CrossOver Office bridges the Linux-Windows divide

It isn't easy being Jeremy White. As CEO of CodeWeavers , a prominent, commercial Linux software vendor, he spends more time working with the competition's products than he'd like to.

"You've got to understand," White says. "One of the most galling things in my life is that I spend all day helping people run Microsoft applications."

White's business lies in pushing Linux toward its next frontier, the desktop. But no matter how you slice it, when you talk about desktop Linux you have to accept one thing: It's a Windows world. Interoperability is the name of the game.

There are two ways to achieve Linux-Windows interoperability. One way is to develop open source software that understands Microsoft document standards and protocols. That's the route you take when you use applications like the productivity suite or the Samba networking stack.

CodeWeavers lets you choose the opposite approach. Why go through all the trouble to deploy a compatible equivalent to Microsoft Word when you can just run Word instead?

The CodeWeavers software, called CrossOver Office, is a fully supported commercial distribution of Wine, an open source project of which CodeWeavers is the leading corporate sponsor. Wine is a native Windows compatibility layer for Linux. It consists of code libraries that map Win32 function calls to the appropriate Linux or Unix system calls.

When you launch Windows software under Wine, it runs just like any other Linux program. It doesn't work every time. In fact, White suggests that you might have a 50 percent chance of success with a random, off-the-shelf Windows product. But when it does work, as it does for a growing list of officially supported applications, the results are startling.

White estimates that fully half of CodeWeavers' business comes from the enthusiast market, such as home users who want to run Outlook or QuickBooks. Another important part of its business is in custom development and consulting.

Say your company has a whole bunch of engineers who do their primary work on Linux workstations, but one particular Web application uses an ActiveX control that will only work under Internet Explorer. CodeWeavers can often get that ActiveX component running in Firefox under Linux, eliminating the need for employees to keep a second Windows desktop just to access that one application.

In addition, the latest version of CrossOver Office, released last week, includes new, proprietary technology called "bottles" that allows administrators to package Wine-compatible software as RPM (Red Hat Package Manager) files. They can then use tools such as Novell's ZENworks to centrally manage and distribute a company's in-house Visual Basic applications, just as they would any other Linux software.

Of course, all this presupposes one thing: that you're interested in running Linux on the desktop.

"To be honest, I had thought by this point in time we would have seen a higher arc in Linux demand, and I would have thought that would have driven us a lot further forward than it has," White says.

Still, White is optimistic. In the Linux business, he says, you have to be. And even if growth in desktop Linux remains slow, there's another market opportunity on the horizon. Apple's decision to move to Intel chips means Mac OS X is an ideal future target for CrossOver Office. White expects that, a year from now, the Intel Mac market will be twice the size of the Linux desktop market.

"And Mac customers spend money!" White adds wistfully. "What would that be like?"

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