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Choosing an upgrade path from Windows 98
by Michael C. Barnes (Apr. 15, 2005)

Foreword: In this tutorial-style article, Michael C. Barnes outlines a strategy to avoid costly upgrades from Windows 98 to Windows XP -- in terms of both hardware and software -- by upgrading to Linux, instead. Barnes reviews the typical requirements of computers used for relatively generic purposes, and shows how to give a new lease on life to aging laptops and PCs by replacing obsolete OSes such as Windows 98 with a combination of Linux, free open source applications, and inexpensive commercial software.

Choosing an upgrade path from Windows 98
by Michael C. Barnes

Some estimates show that 27 percent of all Windows-based PCs are running Windows 98. It's no wonder, then, that Microsoft has bowed to consumer pressure and said it will extend support for Windows 98 until June 2006. While Microsoft would like to see customers upgrade every two to three years, corporate users prefer a longer life-cycle of five to eight years.

Although Windows XP is a major improvement over Windows 98, upgrading to XP isn't just a matter of paying the money and installing the software. Windows XP requires a much more robust computer than does Windows 98.

The Linux alternative

This article outlines a strategy to avoid costly upgrades from Windows 98 to Windows XP (in terms of both hardware and software), by upgrading to Linux, instead. Basically, the article provides a "how-to" on using some of the existing software that currently runs on Microsoft Windows, combined with a number of freely available Linux applications.

The first step is to evaluate the hardware platform. For systems with 128 MB RAM or more, it is possible to use a KDE- or Gnome-based Linux. Systems with 64 MB or less should use a more parsimonious Windowing system such as IceWM or XFCE4.

My preferred Linux distribution is SimplyMEPIS. SimplyMEPIS is available as a free download from MEPIS is based on Debian, which makes it very easy to upgrade. It is distributed on a live CD, which means you can boot it up and test it on your hardware platform quite easily.

SimplyMEPIS desktop environment
(Click to enlarge)

CrossOver Office

CodeWeavers CrossOver Office is a commercial approach that can be used to run many existing Microsoft Windows based applications on top of Linux. The product sells for the very reasonable price of $39.95 for, the standard download. It supports a wide variety of Microsoft Windows programs including Microsoft Office, Internet Explorer, Lotus Notes, Quicken, Quickbooks, Photoshop, Visio, and many others.

CrossOver Office is easy to install and configure, and the $39.95 purchase price includes six months of support. The product automates the installation and use many of the most popular Microsoft Windows programs. The programs CodeWeavers claims to support work quite well.


Wine is an implementation of the Microsoft Windows API (application programming interface) running on top of X Windows. Wine will run many Windows applications on Linux or Unix.

Wine's name means "Wine is not an emulator." Because Wine does not emulate the Intel x86 processor, it runs Windows applications at native speeds. Wine might add a slightly longer startup time, but once the application is up and running, it should be as fast as running on a native Microsoft Windows-based system.

Actually, CrossOver Office is based on Wine. CrossOver Office includes a series of scripts and wizards that make it very easy to get some Microsoft Windows programs running. However, Wine can be used on its own, and many Windows programs will run just fine. Some Windows programs require the use of tricks to get them to run under Wine. Even then, some of the applications that run via Wine might not run perfectly.

There are at least two free downloads that make make it easy to load some Microsoft Windows applications. The most interesting one for me is Internet Explorer. Although I prefer Firefox to Internet Explorer, some websites won't work unless you use Microsoft Internet Explorer. In those cases, it's a good idea to have Internet Explorer available on Linux.

There are two free programs that make it easy to load and run Internet Explorer and a number of other Windows programs on top of Linux. These are WineTools and Sidenet.

In order to use either of these programs, you will need to have Wine installed first. If you start with ProMEPIS, Wine is already installed. If you start with SimplyMEPIS, you will need to download Wine. Future versions of ProMEPIS will not install Wine but will include it on a second CD with optional software.

Getting Wine

Debian uses a very powerful set of tools known as apt-get, to allow you to easily upgrade and manage your applications. A good source of information on apt-get can be found here.

The first task is to download and install Wine using apt-get. To start, as root, type apt-get update. Follow this by apt-get install wine. This will install two programs, wine and libwine. You should use apt-get install to also install the following:
  • wine-utils
  • winesetup
  • and msttcorefonts
Once you have used apt-get to install the required applications, you should then go here and download the tar.tgz file.

Installing Wine Tools

Type gunzip winetools-210jo.tar.gz followed by tar -xvf winetools-210jo.tar.

This will create a directory called winetools. Change to the winetools directory. You should read the README.txt for complete instructions. It will instruct you to become root and copy all the files in your winetools directory to /usr/local/winetools.

As super user, type mkdir /usr/local/winetools.

The easiest way to copy the files from your winetool directory to the /usr/local/winetools directory you just created is to type konqueror, and then use Konqueror to copy the files. You will need to go to the winetools directory, which is probably in your /home/(your user name) directory. Copy all the files to /usr/local/winetools.

Now, you need to create a couple of links. To do that, type these commands:
  • ln -sf /usr/local/winetools/wt210jo /usr/local/bin/wt

  • ln -sf /usr/local/winetools/findwine /usr/local/bin/findwine

  • and then start wine tools with the command wt
You will get a series of prompts. Simply select "OK," "proceed," and "dismiss" to get rid of these prompts. Follow the Wine instructions.

Another procedure to install Wine Tools on MEPIS Linux or any other Debian-based distribution is more straightforward. A very good set of instructions on how to install wine from the APT repository is available here. Basically, you can use apt-get install to install winetools.

While Winetools worked for me, it was not completely straightforward. I was able to install Internet Explorer, but the process didn't create any links or icons.

Winetools works by creating a dot directory, ".wine." All programs and files for Windows-based programs can be found by looking in the .wine directory.

Sidenet Wine Configuration Utility

Winetools borrows from the Sidenet wine configuration utility. Sidenet does a very good job installing Microsoft Explorer 6 SP1. Winetools installs DCOM by default. Without this, some programs, including Internet Explorer will not work properly. DCOM requires the users to have a legal copy of Microsoft Windows to install the package. Therefore, the user is required to manually download DCOM by typing WINEDLLOVERRIDES="ole32=n" wine dcom98.exe.

In addition to installing Internet Explorer, other programs you can install with Sidenet are:
  • Windows Media Player 7.0
  • MSN Messenger 6
  • Real Player 10
Sidenet also installs a few useful utilities from Reactos. These include a file manager, a notepad, and a Minesweeper-like game.

A Wine recommendation

I spent a lot of time with both the Sidenet Wine configuration utility and Winetools. Both are excellent for what they can do, but both can be frustrating. Either of these tools is worth trying if you have one or two Microsoft Windows programs you want to try to run on Linux. If all you want is to have occasional access to Internet Explorer, either program will probably work. However, if you expect to use Microsoft Windows packages such as Microsoft Office, Microsoft Outlook, Microsoft Visio, or Adobe Photoshop, then I suggest you go ahead and purchase CrossOver Office.

I had hoped to be able to report that either Sidenet or Winetools would have worked as well as CrossOver Office, but that is not the case. CodeWeavers CrossOver Office works almost flawlessly. I have tested it on virtually every Linux distribution I have ever installed, and I have never found it to have a problem.

Getting a system going

For individuals or organizations that have an older computer with limited RAM and an older processor, it would be very easy to build a platform to support legacy Microsoft Windows applications on one of the small Linux distributions such as Damn Small Linux or Feather Linux.

If you use one of the techniques above to install Internet Explorer and Windows Media Player, you will be able to play Windows Media Player formatted files. It is also possible to play these files by installing the appropriate codecs.

It is also possible to use SimplyMEPIS on computers with less than 128 MB RAM by choosing an alternative window manager. The default window manager in SimplyMEPIS is KDE. KDE is a great window manager, but it typically requires at least 128 MB to run, and it also requires a fairly modern processor.

Instead, you can install IceWM using either the Synaptic Package Manager or apt-get install. Install the following three programs:
  • icewm
  • icewm-common
  • icewm-themes
To select IceWM, quit the current session and exit to the KDM login page. Select "Menu" and under "session," type select icewm.

IceWM dressed up to look like Microsoft Windows XP
(Click to enlarge)

Add Marillat to your /etc/apt/sources.list file to be able to download Debian versions of Mplayer along with its associated utilities and codecs. As root, type apt-get install w32codecs.

Please note

As of March 19, 2005, legislation in the European Union has impacted the availability of Mplayer and other applications that are suspected of violating software patents.

Reading and writing PDFs

Most Windows 98 users are familiar with Adobe Acrobat Reader. Most Linux distributions include xpdf or some other open source PDF reader. Nevertheless, there are many reasons why offering new Linux users a familiar package will ease their transition from Windows 98 to Linux. Simply Mepis 3.3 and later include Acrobat Reader.

Using apt-get, it is easy to install the appropriate files for Acrobat Reader. There are three files needed, namely: acroread, acroread-debian-files, and acroread-plugin. As apt-get will install all the files necessary to support an application, you only need to type apt-get install acroread-plugin and all three required files be installed.

One of the benefits of working with Linux is that creating PDF files is very easy. OpenOffice includes the ability to generate PDF files. One of the options in the file menu is to create a PDF file ("Export as PDF").

Adobe Acrobat Reader running on Linux
(Click to enlarge)

Thin Clients

One of the problems of migrating from Windows is the fact that many core business systems run on Windows 2000 or Windows 2003 servers. It is possible to use applications running on these servers by using SimplyMEPIS or some other Linux distribution in a "thin client" mode.

This can be accomplished by means of an Open Source package called rdesktop, which is included in many Linux distributions. Rdesktop allows the Linux system to function as a remote console (terminal) to the server system. In this manner, you can access and run programs on the Linux system (the thin client) that are actually located on (and execute on the processor of) a Windows 2000 server. It's called client-server computing.

It is possible to use rdesktop from a terminal window, but its command line interface is not very intuitive. The best graphical front-end for rdesktop that I have tested is grdesktop. Simply Mepis 3.3 now includes grdestkop. To add grdesktop to older versions of SimplyMEPIS, just type apt-get install grdesktop. It is possible to create links to different servers, and then create links to these servers on the desktop.

I frequently use my laptop wirelessly, and access the Windows XP server that is my office. This allows me to have access to all the files and devices on my Microsoft Windows XP system from anywhere in my house.

Microsoft Windows running on the author's Linux desktop via rdesktop
(Click to enlarge)

Using the thin client approach, each user is legally required to have a license to log into a Microsoft Windows Server. However, the per-user cost of multiple licenses to log into a Windows XP server is lower than the cost of purchasing an individual copy of Microsoft Windows XP. Furthermore, having users use Linux for personal productivity and email is an excellent security practice.

Linux Applications

So far, this article has focused on the use of legacy Microsoft Windows applications on Linux. The first approach was to use Wine or one of its variations to run Microsoft Windows applications directly on Linux. The second approach was to use run Microsoft Windows applications from a server, using a Linux system as a thin client.

Ultimately, the best way to use Linux is to use applications that run natively on Linux. Many of these applications are Open Source, though some are commercial. Many tasks can be accomplished without any difficulties using the applications that are installed as part of SimplyMEPIS or other popular Linux distributions. Below, we consider some of the most important requirements for the major applications you'll need -- Web browsing, email, messaging, and office automation.

Browsing the Web

SimplyMEPIS installs Konqueror and Firefox by default. Firefox is derived from the browser-only component of the Mozilla Suite. Firefox has recently been growing in popularity against Microsoft Internet Explorer on Microsoft Windows. Its user base has grown to between 10 and 15 percent market share, by some estimates.

Both Firefox and Konqueror are very good browsers. Opera is also available for Linux. Opera is available as a commercial version or as a free version with advertising.


Linux offers many options for email clients.

A very good light-weight email package is Sylpheed. Sylpheed is compatible with most popular email protocols and offers an amazingly complete email experience considering how small a program it is. Sylpheed is very similar in appearance to Outlook Express. It's based on the GTK+ GUI toolkit, so it will run on all versions of Linux. Sylpheed is the standard email client for several compact Linux distributions.

The standard email client that comes with SimpyMEPIS is Kmail. Kmail is now part of a suite of software called Kontact. Kontact includes mail, contacts, to do list, calendar, notes, and RSS feeds. Kmail is now my email client of choice.

Mozilla, or the standalone Mozilla-based email package Thunderbird, is also an excellent email client choice. Thunderbird is now my preferred email client on my Microsoft Windows-based systems.

Evolution, part of the GNOME family, is another Outlook-like email client. Evolution actually looks and feels more mature than Outlook. One of Evolution's features is built-in support for synchronizing data with PalmOS PDAs. Also, Novell offers Connector, a commercial product that allows Evolution users to connect directly with Microsoft Exchange servers. Connector was recently released as open source software under the GPL.

Some organizations trying to migrate to Linux find it a challenge to migrate away from Microsoft Exchange Server. This is particularly true for organizations dependent on Exchange server's calendar functions or organizations supporting Blackberry personal devices. These organizations might want to check out Scalix, a commercial server-based product that provides Web-based Microsoft Outlook functionality.

Office Automation

OpenOffice is a virtual drop-in replacement for Microsoft Office. I have been using OpenOffice for over three years, and during that time, I have not found any problems using it as a complete replacement for Microsoft Office. OpenOffice does not yet include an integrated database. However, OpenOffice 2.0 will include one.

OpenOffice, like Microsoft Office, is a somewhat large and, to some extent, bloated program. People who don't use presentation software or only occasionally use spreadsheets, might be better served with Abiword. AbiWord loads faster and runs faster than OpenOffice. AbiWord features filters for most popular word processing formats, including Microsoft Office and Open Office.

AbiWord has evolved a lot. As recently as last year, I found AbiWord frustrating to use. I found a lot of problems using existing Microsoft files that didn't translate properly. However, the newest versions of AbiWord are greatly improved.

Puppy Linux is a complete Linux distribution that includes Abiword and many other utilities that can fit on a business-card-sized CDRW or on a 64 MB or larger USB thumb drive. In fact, Puppy Linux incluces a utility that can be used to create a complete, bootable Puppy Linux thumb drive. It is possible to copy your files onto a document folder on the Puppy Linux based thumb drive so that you can carry a bootable Linux distribution -- including your important files -- with you!

Heavy spreadsheet users might want to experiment with Gnumeric. I have read several articles that claim that Gnumeric is more compatible with Excel and and is a more comprehensive spreadsheet. Gnumeric is part of Gnome's standard office distribution so if you install Gnumeric using apt-get install, you will get a lot of packages from Gnome to support Gnumeric.

It is possible to install AbiWord and Gnumeric, and then use apt-get remove openoffice to get rid of OpenOffice.

Some users -- particularly business users -- might prefer to use a commercial package. As pointed out earlier, CrossOver Office supports Microsoft Office 97, 2000, and XP. Sidenet and WineTools support Office 97 and Office 2000.

Another alternative is StarOffice, from Sun Microsystems. StarOffice is the commercial version of OpenOffice. In comparison to OpenOffice, StarOffice provides a commercial grade spelling program, includes more templates and clip art, and offers online Web-based training.

Yet another option is software from SoftMaker. The company sells a software suite that includes a word processor and spreadsheet that are billed as fully compatible with Microsoft Office. I have tested SoftMaker's TextMaker and PlanMaker on Linux, and both programs load very quickly. SoftMaker offers a free Linux version of PlanMaker that you can download.


There are many messaging programs available for Linux. Yahoo offers a version of its free Yahoo Messenger for Linux. There are other programs dedicated to specific instant messenging protocols. For example, AMSN works with Microsoft Messenger.

Gaim is a multi-protocol instant messaging (IM) client for Linux, BSD, MacOS X, and Windows. It is compatible with AIM and ICQ (Oscar protocol), MSN Messenger, Yahoo!, IRC, Jabber, Gadu-Gadu, SILC, GroupWise Messenger, and Zephyr networks.

SimplyMEPIS comes with both Gaim and Skype installed. Skype is the incredibly popular voice over IP (VoIP) program that is built on peer-to-peer technology. The only instant messenger I use is Yahoo, so I simply downloaded Yahoo for Debian Linux and installed it. The packages that I use the most are Yahoo and Skype.

Skype and Yahoo Messenger running on SimplyMEPIS using the IceWM window manager
(Click to enlarge)

While Microsoft has been phasing out NetMeeting, some users of Microsoft Windows 98 might still be using this application for video teleconferencing and messaging. GnomeMeeting is an Open Source video conferencing software that is fully compatible with Microsoft NetMeeting. The next version of GnomeMeeting will also add support for the increasingly popular SIP VoIP protocol. This will allow you to use GnomeMeeting with free services such as Free World Dialup or one of the many commercial companies offering VoIP over SIP.


I have run my businesses with Linux desktops for over six years. What I have learned from experience is that most of the arguments against moving to Linux are based on false assumptions, whereas most of the reasons for moving to Linux are real.

However, even in my company, some of the employees still use Microsoft Windows. These employees need Microsoft Windows because they are using professional software that only runs on Windows.

This article is designed to give encouragement and instruction to organizations who have people who use computers for more generic functions, and are currently running an obsolete version of Microsoft Windows -- namely, Windows 98 or Windows ME.

For these companies and individuals, Linux -- particularly SimplyMEPIS -- will be a significant and valuable upgrade. The applications that are included with SimplyMEPIS are more advanced than the older applications that are likely part of the application suite running on older computers.

Commercial tools such as CrossOver office, or Open Source tools such as Sidenet or WineTools, allow many legacy applications to run on Linux.

Older laptops and older computers can be given a new lease on life with Linux. The laptop I carry with me is now four years old and runs SimplyMEPIS. I also have a six-year-old laptop running SimplyMEPIS that I use as a thin client to check email wirelessly.

About the author: Michael C. Barnes is currently president of NorhTec. He has over 20 years experience with computers and another 10 years experience with more primitive networks, to include paper tape and morse code. Additionally, he has 18 years of experience with various Unix systems and spent 13 years with Sun Microsystems.

Barnes became fascinated with GNU/Linux turned the common PC into a Unix like workstation. By 1998, GNU/Linux surpassed the desktop environments offered on traditional Unix workstations. When GNU/Linux is combined with low-cost x86 platforms, organizations now have the power to create enterprise computing for the small organization.

Born in Kentucky, Barnes now lives in Bangkok, Thailand with his wife, Linda Kubota-Barnes, and his daughter, Karen Barnes.

Other articles by Michael C. Barnes:

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