Monday, May 25, 2009

Linux Monday: A Glass of WINE

Linux Monday: A Glass of WINE

The biggest problem most people have with making The Big Move from Windows to Linux, indeed the problem I had, is the One Critical App. Yes, you say, the cost is great, the security is better, the use of resources is better, I even like the open source philosophy. But there's this one program I absolutely can't live without, and it won't work.

For me, Microsoft Access was the deal breaker. I'd checked out Open Office, the open source community's main office suite, in Windows. And while the word processor and spreadsheet (and as I later found the slide show) worked just fine with my legacy windows files, Open Office Base was useless to me. I had a decade plus of legacy data locked into Access -- custom reports, countless queries, million record data tables -- and without Access I couldn't budge.

I settled for dual-boot for a while, gradually moving more and more of my work to Linux, getting more and more comfortable there, until my Windows partition was just that place I booted to occasionally for some database work.

But my open source ideology and stubbornness got the better of me, and despite my sobriety I got some WINE.

The name WINE is an inside joke--it allegedly stands for WINE Is Not an Emulator. The program allows you to, after a fair amount of tweaking, run Windows programs on a Linux system. It's a controversial issue within the open-source community. Like libertarians arguing whether we should privatize the streetlights now or later, open sourcers disagree in whether the community is better served by the tough love of breaking Microsoft addiction cold turkey, or by using the nicotine patch of WINE to ease people's withdrawal and overcome their fear of transition.

Working with WINE is a multi-step process and is for the committed. You start by installing the WINE program itself from the repository. You then need to open up WINE and install the Windows programs themselves from whatever software source you have (for example, your Microsoft Office disks).

WINE is under constant development and is very version-sensitive. And it supports some programs but not others. I failed with iTunes, and Photoshop doesn't work either. Be prepared to do some Googling to get things to work.

Once you do get things working, you don't on the surface "run WINE." A Windows Programs entry appeared on my desktop menu with Excel and Access and all the usual suspect (even Internet Exploder and Windows Media Player). You just run them like any other program and WINE works under the hood.

My install appeared to go successfully and I could open Excel and Access, but when I tried to open an actual file in Excel or Access the program would crash. Eventually I got my big database to work, but when I checked it out again back in Windows, the file was corrupted. My most recent work was lost, but fortunately I wasn't too long past a backup.

So I seemed to be stalled and went back, chastened, to the occasional Windows boot until I met Crossover.

Crossover Office really isn't in the open source spirit. It's based on WINE but contains additional, proprietary code and costs money. They had a free download day last fall, when I grabbed it, but normally each version--Crossover Linux, Crossover Mac and Crossover Games--is $39.95. I'd call it good value for the money.

Setting up Crossover is pretty similar to WINE: install the program itself, then add the apps. But once that was done, I was in, without a lot of post-install tweaking. Access is working fine, and once I determined that I quit working in Windows once and for all. I occasionally boot it up, but all I do in Windows is... maintain Windows: run the updates, update the firewall, update the antivirus. You know, all the stuff I don't have to think about in Linux.

The only problem I've had is saving in Excel. When I open a file that's saved as .xls, it tells me I have it open as read-only. My next step is making my system open .xls files by default as Open Office, rather than with Crossover-backed Excel.

In other tips: Ubuntu fans have been grumbling about the way Jaunty Jackalope deals with update notification. This tip shows you how to set it back to the way it worked in 8.10 and before, with an arrow in the tray. It's one line of command-line voodoo:
gconftool -s --type bool /apps/update-notifier/auto_launch false

Reboot and the next time you get an update, the friendly old arrow is there. Worked for me.

Another thing I've been playing with is Fluxbox, a minimalist desktop designed for use on low-resource machines. Low-resource distribution Damn Small Linux uses Fluxbox, but it's readily availible in the Ubuntu repositories as well (open Synamptic Package Manager and search on fluxbox).

It's not as user-intuitive as "pretty" desktops like GNOME, KDE and xfce; you have to right-click on it to pull up your menus, and the font is something old, monospaced terminal-looking thing. But on my main laptop, where I normally use GNOME, it automatically included menu items for all the apps (despite scary-sounding menu editing instructions that I didn't need to try). A little tweaking makes it look OK, and if you're using this on a higher end machine it's about performance not looks. I'm running Fluxbox on one of my old backup machines where the goal is to detect as many space aliens as possible, and where I plug in a monitor once a week or so just to make sure the thing's still running.


Anonymous said...

Wine is not Crossover. Crossover is not Wine.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the mention of CrossOver--we really appreciate it!

Best Wishes,

-jon parshall-

Vanity Vertigo said...

Openbox is honestly worth a try if you're checking out Fluxbox. In my opinion Openbox is much more polished. There are also central configuration applications like obconf for general settings/themes, obmenu for menu editing, and obkey for keyboard shortcut. By the way you'll have to use your own panel though, Openbox doesn't include one (which is a good thing). PyPanel is a good choice.

ps. *box window managers can look just as pretty as full DE's if you use good themes and fonts.