up. The text showed up after making the tweaks to the configuration file listed in this article.

Word 2000 loaded the test document but did not work perfectly at first. There were two places in the test document from Evans Data where text did not show up — in the statistics tables and the labels for the bars in the bar graphs. I changed two settings in the CrossOver Office configuration file, and the text appeared in the tables. I changed two more settings and the text appeared under the bars in the bar graphs. Everything worked fine at that point, and I was able to edit and save the document without crashes or other problems.

Here are those four settings. I edited the /home/username/.cxoffice/dotwine/config file, uncommented the following settings and changed them to "N" from the defaults. This solved all the missing text problems I experienced in Microsoft Word.

; Use the Render extension to render client side fonts (default "Y")
"ClientSideWithRender" = "N"
; Fallback on X core requests to render client side fonts (default "Y")
"ClientSideWithCore" = "N"
; Set both of the previous two to "N" in order to force X11 server side fonts
; Anti-alias fonts if using the Render extension (default "Y")
"ClientSideAntiAliasWithRender" = "N"
; Anti-alias fonts if using core requests fallback (default "Y")
"ClientSideAntiAliasWithCore" = "N"

Since CrossOver Office is based on WINE, one would think ambitious Linux users may be able to get WINE to work well enough, and therefore run Microsoft Office 2000 for the price of their time instead of the price of CrossOver Office. That may be possible, but the Gentoo version of WINE did not run Microsoft Word properly. I could get as far as installing and starting Word, but it crashed when I attempted to load a file. I couldn't solve the problems without investing more money in my time than it would take to simply purchase CrossOver Office.

The one thing I still cannot do is generate launch icons from the CrossOver Office setup tool. I have reason to suspect this is a Gentoo-specific problem and won't crop up for users of the more popular commercial Linux distributions.

There's a lot to like about CrossOver Office as a solution to the Gotta Use Word 2000 blues. It does not require an installation of any version of Windows, which is enough of a boon to make up for a few flaws here and there. The flaws do not seem to be fatal, which is important. Once I ironed out the font problem, the one Windows application I must use most often, Word 2000, ran without any perceptible problems. You don't have to start a Windows desktop to use a Windows application, so applications like Microsoft Word appear to be seamlessly integrated into the Linux desktop.

CrossOver Office makes it much easier to install Windows applications than if you use vintage WINE because CrossOver Office simulates the processes that WINE doesn't handle well. It "reboots" Windows, continues an installation after a reboot, and so on.

Win4Lin 5.0

Win4Lin 5.0 takes an entirely different approach to Windows application support than CrossOver Office. Win4Lin lets you install and run Windows 98, Windows 98 SE or Windows ME on top of Linux. (Windows ME support was added with this new version.) Win4Lin accomplishes this in part by creating a virtual machine on the Linux Kernel, and therefore requires a modified kernel and additional kernel modules.

The installation process is a piece of cake, with one possible exception. You'll need a Windows boot floppy or a boot floppy image in order to install Win4Lin, and of course you'll need a licensed copy of a supported version of Windows. I don't even have a floppy connected to my workstation anymore, but some time ago I made a Windows boot floppy image specifically for installing Win4Lin.

The entire installation of Win4Lin and Windows 98 SE actually took less time than installing Windows 98 SE by itself. The winsetup utility lets you add devices and virtual drives, printers, COM port assignments and set other details such as the memory usage. I set up Win4Lin to let me access various NFS-mounted resources as separate drive letters, and to use 64 megabytes of RAM. It's easily more responsive than Windows 98 SE alone, since it boots faster, and runs off a faster file system, in my case, Reiserfs.

Microsoft Office 2000 installs and works like a champ under Win4Lin. Win4Lin also supports Office XP. It also runs my favorite Windows program, Yeah Write (a simple word processor and organizer). Then again, even WINE runs Yeah Write properly, as does CrossOver Office.

If I were interested in using Win4Lin for anything more than running Microsoft Office and a few other applications, I might be annoyed by the lack of USB support. You can make most USB devices available to Win4Lin indirectly. For example, you can mount a USB storage device such as a digital film reader and then access the mounted directory as a virtual disk drive under Win4Lin. What you cannot do is hook up your USB camera and download pictures using photo image software that expects to talk to the USB connection directly. Among the other limitations are the inability to record to CD-R drives, record sound (Win4Lin sound is playback only), or other operations that are likely to require direct access to hardware. There are a few other quirks in Win4Lin which may affect specific users, so it is wise to check the release notes before you purchase a copy (see RESOURCES below for a link).

One might get the impression that Netraverse and CodeWeavers time their releases to compete with each other, because Netraverse Win4Lin 5.0 is also a new version. The new features in Win4Lin aren't going to strike anyone as spectacular unless they happen to need these specific additions to the Windows workhorse on Linux. Win4Lin now supports Netware connections. It also boasts improved video and audio performance, but as I've never noticed any performance problems with prior versions, I don't notice any improvements in these areas. Win4Lin has always been extraordinarily speedy for me. Netraverse says Win4Lin 5.0 has preliminary DirectX support, but the operative word is "preliminary". It only supports 2D, such as video players.

Perhaps the best thing of all about Win4Lin is that you can run Windows, and when it crashes, you can restart it quickly. Since the Windows drive is virtual, and not a VFAT-formatted rive, you don't have to endure that message about "If you had only shut down your computer properly, this wouldn't have happened", after which you grumble "If you'd only stop crashing I'd be able to shut down properly" as you wait for scandisk to complete.

Netraverse Win4Lin
Editor's note: The above image is reduced in size and color palette to allow it to load quickly. Click on this image to see the original. You need a licensed copy of Windows, such as the Windows 98 SE shown, in order to run Windows applications on Linux with Win4Lin. It can be worthwhile. Having a real instance of Windows running does eliminate a lot of potential compatibility problems.

Take your pick

CrossOver Office has matured to the point where I consider it equal to Win4Lin in desirability. Not equal in capability or ease of use, mind you, but equal in value considering the tradeoffs. If you don't want to own a Windows license, you can twiddle some settings when necessary, and get Microsoft Office running quite well. If your needs don't go beyond the applications CrossOver Office supports, then it's an unbeatable deal.

Win4Lin is still my favorite solution, and it's an excellent choice for those who already have a copy of Windows 98 SE or one of the other supported Windows versions. If you want to run Windows itself in order to use the desktop, or if you need to run Windows because you must use an application that is not supported by CrossOver Office or WINE, then the decision to go with Win4Lin is a no-brainer. It is downright amazing how well Win4Lin runs my copy of Windows 98SE on top of Linux.

Office 2.0
Win4Lin 5.0
New features· Microsoft Office XP (except Outlook XP) support
· Adobe Photoshop 7 support
· Microsoft Access support
· Double-byte languages supported, runs Japanese, Chinese, and Korean versions of Windows applications
· Winsock2 support
· Novell Client support
· Improved video performance
· Preliminary support for DirectX
· Improved audio support
· Better integration of audio with GNOME and KDE desktops, and LTSP
· French, Italian, German, Spanish
· Windows Me support (non-upgrade, full versions only)
Price and upgrades$54.95 per use. Workgroup, site, and enterprise license discounts are available.Download: $89.99
CD: $99.99
Upgrades: Free to those who purchased 4.0 on or after 1/1/03, others pay $29.99 for an electronic license, $39.99 for boxed version.
Neither is a good solution for the long term. The fact that Evans sent me a document that I cannot use in anything but Microsoft Word is a sad testimony to how well Microsoft has locked down its document formats. Worse, contrary to what some borderline brain-dead journalists have been raving about Microsoft Office and XML, Microsoft seems to be locking down its document formats more than ever with each new version of Office rather than opening them up. As I had been predicting would be the case for years, the Microsoft XML tags simply point to proprietary objects. Without support for those objects, the documents are useless and likely to be more difficult than ever to import into foreign programs.

In the long run, it is counterproductive to try to support every new version of Microsoft Office on Linux. Each iteration keeps Linux users behind the curve, and perpetuates a document format that is likely to be encrypted beyond reach at some point or another. The best solution, therefore, is to adopt an entirely different office suite, such as OpenOffice or KOffice, and use CrossOver Office and Win4Lin as stop-gap measures to keep people productive and able to share documents while you make the switch.

More Stories By Nicholas Petreley

Nicholas Petreley is a computer consultant and author in Asheville, NC.

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