2008 is shaping up to be the year that GNU/Linux hit the Windows desktop. Already the year has seen the first working version of the KDE Windows project, Wubi, which installs Ubuntu to an existing Windows filesystem, and LiveUSB Creator, a wizard for installing the Fedora distribution to a flashdrive from within Windows.
Last week, this effort was joined by the beta of Ulteo Virtual Desktop (UVD), which adds a complete KDE desktop to Windows XP or Vista. While rough around the edges, UVD seems by far the most successful of these efforts to give Windows users an easy way of experimenting with GNU/Linux.
Ulteo is the latest project of Gael Duval, the co-founder of the Mandrake distribution (now called Mandriva). First announced 18 months ago, Ulteo has shown some intriguing approaches to simplifying the GNU/Linux user experience. These include the self-updating Ulteo Application System distribution and the Ulteo Online Desktop for those who frequently use multiple computers.
With UVD, Duvall and his company take an equally innovative approach to running on Windows, using technology borrowed from Cooperative Linux that converts Linux system calls to Windows ones, a process that allows UVD to run on a Windows desktop and interact closely with Windows applications.
To install UVD, all you need to do is download the installer to your Windows desktop. Clicking it opens a wizard that requires you only to select a language, accept version 2 of the GNU General Public License, and confirm or change the default install location of Program FilesUlteoVirtual Desktop.
From there, the wizard installs the five gigabytes of UVD in about five minutes. Unless you are short of space, the only incident during the install is likely to be the warning that UVD has not passed Windows Logo testing. Just ignore the fact that Microsoft strongly recommends that you stop this installation now, and you can launch UVD from the end of the wizard. After all, if you have trust issues that could be alleviated by Microsoft's seal of approval, you wouldn't be installing UVD (or any other free software) in the first place.
UVD leaves an icon labeled Virtual Desktop on your desktop. On my computer, UVD took about twenty seconds to load, during which time it displayed a flashing Ulteo logo, a sort of minimalist Star Trek tableau of three androgynous yellow figures.
While UVD loads, you may be asked if you want to sign in to Ulteo Online Desktop, although no explanation is given of why you should want to. The dialog window has no close button, but you can use the icon on the title bar to shut it if you prefer not to use the Online Desktop. After a confirmation dialog, loading then continues.
When loading is complete, you have a panel for KDE 3.5.2 sitting in the top and middle of your Windows desktop. You are logged in to the me user account, although you can switch to the root account for the limited administration you can do; both accounts come with a password that is the same as the account name, a fact that will generally be relevant only if you do any administration work.