Why does Microsoft Windows 10 need Linux?
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Why does Microsoft Windows 10 need Linux?

In the early days of its life, Linux was seen as a threat to Windows. It's not hard to see why, since the two operating systems' underlying philosophies appear diametrically opposed. Windows is closed-source, proprietary software created by one large organisation and sold on a commercial basis. Linux is open-source, developed by a disparate group of volunteers and is given away freely.

Although Linux was largely ignored by end users (even today it accounts for a little over 2% of the desktop OS market), it took huge chunks of the server market away from Microsoft. At one point, over two-thirds of web servers ran Apache on Linux instead of IIS on Windows. That figure has now fallen to around one-third. Even so, you might assume that Microsoft retains a seething dislike of all things penguin.

You'd be wrong. Companies that base strategic decisions on emotional reactions are unlikely to thrive. There was once a time when Microsoft was large and dominant enough to potentially treat competitors with contempt or impunity. Not now. Recently the company has shown that it can – and must – adapt to changing computer use and differences in the way its customers employ technology. The latest example of this is the inclusion of a Linux shell, called WSL (Windows Subsystem for Linux) within Windows 10.

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This feature arrived with little fanfare and, at the time of writing, is still in beta form. It's not a port of Linux tools to the Windows environment, such as is the case with Cygwin, which has been used for many years by Windows users needing access to some Linux utilities. Nor is it a virtual machine or container for running Linux apps separately from the host environment.

Instead, it most closely resembles a mirror version of WINE. This Linux package, whose name is a recursive acronym for "WINE Is Not an Emulator" is a compatibility layer that allows many Windows applications to run natively in Linux (even, at least in principle, WannaCry). Having used WINE for over a decade, I've found that results are variable. Some well-behaved Windows applications, such as Photoshop and Office, generally work well. Others, such as system tools and utilities, tend not to. That's not the fault of the developers: it's a reflection of the complexity of building a tool that allows code written for one platform to run directly on another.

From reports so far, and Microsoft's own refreshingly honest appraisals, it's a similar situation for WSL. Developed in conjunction with Canonical, the organisation behind Ubuntu, WSL places the Bash shell and native Linux applications on top of an API that interprets the instructions of Linux applications into native Windows code. It works well for some applications, especially the command-line tools that are likely to be of most interest to organisations, but less so for others. Both Microsoft and Canonical seem actively engaged in improving the integration, so support is likely to improve over time.

The big questions are: why is Microsoft doing this, and what effect does it have on the open source Linux world?

The answer to the first question is multi-faceted. Linux obviously isn't going away, so it makes sense for Microsoft to placate organisations that need or want to run some Linux applications, without driving them away from Windows. That's the corollary of the WINE situation, in which people wanting to migrate from Windows to Linux might have been held back by one or two Windows applications for which they couldn't find native Linux analogues. WINE solved that problem for many, though it's not a solution that's necessarily approved of by open-source enthusiasts.

But there's more to it than that. Microsoft is now heavily invested in cloud services via its Azure platform. Many corporate users want to run Linux apps there alongside Windows ones. Arguably they don't care about the origin of the application, in fact: they just want it to run. The more Microsoft learns about the integration of Windows and Linux, the better the services it can offer to firms that really don't want to have to choose between one platform or another. This is especially true for scenarios that don't easily lend themselves to the use of VMs or containers.

It may seem a strange state of affairs that Microsoft is actively involved in funding Linux development, but it makes commercial sense. What it means for the open-source Linux movement is harder to predict. Windows represents everything that's anathema to hardcore open-source users and developers, so this blurring of the lines between the two operating systems isn't likely to go down well in some quarters. On the other hand it's proof, if any were needed, that there are some tasks for which many organisations simply prefer to use Linux.



Read more:

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Alex Cruickshank

Alex Cruickshank has been writing about technology and business since 1994. He has lived in various far-flung places around the world and is now based in Berlin.  

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