Jeff Duntemann's Contrapositive Diary Rotating Header Image

November 9th, 2008:

Crossover Linux

Crossover Linux has been on my list for a long time, and I might not yet have bought it except for a peculiarly ascerbic but brilliant promotion that the notoriously eccentric company did prior to the recent election. I downloaded the 25 MB shell script installer, got the serial number by registering at their site, and finally last night I brought up Intrepid Ibex and and gave it a shot.

I boggle. This is Unix? No, this is not Unix, and it's not Kansas either. I had the shell script on a thumb drive. I inserted the thumb drive, waited for Ubuntu to toss up a window with the script file visible, then right-clicked on the script and selected “Run in Terminal.” It ran. It unpacked itself, installed, integrated itself with the menus, and then brought up the installation wizard to install Windows apps. That's when the real amazement began.

Crossover Linux is a commercial implemention of WINE, and both Crossover and WINE are Windows API emulation wrappers within which software written specifically for Windows will run unaltered as though it were native. It sounds like a virtual machine mechanism but it's not. It's a clean-room implementation of the Win32 API set as defined in ECMA-234, plus other odds and ends that Windows apps need to run. Codeweavers has written a lot of the emulation code itself, and it sells the package (for $40—hardly a fortune) but it also contributes heavily to the free WINE project, and the consensus among everybody but a few grouches is that we all win.

What Codeweavers does is important: They single out a selection of the most-wanted Windows apps, and they work specifically on their implementation to fully support those apps. They offer tech support to registered customers for those apps they list as “supported.” (These include Microsoft Office and numerous other Microsoft apps, Adobe Photoshop, Acrobat 5, Indesign CS2, Lotus Notes, Quicken, Framemaker, and some odds and ends that I'm not familiar with.) Other Windows apps may be installed under Crossover (and WINE) but they are not guaranteed to work.

I didn't have a lot of time last night to spend on it, but I'll summarize what I did. I first wanted to see what Crossover could do at its best. So I began by installing Microsoft Office 2000, figuring that that was probably the most-requested and intensely debugged of all the supported Crossover apps. And it was a boggler: The installation Wizard spun the Office CD, then lurked in the background while the MS installer did its thing, popping up only occasionally to ask me for guidance, such as what bottle the software should go in. (More on that shortly.) Eventually it sticks an icon on the desktop and calls the job done.

It was uncanny. Office works perfectly under Crossover, and I spent half an hour loading various documents and trying various things, with nary a glitch or a hesitation. Wow. Just wow. I then went for a tougher supported install: Visio 2000. Visio does all kinds of weird stuff and reboots Windows twice during the install, but zoom! It cooked along, and twice I noticed a small Crossover window in the corner of the screen informing me that it was emulating a Windows reboot. Heh. But once all the kafeuthering was over, Visio had an icon on the Ubuntu desktop, and I was drawing a regenerative receiver with my jaw hanging open. Double wow.

Office and Visio going in without a glitch made a believer out of me. So I then went for the wild side, and selected an unsupported app: The SureThing CD Labeler 4 , which is a fine and venerable utility that I've been using under Windows for seven or eight years now. The app is listed as “untested” in the Codeweavers database, so it was the perfect choice. And it went it just fine, though I put it in its own bottle, as Crossover recommends. Alas, although it runs, when you create a new label file and click the Finish button in the create wizard, the entire app just goes poof and vanishes. So not everything works, even relatively simple apps that have been around for awhile. Emulating the Windows morass is not a simple nor easy thing to do.

Now, bottles. A “bottle” in WINE/Crossover talk is an independent set of configurable Windows parameters upon which one or more Windows apps draw when installed under Crossover. It allows an unruly app to have carnal knowledge of Windows internals without messing up other installed apps. You can install multiple apps in the same bottle, but when you install an unsupported and untested app, it's best to give it its own playground and put a high fence around it.

I'n not done testing Crossover by any means. Next up is Indesign 2, which is not a supported app but gets an “honorable mention,” which probably means it shows up when called and after that, we'll see. Family Tree Maker is another Honorable Mention, and QuickView Plus (which I use to open ancient word processing files like Wordstar and WordPerfect) isn't even listed. I'll let you know how it goes.

However, I was poleaxed by how well Office and Visio worked, given that Microsoft isn't well-known for respecting its own APIs. You can give up Windows and not give up Office, and as time goes on and the Crossover and WINE gang sort the glitches out, you will have to give up less and less. Highly recommended.