Even at Microsoft, many cloud software developers had stopped using Windows, and started using Apple’s Mac laptops and desktops. Indeed, go to any developer event or startup office, and it’s common to see row after row of MacBook, and not a Windows machine in sight.
Determined to win its own developers back, Microsoft started looking into what it would take for them to switch to Windows again. The feedback? Many developers, both within and outside of Microsoft, said they wanted to be able to run their software on Linux, the open source operating system that’s mega-popular with developers.
And so, in 2016, Microsoft announced the Windows Subsystem for Linux (WSL), which actually lets Windows 10 users run a full-on version of Linux right from their desktop. Kevin Gallo, corporate vice president of Windows Developer Platform says that WSL was a major hit among developers, and now claims 3.5 million active users.
“It eclipsed every announcement we had,” Gallo told Business Insider. “It blew our numbers away. Wow, there are a lot of people who care. It was a good wakeup for us. We speculated there would be interest, but there was a lot more interest than I thought.”
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The problem with the first iteration of WSL is that while it did a good job of allowing Windows 10 to run Linux software, everything had to be filtered through the Windows kernel — the core of the operating system, which manages the system’s most basic functions like processors and memory. WSL translated the requirements of the Linux software into something comprehensible to the Windows kernel, and back. It worked, but it could be slow.
That brings us to Monday, when Microsoft announces Windows Subsystem for Linux 2, which takes the company’s pitch to developers to a whole new level by actually including a full version of the Linux kernel, specially designed by Microsoft to run alongside the Windows kernel. It means that, at least on paper, a Windows 10 machine will be able to do whatever a Linux system can do — because as far as the software is concerned, it is a Linux machine.
WSL 2 will be available through the Windows Insider beta-testing program by the end of June 2019, with a broader release following that.
The goal, says Gallo, is to make Windows 10 the best operating system on which to develop software, and win over those Apple users.
“We think once we deliver all of this … we’ll be a superior experience to what you can get on a Mac,” Gallo said. “A lot of cloud developers had to use Mac. One of the things we have not tried to do is say, because you work at Microsoft, you have to use Windows. If we’re not good enough to win our own people, then we have to win our people.”
Besides WSL2, Microsoft also announced that it’s revamping the terminal, the text-based interface that allows developers to type out more specific and more powerful commands for their computer. The update includes the ability to open multiple tabs, emoji support, and more customization options in general.
Microsoft even gave this upgraded terminal a slick new trailer:
A historical note
For anybody who’s paid attention to Microsoft for a long time, this news is especially noteworthy, given that the tech titan spent a very long time competing fiercely with Linux in general and open source in particular. Back in 2001, Steve Ballmer, Microsoft’s CEO at the time, called Linux ” a cancer.”
But Microsoft gradually warmed up, especially after Satya Nadella took the reins as CEO in 2014 — he even presented a slide that said, “Microsoft Loves Linux,” as he announced that developers could run the Linux operating system in the Microsoft Azure cloud. From there, the love affair only accelerated, with Microsoft announcing in 2018 that it would actually distribute its own specialized version of Linux for use in connected gadgetry.
It’s all part of enhancing Microsoft’s appeal to developers, says Gallo, and ties into the company’s $7.5 billion buy of code-sharing service GitHub.
“Satya’s vision is to meet developers where they’re at because that’s how the community works,” Gallo says.
Gallo acknowledges that Microsoft hadn’t always been on great terms with Linux, but it’s now “serious” about making a complete turnaround and working hard to earn the goodwill of developers. Indeed, Microsoft is pledging that any changes or improvements it makes to the Linux kernel with WSL2, it’ll send back to the main Linux open source project, too, so everyone can benefit.
“We haven’t always been embracing that community so we’ve been trying to earn that trust,” Gallo said.
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