Rumor: Microsoft supports "Windows Mode" in Linux

[German]This is a cool thing that Microsoft and the Linux developer community around Linus Torvalds are planning for the future. Up to now, Microsoft's developers have been tinkering with a Windows Subsystem for Linux (WSL) in Windows, so that the poor Windows users were allowed to practice a bit of Linux in a console. Linux will eventually get a clean Windows subsystem so that Linux users will finally be able to use Windows 32 applications without any problems.


Unsatisfying solution so far

Until now, Linux users have to use Wine, to run Win32 applications. It worked for Notepad or simple tools. Often enough, it didn't work. In some cases, the commercial solution of CrossOver got a bit further. The attempt to recreate Windows XP under Linux in the form of React OS has not reached version 1.0 since . I ran the last test in 2019 (see ReactOS 0.4.11 released). BlueScreens and virtual machines with React OS that wouldn't start left me in the cold.


At the end of the day, the only approach left was to virtualise Linux via a hypervisor (Virtualbox, VMware, KVM, etc.) and then set up a virtual machine with a Windows installation. I confess that I have occasionally looked enviously at the Windows 10/11 people who can easily use the Windows and Linux worlds through WSL.

Torvalds and Nadella came to an agreement

The press didn't noticed it. But my former neighbour was Dirk Hohndel, who wrote various graphical components of Linux and supports that OS for many years as an open source protagonist with Linus Torvalds. After leaving Intel and VMware, Dirk Hohndel has now become a consultant in this field. Linus Torvalds sometimes visits my neighbour around the year 2000 – but the connections still exist in a loose form – although Dirk Hohndel (he was CTO at SUSE at that time – SUSE was bought later by Novell) moved to the USA to work for Intel as an open source evangelist.

In any case, my sourced told me (under the seal of secrecy and an under embargo until today), that there are great plans between Microsoft an the Linux guy Torvalds. From what I've heard, I'm probably the first person to be able to make this public worldwide: Linus Torvalds and Satya Nadella met for the first time last autumn in Redmond to find out how Linux could be set up in such a way that Win32 applications could be run on this platform without Wine and other such hassle.


The plan: Microsoft provides its own subsystem for the Win32 APIs, which can then be integrated into the Linux kernel. With its Min-Win and DrawBridge approach (covered in my old German blog post MinWin, Hyper-V und Windows 8) as well as the Pico processes, Microsoft has been experimenting with this technology for a long time. I refer to my ancient German article Phönix aus der Asche: Bekommt XaX in Win 9 ein Revival? (at that time I didn't blog in English, the article deals with Microsofts XaX in the planned Win 9 OS). There I once mentioned projects and technologies such as DrawBridge and XaX from Microsoft Labs. In short: Since 2010 or 2012, Microsoft has been experimenting with a minimal subsystem of the Win32 API. The goal is to find out how small a MinWin can become so that over 90 % of Win32 applications run. This MinWin kernel, which is about 500 megabytes in size, then runs as a pico process under Windows and enables Win32 applications to run. Instead of having to virtualise an entire operating system, lean MinWin pico-processes are used to run the applications. To my knowledge, the technique is used in Windows Server for various purposes (to isolate processes for security reasons in VMs).

But back to the topic. If I understand the hints from my sources correctly, there is now an agreement between Torvalds and Microsoft's boss Nadella that the MinWin technology may and should be integrated into Linux. Microsoft is not only providing the code but also some developers to work on this project, they said.

I don't know of any concrete plans as to when this will officially flow into Linux releases – I guess there is still some water running down the Rhine. But the prospects are cool. I then tried to find out whether Eric S. Raymond's ideas, I covered within my blog post Windows: Soon only an emulation layer on a Linux kernel? are now being implemented. Raymond's theory was that Microsoft would 'soon bury' Windows as we know it. Instead, Microsoft would rely on a Linux kernel with a Windows emulation layer. However, Raymond's well-reasoned assumption was later credibly denied. With regard to the what my sources told me, however, I did not receive a clear answer. 

From the remarks of my sources, however, I gather that Microsoft has no plans (yet) to take this weighty step. Rather, it seems that the integration of a MinWin as an execution layer for Win32 applications in the Linux kernel could be a test for Microsoft. If the MinWin approach under Linux is a success and people use it more intensively, Microsoft could change its internal strategy in the long term and go for a Linux kernel with a Windows GUI running on this kernel. But that's still pure theory yet.

The task now is to focus on the obvious steps and ensure that Win32 applications run as smoothly as possible under Linux. In any case, I find it extremely exciting and will (if I'm still around then, at my advanced age I'm no longer making any long-term plans) keep track of whether we're already one step further on 1.4.2023. But the times when "hell freezes over" when the word Linux is mentioned at Microsoft are long gone – Redmond in some cases prefers to use Linux solutions internally rather than its Windows or Azure products (I've described several Linux projects at Microsoft within my German article Wenn die Hölle zufriert: Microsoft macht in Linux).

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2 Responses to Rumor: Microsoft supports "Windows Mode" in Linux

  1. Sir_Timbit says:

    Aww, you had me excited for a moment until I remembered today's date!

  2. Kooka-in-the hills says:

    Agreed, the date was the first thing I checked.

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