Though it may not have managed to bring Linux to the desktop in any meaningful sense, 4 July marks 25 years since the first stable release of not-a-Windows-emulator, Wine.
Created in 1993 as a way of inflicting Windows 3.1 applications on the then positively pristine Linux world (mastermind Linus Torvalds had only just emitted the first version of the open-source operating system in 1991), Wine was originally envisaged as a way users could leave Windows behind without abandoning their favourite apps.
Unlike a traditional emulator, Wine (Wine Is Not an Emulator) translates Windows API calls to POSIX calls on the fly, meaning that applications could run on the Linux desktop without requiring the usual technical paraphernalia associated with emulation. Unlike a virtual machine solution, users also do not require a licence to access Windows-based application goodness.
The first year brought all-important support for Microsoft Solitaire, and by 1996 the Wine developers managed to get Word and Excel to run. It would, however, be another 12 years before the software was declared stable – version 1.0 was released in mid-2008.
In the intervening years, the Wine team bounced around several licensing models for the code, starting with a BSD-style licence before eventually settling on a variant of LGPL following a number of protracted flame wars (as is the norm for a passionate open-source community of developers).
As Wine slogged its way toward its first stable release, a brief period of commercial support from Corel in order to see its productivity suite run on Linux provided funding for development. The Canadian company departed in 2001 to better focus on its slow decline.
The Wine project endured, however, and saw a number of notable forks to the codebase, including Lindows and Transgaming.
Lindows was aimed at creating a distribution as easy to use as Windows while still running Windows applications. Microsoft took umbrage at the similarity to its trademarked Windows, lobbed a sueball at the upstart vendor in 2002 and... lost. Redmond opted for a retrial but eventually wound up paying Lindows $20m to purchase the trademark. Renamed Linspire, the OS limped on for a while before development eventually ground to a halt before a relaunch under new ownership earlier this year.
Transgaming pointed the way to Wine's future, being focused on getting Windows DirectX-based games running on Linux. Using a fork of Wine, named WineX (and later Cedega), it got as far as DirectX 9 before the plug was pulled in 2009. Transgaming would later switch focus to Cider, a Cedega-like platform used by Electronic Arts to get its Windows games to work under Mac OS X.
Transgaming was eventually renamed Findev and began a new life as a real estate trading company in 2016.
Development of Wine has continued, with the latest stable release (3.0.2) shipped last week and 3.11 available for those who like to live at the edge. 4,660 applications and games are rated as "platinum" – software that runs flawlessly without requiring user tinkering, with another 21,000 tested with varying levels of compatibility.
Unfortunately, the latest versions of Microsoft Office have yet to make the cut, and the most popular supported programs on Wine are games.
From a security standpoint, Wine exposes the underlying Linux operating system to same risk as Windows since it will allow malware aimed at Microsoft's products to be run. Care should be taken with user permissions. Critics also question the need for Wine, since many of the office applications it was originally conceived for now have acceptable open-source alternatives, or even native ports.
However, for the occasions when only that particular Windows application will do, or where a game must be played (and the user really, really doesn't want to go through the cost and inconvenience of a dual-boot system) Wine does the job nicely, even if it never really realised the dream of the Year of the Linux Desktop. ®