Toying with alternative OSes

by Alan Zisman (c) 2000. First published in Vancouver Computes, June 2000

Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die.

I don?t know where this originated?the old saying became the title of a song that was a minor hit in 1973 for now-Alberta-based Ellen McIlwane).

Huge numbers of computer users are in that situation-- interested in alternative operating systems like Linux?but not prepared to take the seemingly-risky step of throwing away Windows and adopting an alternative.

Knowing that, all Linux distributions include the Lilo boot manager, letting a user choose between booting to Linux or some other operating system. But in most cases, that still means fussing with drive partitions. Perhaps buying a non-destructive partitioning program like Partition Magic. All in all, more than many users want to deal with.

There are, though, some easy ways to stick your toe into the water without having to jump right in?to install another operating system onto your existing partition, and start it by double-clicking on an icon.

For instance:

  • ZipSlack is a version of the classic Linux Slackware distribution (, designed to be installed on a standard DOS/Windows partition in under 100 MB of drive space. As such, it?s a pretty bare-boned Linux?think command line terminal window. I gave ZipSlack a brief triy-out?and it worked as advertised?lean, mean terminal mode Linux environment. If you have 800 MB free, there?s now the BigSlack version, complete with the graphical KDE environment preconfigured.
  • WinLinux ( claims to be the only Linux that installs as a Windows program, setting itself with the correct hardware and networking settings based on what you have configured in Windows. Sounds good. On my system, though, it failed to properly set up the video, even though my installed ATI All-in-Wonder 128 is one of its supported video cards. As a result, it was unusable. Maybe you?ll have better luck with it! But be prepared for a 215 MB download.
  • Not a version of Linux, BeOS is yet another alternative operating system, created by Be, a company started up by former Apple bigshot Jean-Louis Gaspe. It?s aimed primarily multimedia developers?an early claim to fame was being able to run multiple video clips all at once, even on fairly modest hardware. The new version 5 can be freely downloaded ( it?s a relatively modest 45 MB download that expands to take up 500 MB of drive space. While I had to enter networking information manually, this one ran as promised?clicking on its icon rebooted the system into DOS mode, then loaded the Be OS. And it was fast and slick. Too bad there?s relatively little software for it.
  • While the others I?ve listed restart your computer, booting the new operating system, VMWare ( runs the secondary operating system on top of your existing OS. As such, it needs a hefty operating system to begin with?Windows 9x users need not apply. But you can use it to run Linux on an NT/W2000 system?or to run Win 9x on a Linux system. But that means you need enough RAM to have both operating systems running at once?think 128 MB or more. Oh yeah, it?s a commercial product?US$299 ($99 for students/hobbyists), with a free 30-day evaluation license available.
  • Mac users need not feel left out. Connectix, the makers of the popular Virtual PC ( comes to the rescue. While in the past, they?ve released version of VPC that allowed Mac users to run DOS, Windows 95, or Windows 98, they?ve recently released a version that comes complete with a licensed copy of Red Hat Linux. Like the other versions, it installs and runs under the existing Mac OS. Double-clicking the VPC icon boots an emulated PC?complete with ram check, configurable BIOS, and everything. Only this time, the boot leads to the Red Hat log-in, with choice of KDE or Gnome desktops. As with the Windows versions, installation is far simpler than actually installing Linux, since Connectix controls the hardware?they know what sort of pretend video, sound, networking (etc) are (virtually) installed. It comes with Netscape, Star Office, and more applications pre-installed.

The Linux version requires quite a bit more from your Mac then VPC Windows, however. Where the Win98 version is quite happy making a 500 MB virtual hard disk, the Linux version wants a full gigabyte of space. And while the VPC/Win98 runs at a tolerable speed on my iMac-266, the Linux version request at least a 350 mHz G3. It installed on my 266 mHz model, but the company was right?it was too slow to be usable. Still, if you?ve Mac enough to run it, this US$99 product will let you see what all the fuss is about.

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan