May 31, 2005

How to try out a virtual Linux desktop freely and easily

Author: Chris Preimesberger

If you're a Windows 2000 or XP user who always wanted to try out a Linux desktop but were afraid of downloading and installing software that might upset your computer, I have some good news for you. Go to a new Web site called Open Source Region Stuttgart, click on a few links, and you're in virtual Linuxland.Never has it been so easy for someone to experience Linux on the desktop. No disks, no installation. Just download a small application and start clicking away.

Germany, like Brazil and, most recently, Cuba, is making a government case out of promoting open source software to its citizens. After the original demonstration center attracted more than 100,000 German-speaking users and by far exceeded the expectations of its organizers, the English version was launched earlier this month.

The Open Source Demo Center was designed to help implement free software in industry and public administration in Germany. "We support the trend towards free software, as it reduces costs to the users and offers small and medium IT service companies promising business opportunities," said Dr. Walter Rogg, general manager of the Stuttgart Region EDC. "And since major drivers of the open source development such as HP Germany, IBM Germany, and MySQL have their German headquarters in the Stuttgart region, it just makes a lot of business sense."

Navigating the virtual desktop

When you click on the "Start Linux" link on the Open Source Region Stuttgart page from a Windows computer, you can download and invoke the 509KB demo application. It opens a full-screen window sporting a PHP version of the KDE 3.3 desktop that closely resembles a complete Linux system.

The PHP binary shows up in Task Manager as TTWEBTOP.exe and takes about 10MB of RAM to run.

Stuttgart's KDE Desktop 3.3 is equipped with the latest versions of open source applications, including the office suite, Firefox browser, Thunderbird email client, Konqueror browser, KChart, Scalable Graphics (Karbon 14), and others. The Stuttgart people said it also features the GIMP graphics program, but I couldn't find it. On the desktop when I opened it were OOo Writer, OOo Draw, OOo Calc, OOo Impress, and OOo Math. It also features a generous sampling of Debian apps, including KWord, Xedit, Nano, a Python v2.3 editor, GDB, and a ton of system tools.

Also already on the desktop was an OOo Impress/PowerPoint slide presentation describing the Stuttgart technology market.

You can open any OOo component as you would normally, create a file, and save it on the virtual desktop, though not to the Windows desktop. It comes complete with 34 fonts, including symbol fonts.

The KDE "system" even crashes as it might in real time. When I attempted to save a text file as a Word 6.0 document, an error message came up, and I was referred to the KDE Crash Handler. But when I decided to save the doc as an OOo file, it saved just fine in my Personal Files folder.

As you might imagine, everything moves a tad slower in a virtual desktop environment, but not terribly so. Firefox on this desktop worked almost identically to the way it does on Windows 2000. The major difference is that the font edges aren't as sharp as they normally are.

I set up a new email account in Thunderbird. It appeared to be starting to import my mail, but I didn't expect that it would be able to handle the amount of messages I have saved. I was right; the mail handler locked up, but no harm done.

I had to keep reminding myself that this was a demonstration site; if you wanted to get some actual work done, you wouldn't want to use this setup. For one thing, there's no printer driver included, so you're not going to be able to print anything. And when you click off the site, you lose everything you've saved.

This Stuttgart site is very like a real Linux system. I recommend it to any Windows user who is considering making the move. You won't find an easier, less painful way to get used to an open source system.

The Open Source Demo Center is part of a two-year initiative in Stuttgart called the Open Source Stuttgart Region, designed to promote Stuttgart as the European Union's answer to Silicon Valley. Other facets of the campaign include 40-plus conferences on various aspects of the movement, an Open Source Business Park, and individual consulting for commercial and public users in the region.


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