May 28, 2002

Windows XP doesn't like to share with Linux

- By Robin "Roblimo" Miller -
At first I thought it was just me. I bought my wife a new Compaq laptop (on sale at an insanely low price) with Windows XP pre-installed. We decided it might be nice to keep a Windows partition on it, besides Linux for everyday use, so we could have Microsoft IE and the Windows versions of Navigator, Opera and Mozilla handy for Web site tests. We already had a Mac, so this would let us view sites in all major operating systems, in all major browsers. But I had trouble getting XP to coexist with Linux. It turns out that I am not alone. XP simply doesn't like to share a hard drive with another operating system.
I am a simpleminded Linux user, not good with Windows, which is obviously designed for computer geeks, not for end users like me. It had been quite a while since I had dealt with Windows, and that time it was some mutant form called "Mimi" after the Drew Carey show character, I think. Or maybe it was just one "Me." Either way, it was a bad experience I tried to blank out with the help of cheap bourbon. Still, I recall that in the end I gave up on the "Windows Mimi" or whatever it was called, wiped it off the hard drive and stuck to regular, easy-to-use Linux. The laptop that came with "Windows Mimi" is the HP Pavilion 5340 I am using right now. Although I had trouble with the Mimi thing it came with, I have never had any trouble running Linux on it. I swear, HP would have been better off shipping this thing either with Linux pre-installed or no OS at all, but you know how those deals go between Microsoft and the computer manufacturers they have enslaved. Fah!

At least I had no trouble getting Mimi Windows and Linux to work side by side. (My Mimi problems had to do with drivers and other software.) But XP resisted the basic installation. I did what I had done successfully in the past: I wiped the hard drive and installed Linux, leaving a nice big FAT32 partition to hold Windows, right up front (because Windows doesn't like to be number two to another operating system, you know), then tried to reinstall XP from the "restore" CDs, which are all Microsoft and its slave companies feel you deserve these days instead of a complete, transferrable operating system.

XP automatically formatted my Linux partitions and installed itself right over them. I tried again. Same thing. I did another Linux install, but left the front half of the hard drive unformatted. Again, total takeover. Finally, in disgust, I went to the closest store that sells software -- Staples -- and grabbed a copy of Partition Commander, a program that is neither free nor Free, and used it to partition my hard drive and "hide" the Linux partition from the Redmond-created monstrosity that so aggressively monopolized my computer when left to its own devices.

You'd think that if Microsoft's talk about how its products are so much better than the competition had any truth to it, the company would want people like me to try XP and Linux side by side so we could see how much nicer and more stable its stuff is than that commie home-made patched-together hacker hobbyist Linux junk. But instead Microsoft chose to have XP extend itself to my Linux partition, then embrace it, and finally extinguish it.

The funny thing is, at first I really thought this was a problem I alone was having, that perhaps people who are skilled in the ways of Windows knew some cool trick to make XP behave. But I started noticing other tech journalists mentioning the same problem. Many of them, of course, blamed Linux for it, and used this as another chance to pontificate about how Linux might be okay for ordinary people, someday, if it were only easier to install, set up, and use.

I find Linux plenty easy to install, set up, and use, thank you. It's Windows that's hard, and this latest XP wrinkle makes it even harder. I also find this XP "feature" downright mean, and -- in my mind at least -- anticompetitive.

Not once, in reading many articles about the Microsoft antitrust trial's penalty phase, nor in reading many days' worth of the actual trial transcripts, have I seen XP's "take over your whole hard drive" behavior mentioned. There's been a little talk about how Microsoft has made it hard in a busines sense for computer manufacturers to offer BeOS alongside Windows, and a lot about how Microsoft has made it hard for companies like Real and AOL to offer software on a Windows XP computer that competes with anything Microsoft makes, but nothing about XP's bullying behavior toward other operating systems.

I wonder if Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly knows or cares about this problem. If so, it might color her ruling. (Or it might not; it's hard to tell with federal judges.)

I also wonder if the upcoming Service Pack for XP that will supposedly make it easier for users to choose non-Microsoft email, Web browsing, instant messaging, and multimedia software will address the dual-boot problem. Supposedly Microsoft is releasing this Service Pack specifically to address antitrust concerns, so one would hope so.

If not, there's always the Partition Commander trick. And I'm sure new Linux distribution releases will contain XP workarounds of some sort, because part of life in a computer world where one company's software runs over 90% of all desktops is finding ways around the restrictions and defects that company builds into its software, as witnessed by the endless shelves full of "utility" programs in every computer store whose only purpose is to overcome Windows problems.


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