Thursday, April 7, 2016

Microsoft Introduces Early Beta of GNU/Windows

Microsoft recently release Insider Preview Build 14316 of Windows 10. This preview includes the option of adding a GNU/Linux user-land. So, really just a GNU user-land and early support for a Windows-to-Linux kernel call conversion library. Basically, the reverse of the Wine project.

This is hardly the first time Microsoft has done something similar. There used to be UNIX tools for Windows. Initially it was available as a free download, later it required the "pro" version of Windows, and ultimately it was scrapped. To my knowledge Microsoft never published a reason for scrapping the UNIX tools but I have always assumed it was a lack of maintaining the code and eventually the tools just didn't work properly with newer versions of Windows.

There has also been, for a very long time, the open source Cygwin project. This project has provided a GNU (and X11) user-land to Windows for nearly 2 decades now. The last time I tried Cygwin, it worked very well. Of course, Microsoft's solution is technically still in beta. And this being the first release to the Insider program, we should expect improvements on Microsoft's solution.

For its part, Microsoft has chosen the Ubuntu user-land. Complete with package management and development tool. While many people may consider this a success for the Linux community, I'm not convinced it is much more than a marketing ploy to try and attracted Linux users to Windows. It might be an attempt to satisfy the corporate data-center folks who have to deal with Windows on the desktop while managing UNIX and Linux systems in their data centers but I doubt that.

There are too many options these days to need a Linux user-land on a windows desktop. With reliable Secure Shell (ssh) tools easily available, a few options to get X11 to run on Windows, and the robust capabilities and selection of VM solutions available on the desktop, in addition to the age old solution of dual-booting, there is no longer much need for a UNIX user-land on Windows. That being said, if Microsoft is actually going to stay committed to this, I applaud their efforts.

As I said earlier, I suspect that this is Microsoft's attempt to get some Linux users to return to Windows. They would only get the fence sitters and at this point, I think they have missed the reason why there has been an increase in the number of fence sitter. It's not the availability of tools, it's the invasion of privacy and lack of control of one's own hardware that has got many people moving away from Windows since the Introduction of Windows 10.

For those who don't know, Microsoft has made Windows 10 call home so much that many security minded corporations are flat out refusing to let it in their organizations. Only the most expensive of the numerous Windows 10 license options actually lets you completely disable the call-home functionality of Windows 10. In my experience corporations don't generally want to deploy the most expensive version of Windows to every single desktop (they prefer the least expensive pro version that support AD integration).

You only need to perform a quick search to get an idea for just how bad Windows 10 behaves. Every time you click on the "start menu" Windows 10 calls home, even if you disable the "smart" features and active icons. My list of Internet sites to block in order to try and reduce the level of spying that Windows 10 does on my one Windows 10 system contains nearly 60 entries. Those entries do not include Microsoft's software update servers, bing search engine, OneDrive, or website.

Even if I am wrong and most converts aren't concerned with the invasive nature of Windows 10, it is still unlikely that Microsoft will get much conversion from long time Linux users. They are comfortable with the operating system they have. Most prefer the freedom and flexibility. Many will expound on the efficiency and reliability of their preferred operating systems.

In the end, I'm not sure this move will get Microsoft what it wants. The developers are going to prefer native Linux for developing Linux applications since they are less likely to run into subtle compatibility issues. Security minded folks aren't going to move back to Windows until Microsoft dumps all the spyware. Data center folks will enjoy the simplicity of  not needing a UNIX system in addition to a corporate desktop (but only if the corporate policy allows installation of the GNU user-land tools) while it lasts. Although those of us who have been around long enough to remember the old UNIX tools package, will doubt Microsoft's commitment for at least the next few releases of Windows.