April 16, 2003

CEO conversation: Jim Curtin of Win4Lin publisher NeTraverse

- By Robin 'Roblimo' Miller -
Jim Curtin, President and CEO of Win4Lin publisher NeTraverse, says, "We're seeing people who've moved to Linux workstations and are finding they have a 20% gap on average between the functionality they're used to in a Windows environment and what they get in Linux." Curtin claims Win4Lin is the best way to bridge that 20% gap; that with Win4Lin it is almost as easy to upgrade from Windows 98 to Linux as it is to upgrade to Windows 2000 or XP; and that it is almost always less expensive to go the Linux route.

The problem with Linux on the desktop right now, Curtin maintains, is that many people and businesses are dependent on one or two Windows apps for which Linux equivalents aren't available. Sure, Wine will help you run some Windows applications under Linux, but it won't run Dreamweaver or Photoshop or AutoCad or that little specialty desktop publishing program your aunt uses to make cute business cards for all her friends. And, according to Curtin, the huge number of Windows APIs and the huge number of Windows specialty programs out there (not to mention new ones constantly being developed) make it unlikely that Wine -- even the excellent commercial Codeweavers version -- will ever run them all.

VMware? Sure. It's out there, and it works, but Curtin notes that it costs a lot more than Win4Lin (like $299 vs. $89.99 for the two products' respective workstation editions), and -- unlike Win4Lin -- runs Windows 20% to 30% slower than normal on most systems. On the other hand, VMware works with Windows 2000 and XP, something the current version of Win4Lin can't do; it is limited to 95/98/ME.

Corporate baby steps toward Linux

The big market for Win4Lin isn't home users. It's enterprise users who are still using Windows 95 or 98 (more than 400 million home and office PCs still run Windows 95 or 98) and don't necessarily want to stay on the Windows upgrade path, but can't get rid of all their Windows applications quite yet.

A hidden factor in many corporate Linux migration discussions -- that Curtin knows full well is a big motive behind some of them -- is to use Linux as a bargaining chip with Microsoft. When a significant enterprise customer can tell his or her Microsoft rep, "We have Linux running successfully on 250 of our 2500 desktops, and we're using Win4Lin to run critical Windows apps on 20 of those desktops until equivalent native Linux apps mature, so a lack of Linux applications isn't a problem for us," that customer is in a great bargaining position. The Microsoft rep has a choice between giving a significant discount and losing that customer.

And even with deep Microsoft discounts, if that enterprise customer decides to go to a Linux-based server/client desktop system with "no maintenance" desktop terminals, the Microsoft solution will almost certainly be more expensive, especially if costs are factored over a period of three years or more and include sysadmin time and expense. In this case, Win4Lin Terminal Server 2.0 can ease the transition. Some of the sales copy for it says:

By deploying Win4Lin Terminal Server 2.0, organizations can use their existing Window licenses and hardware, reducing costs and increasing productivity by migrating to a more reliable, cost-effective and high-performance computing platform that gives users the power to access their data anytime, anywhere.

See the trick here? The enterprise customer already has plenty of licenses for Windows and other Microsoft products, and just runs them on a single server instead of individual desktops, which cuts admin costs like mad. Users still have their familiar applications available, so the initial cost of retraining them is nearly zero, and native Linux applications can be added and Windows-based products deleted gradually, one program at a time, so the switch to Linux and a client/server network never disrupts operations. Sure, one or two sysadmins had better be (or become) familiar with Linux, but if all of a company's desktops become maintenance-free (or nearly so; just swap out any broken ones, plug in replacements, and go away) fewer sysadmins are needed.

You can perform similar tricks with Windows end-to-end, but it takes not only expensive Windows server licenses, but usually requires (proprietary) software like Citrix to tie the clients to the server.

Why bother when Linux costs so much less? We have no idea. Obviously, though, some do bother, but this is an area where Linux is making inroads like mad, especially in companies and other organizations where only a few desktop users need to use Windows-based software and the rest either use single-purpose custom applications or can do all their work with native general-purpose Linux applications like StarOffice and Mozilla.)

A business that won't last forever

Curtin says, "NeTraverse aims to be a good Linux citizen." He points first to the way Win4Lin shares Linux resources while it's running on a user's machine, whether PC or server. But it goes beyond that. The company has an active LUG sponsorship program, and many of its employees are involved with Linux advocacy and activism. More Linux in the world leads inevitably to more native Linux applications, which will eventually kill the market for software that lets you run Windows applications in Linux. In other words, the more successful NeTraverse is at helping organizations and individuals migrate to Linux, the sooner its products will become obsolete.

Curtin is not worried about this. He points out that it is probably going to be at least three to five years before there are enough Linux-native specialty applications to make Win4Lin totally redundant. "If we're out of this part of our business in three years, then so be it," he says.

Meanwhile, Win4Lin is being used as a Linux migration aid by school systems from Virginia to Wisconsin to The Netherlands, and by plenty of big companies including Oracle and AT&T. And Curtin expects to see even more massive migration to Linux in the future than we're seeing already, with or without help from Win4Lin.

"Linux has tremendous momentum," he says. "It's unstoppable. The big question is who is going to [corporately] benefit from it the most. Today IBM is reluctant to say it's a desktop thing. I would like to see IBM a little more uneqivocal about it, and I'd like to see Sun move a little faster.

"Sun has the best anti-Microsoft creds," Curtin notes. And he worries that IBM may not be quite as committed to Linux as they'd like us to think. Sure, they're pouring money into Linux development. But, Curtin reminds us, "IBM sells more Microsoft product than anyone else in the world."

Sun's and IBM's Linux squabbles aside, Win4Lin is a pretty good answer to the perennial "How do I run Windows apps without rebooting from Linux into Windows?" question. We've had glitch-free success with every Windows application we've tested under Win4Lin except for audio-based programs like Dragon Naturally Speaking and Music MasterWorks, which it does not claim to support.

Future versions of Win4Lin will support Windows 2000 and XP, and Curtin says NeTraverse is also considering "enhanced NetWare support for network clients. People need that bridge [to Linux] too. We're looking at what it'll take to do that."

Curtin uses the word "bridge" almost constantly. It is at the heart of his sales pitch, where he keeps talking of the "chasm" between Windows and Linux. Indeed, his whole "Why you should buy Win4Lin" spiel can be boiled down to these few words:

"We help you bridge that chasm, not leap over it."

Until, of course, we are all on the Linux side of the chasm, and there is no one left to leap -- or take a bridge -- over it. But we'll worry about that problem if and when it comes, which it almost certainly won't for at least five or six years.

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