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Linux-based Windows makes perfect sense

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A few days ago, Eric S. Raymond (ESR), developer and writer, suggested that we’re nearing the last phase of the desktop wars. The winner? Windows… running on Linux

He’s on to something. I’ve long thought that Microsoft was considering migrating the Windows interface to running on the Linux kernel. Why?

Raymond argues that “WSL (Windows Subsystem for Linux) allows unmodified Linux binaries to run under Windows 10. No emulation, no shim layer, they just load and go.” Indeed, you can run standard Linux programs now on WSL2 without any trouble. 

That’s because Linux is well on its way to becoming a first-class citizen on the Windows desktop. Multiple Linux distros, starting with Ubuntu, Red Hat Fedora, and SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop (SLED), now run smoothly on WSL2. That’s because  Microsoft has replaced its WSL1 translation layer, which converted Linux kernel calls into Windows calls, with WSL2. With WSL2  Microsoft’s own Linux kernel is running on a thin version of the Hyper-V hypervisor. 

That’s not all. With the recent Windows 10 Insider Preview build 20211, you can now access Linux file systems, such as ext4, from Windows File Manager and PowerShell. On top of that, Microsoft developers are making it easy to run Linux graphical applications on Windows

Besides Microsoft working its hardest to marry the Windows desktop with Linux, Raymond pointed out others are working to make it easier to run Windows applications on Linux. In particular, he points to Valve‘s Proton, a Wine-based compatibility layer developed for running Windows Steam games on Linux. “The thing about games is that they are the most demanding possible stress test for a Windows emulation layer, much more so than business software.” If you can run Windows games on Linux, why not Windows business applications?

He also observed, correctly, that Microsoft no longer depends on Windows for its cash flow but on its Azure cloud offering. Which, by the way, is running more Linux instances than it is Windows Server instances.  

So, that being the case, why should Microsoft keep pouring money into the notoriously trouble-prone Windows kernel — over 50 serious bugs fixed in the last Patch Tuesday roundup — when it can use the free-as-in-beer Linux kernel? Good question. He thinks Microsoft can do the math and switch to Linux.

I think he’s right. Besides his points, there are others. Microsoft already wants you to replace your existing PC-based software, like Office 2019, with software-as-a-service (SaaS) programs like Office 365. Microsoft also encourages you to move your voice, video, chat, and texting to Microsoft’s Azure Communication Services (ACS) even if you don’t use Teams.

With SaaS programs, Microsoft doesn’t care what operating system you’re running. They’re still going to get paid whether you run Office 365 on Windows, a Chromebook, or, yes, Linux. 

I see two possible paths ahead for Windows. First, there’s Linux-based Windows. It simply makes financial sense. Or, the existing Windows desktop being replaced by the Windows Virtual Desktop or other Desktop-as-a-Service (DaaS) offerings

Of course, even if Microsoft goes all in with a DaaS approach — and I think it will — it’ll still need a common base operating system. This, like Chrome OS, will provide just enough of an operating system to run a browser with a minimum of other local resources. 

Google chose to save money and increase security by using Linux as the basis for Chrome OS. This worked out really well for Google. It can for Microsoft with — let’s take a blast from the past — and call it Lindows as well.

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