A Linux OS Even Small Business Can Love

By Aaron Weiss | Posted October 13, 2005

Linux means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. From enthusiasm to intimidation to outright fear and confusion, there is no single response Linux. And there is no single Linux, which itself spawns a great deal of the surrounding confusion. For the computer developer, Linux is like a toolkit, a collection of free and powerful tools with which they can build a system that meets a particular set of needs. For the consumer, Linux itself isn't what interests you, but rather the products developers have built with it.

Xandros, a Canadian business created in the shadow of Corel, has assembled an operating system which combines a Linux-based foundation with additional technologies, some freely available, and some created by Xandros itself. They call the product Xandros Desktop OS Version 3 Business Edition, and the company hopes you will consider its $129 operating system an attractive alternative to Microsoft Windows.

There are numerous Linux-based operating systems available these days — dozens, in fact. Some are free, some are cheap, and others are priced competitively with proprietary operating systems like Windows. While Linux-based systems have earned a reputation as powerful, reliable and secure among computer professionals, they are often considered a little too technical and non-intuitive by people who just want to use the computer to get their work done.

Xandros is among a newer wave of Linux developers aiming to close that gap. Xandros Desktop OS is designed to look and respond very much like Windows. Its windows menus and included applications behave like the operating system Bill Gates built. The system includes a variety of features and tools designed specifically to be compatible with Windows, from logging onto Windows networks to running certain well-known Windows applications such as Microsoft Office.

Know Your Audience
Xandros Dekstop OS Business Edition is aimed at people who want a Windows-like experience without actually using Windows. That can mean familiarity, in operating the computer. Or it can mean compatibility, when interacting with other Windows systems, or continuing to work with files and applications you rely on in Windows. Which begs the question — so why not use Windows itself?

Xandros charges $129 where Microsoft Windows XP Professional costs about $150. Not a significant difference there. A single Xandros license allows you to install Desktop OS on one PC for "commercial use" plus an unlimited number of PC's for "non-commercial or personal use." Microsoft does not make this distinction, and requires one Windows license per machine.

For some people, the real savings accumulate over the long term. Because it is based on resource-friendly Linux, Xandros performs well on significantly lower hardware requirements than Windows. Xandros recommends at least a 450MHz Pentium or AMD processor with 256MB of RAM and 3 gigabytes of hard disk space. That's a pretty slight machine by today's three-plus gigahertz standard. While Microsoft's upcoming Vista operating system increases Windows' hardware requirements yet again, today's PC running Xandros will perform usably for a long time to come.

But the biggest allure to migrate away from Microsoft Windows is security and maintenance. For a variety of reasons ranging from popularity to design, Windows is a huge target for malicious hackers. As a result, a significant amount of resources have been devoted — and diverted — to safeguarding Windows. From frequent security updates to time and money expended on virus and spyware defenses and recovery, Windows customers find themselves spending an increasing amount of time simply protecting their work. Xandros and other Linux-based operating systems enjoy few to none of these threats and distractions.

Inside Xandros
Installing Xandros Desktop OS is a snap, particularly if you've ever installed Windows. The Business Edition includes two CDs, but the install only requires the first disc. Once Xandros is setup you can pop in the second disc, which will automatically launch Xandros' software installer with additional applications. Most of these are oriented toward people who are very experienced with Linux.

You can install Xandros on a machine that already has Windows, either side-by-side — Xandros will create a boot menu that lets you choose an operating system on boot up — or Xandros can simply replace Windows. If there is any need to choose or adjust hard drive partitions, Xandros clearly walks you through the process.

The install routine asks very few questions. There is no serial number or CD key to enter. Xandros will automatically detect most standard peripherals such as sound and network cards, including Wi-Fi adapters. Of course, the world of PC peripherals is large, so it is not possible for Xandros to have drivers for every printer, scanner, camera or other device ever made.

Xandros asks you to set a password for the administrator account, which is vital for configuring your system later. Unlike Windows, you do not use the administrator account for normal activity in Xandros — it only prompts your for certain tasks, usually when you want to change a system setting in the control panel. You'll also be prompted to create at least one user account, although later you can create as many accounts as you want.

The Xandros desktop will look very familiar and offers several prepackaged "themes" including a Windows theme and even a Macintosh theme. While the icons and fonts and buttons aren't exact replicas of their Windows (and Mac) counterparts, they're close enough not to be confusing.

It has to be said that neither Xandros nor any other Linux-based operating system that we've seen, out of the box, is quite as polished looking as Windows or especially the Mac. There's a chunky quality to the rendering of objects that lacks refinement. But this is purely aesthetic and subjective at that.

Xandros includes a powerful set of applications to get you going right away. Firefox is the default Web browser, and you have the choice of either Thunderbird or Evolution for e-mail. Both are popular open-source applications widely used in the Linux world. We prefer Thunderbird for its simplicity, but if you've used Microsoft Outlook you should feel right at home using the extensive calendaring and scheduling features available in Evolution.

Besides Web and e-mail, Xandros includes Skype for VoIP and an instant messenger that works with AOL, MSN and ICQ.

The included media players — for MP3 files, DVDs, and so forth — are functional but not wonderful to look at and not particularly feature-rich. With Xandros, productivity comes first.

The impressive Xandros Networks application makes managing your installed software a breeze. You can easily navigate and apply updates to existing software, and find new free and commercial software. It is one of the easiest software management environments we've seen for Linux, and it's far more comprehensive than Microsoft's Windows Update.

Consistent with its claim to ease configuration, Xandros includes wizards for both connecting to a VPN and for setting up a firewall, which make both of these tasks significantly easier — not just compared to other Linux-based operating systems, but to Windows, too.

Windows Migration
Besides its general Windows-like ease-of-use, Xandros Desktop OS' primary selling point is its ability to smooth migration away from Windows. For office networks, Xandros can log in to Windows NT and Active Directory domains — meaning that your workstation can run Xandros even if your network is still controlled by Windows.

Xandros automatically recognizes shared Windows folders on your local network. For example, we have a laptop that runs Windows. With Xandros installed on a desktop machine, we had no trouble browsing shared files on the Windows laptop.

Likewise, sharing and accessing a shared printer on a Windows network is a straightforward affair. Other Linux-based operating systems offer these kinds of features, but you'll spend a lot more time configuring the system. Xandros handles this stuff right out of the box.

In a nod to Windows compatibility, Xandros includes CrossoverOffice 4.2, a commercial product that's fully licensed with the Desktop OS 3 Business Edition. CrossoverOffice is a special application for installing and running certain Windows applications inside Xandros Desktop OS. It works its magic using code written to emulate Windows libraries, so that applications such as Microsoft Office and Adobe Photoshop actually "think" they're running in Windows.

Using CrossoverOffice, you can continue to use some of the applications in which you've already invested time and money. Codeweavers, the company behind CrossoverOffice, supports a limited but high profile set of applications — the aforementioned Office and Photoshop, Lotus Notes, Quicken, iTunes and Framemaker, for example. Other applications may work without support, and many will not.

Note also that CrossoverOffice support for these Windows applications is typically one or two generations behind the "real" Windows versions. It supports Microsoft Office versions 97, 2000, and XP, but not Office 2003 (yet). CrossoverOffice also supports Photoshop version 7, but not Photoshop CS and CS2 (yet). iTunes 4.7 — yes; versions 4.9 and 5 — no.

Despite those limitations and caveats, CrossoverOffice does work. You must, of course, own the original installation of the application you wish to use. In the case of Microsoft Office XP, for example, you start the CrossOver Office Setup application from Xandros' Launch menu, and then choose the option to install Office. You will be prompted for the Office XP install media, which can reside on a CD-ROM or somewhere on your network. From there, the familiar Windows installation dialogs appear, just like you were installing Office on a Windows machine.

Once completed, you can launch any of the Office XP applications — Word, Excel, Powerpoint, Frontpage — and all appear to work just like you'd expect.

Unless you're deeply attached to Microsoft Office, Xandros offers several alternatives that do not require CrossoverOffice's Windows emulation. Both StarOffice and OpenOffice — full-fledged office suites with a reasonable degree of compatibility with Microsoft Office — come included with Xandros.

On the other hand, Adobe Photoshop has no real equal on Linux, and for some, the ability to run Photoshop within Xandros — even when limited to version 7 — is invaluable (and pretty darn cool).

Xandros Redux
Xandros Desktop OS 3 Business Edition offers a Windows-like experience, but it is no knock-off. This is a fully functional operating system in its own right.

It is not for everyone. Power Linux users, for example, might want to look elsewhere. Xandros is a highly customized distribution that is not as tolerant of tweaking and tinkering as more enthusiast-oriented Linux-based operating systems. Gamers and multimedia fanatics won't find their thrills with Xandros, either.

Business-minded customers take note. Outside of specialized applications, Xandros offers all the tools you need to be productive. Between popular cross-platform applications such as the Firefox browser and support for Office, Photoshop, et al. through CrossoverOffice, Xandros offers familiar applications in a fully independent, Microsoft-free environment.

Without the threat of viruses and spyware corrupting your system, Xandros provides relief for administrators and a safe haven for offices that simply want to focus on a core set of applications to get work done.

Details

  • Available boxed or as download (or both)
  • $129 single license
  • $495 5-pack
  • Includes 90 days e-mail technical support

Aaron Weiss a technology writer, screenwriter and Web development consultant who spends his free time stacking wood for the winter in Upstate New York. His Web site is: bordella.com

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