Microsoft will make it easier to use the free operating system in Windows in the future. So does the company swallow Linux? Rather the opposite.

The Windows alternative Linux has so far been a niche as an operating system for PCs. Only three to four percent of Germans use it privately. Linux is considered by many to be the operating system of inventors and nerds, free and fast, but difficult for laypersons to understand and to set up. But the latter could change now.

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The reason for this is the market leader Microsoft. The blue window logo of Windows appears on around 80 percent of all private computers in Germany every day. But it is already possible to use Linux within Windows 10. WSL, the Windows subsystem for Linux, starts Linux in a kind of virtual box in Windows. You use Linux like a simple Windows program. This has the advantage that users work on a computer with two operating systems and can easily switch back and forth between the systems. Because many programs run faster on Linux, others such as Word or Excel are only available for Windows.

Trying Linux has never been so easy

Microsoft recently announced that the second version of the subsystem – WSL2 – will be further expanded. There is a reason for the software company from Redmond to invest in Linux. “In some areas, Microsoft has been running away developers for some time,” says Kristian Kißling from Linux-Magazin, a specialist magazine for Linux users. Professional software developers nowadays mainly work with Linux, especially in cloud computing and in data centers. However, some of them occasionally also need Windows, for example to exchange ideas with colleagues from other departments. A fairly popular solution for this is called dual boot: two operating systems with equal rights are installed on one computer and users switch back and forth.

The improved WSL is a great help for these users: You can now start your Linux system directly from Windows. “Dual boot is dead,” wrote developer Dimitris Poulopoulos on the blog Towards Data Science. Gerald Pfeifer, technical director at the open source company Suse, also says some dual boot users could switch. “Everyone knows how caustic constant booting is. WSL can be more comfortable there,” says Pfeifer. However, he believes that die-hard Linux users will switch to Windows because of WSL.

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Kristian Kißling from Linux-Magazin even believes that the opposite is the case: Windows users could get a taste of Linux through WSL and soon prefer the open Linux world to Windows. Because Linux systems are considered faster and safer, and they can also be more easily adapted to personal preferences. However, installing and setting up Linux-based operating systems often costs nerves. This scares off many Windows and Apple users. With the improved subsystem, this inhibition threshold drops. In addition, Windows does not have to be uninstalled to test Linux. Trying Linux out has never been easier than it is today.

With Linux from one Speaking the operating system is actually not correct. Linux refers to a family of different operating systems, so-called distributions, in which the same core is located. Ubuntu, Debian and Arch are among the best known. In contrast to the NT kernel on which Windows is based, anyone can download the Linux kernel. Its source code is openly accessible. The principle of such open source software is simple: it basically belongs to everyone, everyone can use and change it.

Max Mehl from the Free Software Foundation Europe, an organization that works for openly accessible software, also sees the hurdles for switching to Linux falling. In addition, the Chinese manufacturer Lenovo, for example, now ships some laptops with pre-installed Linux operating systems. After all, one reason Windows is predominant is that it is pre-installed on many devices.

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Users never come into contact with a kernel – but nothing works without it

Microsoft has been embracing Linux for a long time. Azure, the Group’s cloud platform, runs largely on Linux. The WSL offensive fits into the picture. And the improvements are remarkable: While WSL1 did not yet use a real Linux kernel, but only simulated its behavior, WSL2 runs a complete Linux kernel nested in Windows. A kernel is exactly the piece of software that communicates directly with the hardware, for example with a keyboard or graphics card. If you imagine the software of a computer in several layers, the kernel is at the bottom. Programs such as Internet browsers form the top layer. So users never come into contact with a kernel, but nothing works without it. The operating system is built around this kernel in several layers.

“The difference between WSL1 and WSL2 is something like that between a tofu burger and a beef burger,” says Gerald Pfeifer from Suse. “You don’t necessarily need a Linux kernel to run Linux applications. Something that looks like one is enough.” WSL2 can therefore do much more than WSL1, but not everything: When accessing graphics processors, WSL2 also goes through Windows. A direct embedding in WSL is “on the roadmap,” says a Microsoft spokeswoman.

It remains to be seen whether Microsoft will actually make Linux more popular with the WSL improvements, as Kißling believes from Linux magazine. However, the Linux kernel has made it into many computers even without Microsoft’s help: It is in corporate networks, most servers and in a slightly modified form also in Android, the world’s most popular operating system that runs on most cell phones. Last but not least, the world’s 500 fastest supercomputers all run on Linux.

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