Changing lightbulbs the Whistler, Win98 and Linux way

Multiple OS scenarios in the legacy-free near future

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When the lightbulb project popped its head up here last, just before Christmas, I had the primary objective of getting a games-friendly operating system onto the "legacy free" PC, and a secondary one of investigating multiple operating systems in this brave new environment.

So on 23rd December into the back of the car went one USB CD burner, one Fujitsu-Siemens Jetson prototype, Red Hats 6.0 and 7.0, a full (non-bootable) Win98 SE CD, two Win2k Jetson recovery CDs, an NT 4.0 Jetson recovery CD, a copy of Partition Magic 6.0, and beta 1 of Whistler, the next version of Win2k. The ThinkPad went in too for back up and communications purposes (the Jetson is USB-only, and I don't yet have a USB modem), but we're talking rural France Telecom here at The Reg French premises, so you're often down to a 2.4kbit/s trickle charge, and large downloads aren't an option.

But in total it seemed to amount to a fairly comprehensive techno Swiss Army knife, so something was going to be achieved. First though, a word from our sponsor.

What's a Jetson?
I borrowed the Jetson from Fujitsu-Siemens a few weeks back so I'd have hardware with sufficient oomph to check out Whistler, and they very kindly came up with this little rarity. The Jetson scored a couple of reviews in the German pubs around the middle of the year, but as far as I can see it hasn't actually shipped, and though it's not a bad spec right now, it looks far more likely to roll out in a beefed-up version when Whistler itself is released. It has an Intel FlexATX 810E motherboard (what ships will likely have an 815), a 733MHz Pentium III, 128 megs PC133 memory, on board Ethernet and a 20 gig hard drive, although for some reason there only seems to be a ten gig in this one.

It's silver and black, and aside from the video connector is USB everything - keyboard, mouse, floppy, and of course the Iomega Zip 650 CD burner I bought to go with it. It came with Win2k preinstalled (the NT 4.0 version definitely won't ship, although it seems to have been a stop-gap option earlier this year), and by coincidence it's an indicator of the kind of legacy-free machine Whistler is intended to ship with. It'd look really cool with a TFT screen, but for some reason they didn't ship me one of those.

But back to the challenge. My Swiss Army kit was assembled in accordance with your suggestions after I posed the question, how do you get Win98 onto a machine that is running Win2k, not Dos, and that won't boot from a floppy drive? The upshot of this so far is that it's now running Win98 and Whistler in tandem, and it'll go a little bit further just as soon as I can kick the kids off it and get some bandwidth. But what follows is the story so far.

The Linux option

Prior to deciding to acquire the burner and Partition Magic 6.0 my room for manouevre was pretty tight, so provisionally installing Linux, using it to rearrange the partitions and winding up with Linux, Win2k and Win98 seemed the most plausible route. Incidentally, those of you who insisted that Win2k ran all the best games anyway would have got me into trouble this Christmas, as although it seems to run the new ones we've got, Whistler doesn't run Settlers II, an old favourite with the junior Lettices. Nor is it clear that it'll run the ZipCD software, although that's probably something to do with Iomega's dorky OS detecting installation program.

Red Hat 7.0 seemed the logical Linux choice because of availability and USB and 810E support, but I ran into a number of issues that made it look like it was more trouble than it was worth, and that maybe suggest the Linux distros should get their heads around dealing with newbie installations and Win2k coexistence.

The major reason we're currently in the buffers on this one is that both Red Hat 6.0 and 7.0 bomb out during kernel compilation with a "crc error - system halted." The Red Hat site includes an externally produced document on this that says it's caused by some kind of hardware malfunction, but as this could apparently be in any component I'm not about to try to nail it down right now. I'm quite willing to believe it's a 'something wrong with your hardware and our software's fine' error, but if Linux stresses the hardware more than other operating systems - as I'm told - it'd maybe make sense for the distros to rig up some tools to help people nail down whatever's broken, rather than leaving them surveying a baffling pile of poop.

I'll try Mandrake when I get back, as some of you suggested, and probably BSD and BeOS as well. Red Hat will go onto an older machine for me to get some experience, and what happens then will depend on results.

The fiddling around prompted some more observations. Some of you suggested booting from the Linux CD, then partitioning my way around from there, rather than doing the full OS install. This procedure is however non-transparent for a speaker of pidgin Dos, and a reading of the large pile of Red Hat manuals and howtos left me none the wiser. I'm sure it's in there somewhere, but it kind of looks to me like you need to learn everything about Linux before you can perform even a simple task. I should have brought a copy of Linux for Dummies too, but the distros should figure out how they're going to cater for dummies, if they're going to seriously challenge Microsoft.

Perhaps more importantly, but in the same vein, Red Hat really does have to cater for non-destructive partitioning scenarios and coexistence with Win2k and successors, because that's the class of OS that people wanting to give Linux a try will be running in the near future. As far as I can see, With Red Hat you can do an automated destructive install that zaps whatever you have already, or a custom install which presupposes you've already wrapped your head around Linux partitioning. Win2k and Linux both want control of the Master Boot Record, so an automated way of working around this would make sense, or failing that some heavy-duty handholding. Neither was available, so I put it to the back of the stack, and I'm sure I'm not alone.

Partition Magic

A lot of you said get some shareware instead, but I swear by this stuff, and I'm deeply happy with it, so hang the expense. The gotcha for PM5 was that it needs to boot from rescue floppies to handle Win2k, and I can't boot rescue floppies, so on to PM 6. I didn't end up proceeding with this approach, as another turned out to work (see below), but basically you'd shuffle the partitions, create a FAT partition, then make it bootable with io.sys, msdos.sys and command.com.

This is currently doable, because the gear's on the Win98 boot floppy or extractable from the Win98 CD, but there are long term defects in the route, as we move into the legacy free world. Dos is hidden in WinME, and is going to go away in the long run. So increasing numbers of users won't have access to emergency disks, will find it hard to obtain the necessary files, and probably won't know what to do with them anyway. It's a route that will persist thanks to DR-DOS and disk images on the Web, but ultimately that will mean Dos and Dos-like systems will be something you use to mess around with your hardware outside of the official MS channels. You won't be using them for Win98 installations, because Win98 won't exist, right?

Burn a boot disk

The burner was definitely the most fun, although I was somewhat crestfallen to discover I couldn't use the software supplied with this and Whistler to burn my own playlist into an audio CD for use in the car. I know you can do this through other means, but it's bizarre that you can copy a whole audio CD with the Iomega software, while you can't compile a far less piratical greatest hits CD. Whistler's Windows Media Player 7 meanwhile struck me as seriously humorous in its determined avoidance of being viewed as a tool for piracy, and its obsession with persuading you into 'managing your licences.' But more of that anon, when I finally get around to writing up the beta.

Back at the proper project, the objective was to get a bootable Dos image onto a CD, boot the machine from that, then run the Win98 SE install. Bootdisk.com is a useful repository of boot disk images, while Winimage has a free trial version that allows you to build your own disk images and manipulate them. I'm also told that Lineo has a stock of DR-DOS based images, and given that this is the Dos that won't be going away when MS-DOS does, it's probably a route worth pursuing.

But in the end I built my own with the Iomega Easy CD Creator software that came with the drive, using a plain old Win98 boot floppy. This could be tidied up so the CD had the Win98 distribution files on it as well, and you could also mess the batch file around so it went straight into 98 setup. Or if you were feeling radical, you could use the install intercept procedure from 98lite to cut a 'forehead install' 98lite installation CD.

And in similar vein there's the matter of the licence agreement. A couple of you pounced eagerly when I mentioned filing it off, so given that I can't see anything obviously illegal (malicious, yes) about the procedure suggested to me, here it is.

The idea seems to be to separate the Win98 CAB files from the licence text, so you start off by booting Dos, copying the CAB files onto your hard disk and then running the install from that. Reboot the machine when it hits the licence agreement segment, then bring it up in safe mode. It seems to me this would work from a CD install as well, but I haven't investigated further. Ignore the stuff about not being able to detect hardware in safe mode, and run regedit instead. Find oemregistration and change oemlicense to 1 from 0. Key in any old number you like for the licence number.

Reboot, it won't pester you about the licence number, and seeing you never saw the licence agreement, how could you agree to it? Now, you might say this is disgraceful, but I reckon the moral Microsoft should go away with is that its protection procedures are a load of pants that are laughably easy to subvert.

Final liftoff?
But although I built the boot CD in the interests of scientific investigation, I didn't actually use it to get 98 onto the machine. I (blush) have a small confession to make.

You see, being used to IBM ThinkPad recovery CDs I'd naturally assumed that the Jetson one would work the same way - you press OK to vape everything on your hard disk, or you press no to reboot, no other choices. Other OEMs are not however anything like as obsessive as IBM in defending Microsoft's precious initial boot sequence and out of box experience. The Jetson recovery sequence first comes up with a brief loading Windows 98 message I hadn't previously noticed, then blips into Partition Magic (some kind of tailored runtime) before it starts squirting Win2k onto the machine.

So actually, it is briefly booting Dos and is susceptible to CTRL-C. Or alternatively, declining the licence drops you to a Dos prompt with CD support, rather than rebooting the machine. Sloppy or what? You can understand why I assumed none of this would work, because it subverts the whole process. The Fujitsu driver CD also seems to boot FreeDos, which surprised me equally (bootable driver CDs? Whatever next?) But equally, you can understand that once Microsoft has beaten the OEMs up some more, this sort of stuff won't work, there'll be no Dos dependancies in installation or recovery, and that hole will be plugged. If any kind of Dos ships with PCs it won't be Microsoft Dos, and Microsoft psurely won't like it if it does. Whistler, incidentally, reboots if you reject the licence, and while the install is no doubt interruptible in some other way, it's not immediately obvious.

So I dropped from the recovery to Dos, repartioned, rebooted and dropped out again, then ran setup for 98. Then I installed Whistler as an upgrade, so I can boot Whistler or 98. Ideally I'd have shunted Win2k off to the side so I could run this as well, but I'd vaped that with Linux before I got to this point, and will have to put it back another time.

In the next episode I'm pretty sure I'll get around to that Whistler write-up, and no doubt I'll get plenty of Linux-related feedback. Honourable mentions to all of you who've been recommending VMWare and similar - I'll get around to that as well, OK? ®

Lightbulb part one:
How many MS OSes does it take to change a lightbulb?

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