This is the second time in as many reviews that I’ve started like this: I don’t want this to be the start of a trend. I did say in my ‘policy’ document that I didn’t want to look at very early releases of software and I stand by that.
However, sometimes you see something and, even though it doesn’t work fully, it show such great promise that you need to shout about it. WINE is such a piece of software.
What is it?
Wine allows you to run Windows applications on x86 Unix machines, Linux in this case. It should work on almost any PC based UNIX like NetBSD, UnixWare, etc. and it’s supposed to run 16- and 32-bit Windows applications, although the former are much better represented at the moment. There are some that will never work properly (the FAQ says something about VxD’s which I don’t understand).
At least, that’s what it will do. At the moment it is a developers release, not even stable enough to be called beta software. However, I’m not here to bash Wine because it’s in its early stages of development. I’m here to express how shocked I am that it’s so good!
I’ve tried a number of times in the past to make Wine, and they’ve all ended in tears. I rake around my hard disk trying to find enough space — around 50 Mb — spend ages while it compiles and then when I run it I find that there’s been a segmentation fault in 32-bit code. I don’t know what that means, only that it’s not mentioned in the FAQ and that I can’t run anything, not even Notepad.
Then the other day I decided to make one last attempt and, rather than get the source code, I got a precompiled RPM. It didn’t work at first. I had to customize it, changing the configuration file to match where my Windows 95 partition is, but nothing too arduous (or unexpected).
So, I fired it up trying to run calc.exe. I wasn’t hopeful, and the fact that it was taking 100% of CPU and seeming to get nowhere fast didn’t help. I left it chugging away and made some coffee and toast.
When I returned from the kitchen, the Windows Calculator was sat proud in the middle of my Trinitron. My jaw dropped, and the dog nearly got my toast.
Okay, the display wasn’t completely right. The text in the title bar is far too small, the buttons are in the extreme top left and right rather than in the middle of the bar, and the font on the menu bar is proportionally spaced meaning that it looks rather odd, but I suspect that this is all configurable — you can certainly tell Wine to use your window manager rather than X directly.
But it worked. I could do sums; I could change between normal and scientific mode; I could get the About box. I was stunned.
Moving onto Notepad, I found that the same was true: it worked. I trundled though a few other applets that Windows 95 comes with, many of which, at least partially, worked.
Having got the tiny programs working, I started hunting around my hard disk for new challenges. Why start small and build up, I though. ‘wine "`pwd`/winword.exe"‘ I typed. That’ll show it.
I started on my toast, figuring that it’d take a while before it gave up.
But it didn’t give up. After a worrying amount of disk activity, the Word 95 splash screen appeared. As did screens and screens full of errors in the console window. Despite the errors, Wine and Word battled on, eventually displaying the normal Word screen, tool bars, menus and all. Again, the fonts weren’t quite right and the toolbar was far too dark, but there it was. Linux running Microsoft Word 95.
Tentatively I entered some text. This worked fine — even the font rendering was spot on — until I mistyped something. Word underlined the suspect characters with a wavy red line and then crashed.
Next time I managed to get the About box (fairly simple, but with a big bitmap and a sound clip) to display, followed by the Options dialog (big with lots of tabs). A few others also worked without problem. The open dialog, however, causes Wine to exit. I guess this is because Microsoft didn’t use their own standard libraries for the task! (Let’s blame Microsoft.)
Excel works roughly as well as Word. It starts without any problems, you can enter data in the cells and auto-sum works. Many of the dialogs appear, full and correct, but save crashes the system. PowerPoint vanished shortly after completing loading and Access didn’t even get as far as the splash screen.
I was very surprised at the success that I’d had up to this point. Okay, nothing useful actually worked, but I was looking from more of a technical point of view. I did, however, find a program that worked incredibly well, something much larger than clac.exe or Notepad. The program? Maxis SimCity for Windows 1.1. (Saying that it’s useful is stretching the point, but I digress.) I play tested SimCity quite thoroughly and found that, although small parts of the screen occasionally became corrupted, everything worked. Since games are usually associated with some of the worst coding and low-level hacking around this was good. (I’m not sure whether the credit should go to the Wine team or Maxis!)
I’ll not mess around: Wine is not ready for the prime time yet and is still some way off. This is not news, the developers say this too.
What is news is that it is an incredible piece of software. A non technical user might not see this (unless they want to play SimCity), but anyone who has written a non-trivial program can see what an incredible achievement Wine is.