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Year of linux on the desktop

Could it be? Really? The Year of Linux on the Desktop is almost here, and it’s. Windows-shaped?

Windows Subsystem for Linux to gain out-of-the-box support for GUI apps, GPU chippery

Build Microsoft’s Build 2020 appears to mark the long-awaited Year Of Linux on the Desktop thanks to incoming Windows Subsystem for Linux (WSL) improvements, including GUI support.

WSL2 was quite the star of 2019’s Build event and brought with it a tweaked Linux kernel, full system compatibility, and considerably snappier file performance. While its predecessor, effectively a translation layer, was the technological tour de force, WSL2 did the previously unthinkable and dropped a Linux kernel into Windows.

Sadly, developers restricted to production machinery are still waiting to see the fruits of Microsoft’s efforts. After last year’s fanfare, the update was added to Windows 10 20H1 for Insiders to test. Alas, the ongoing delays in actually getting 20H1 out of preview and into general availability has left the new toys out of reach for many.

Not in 20H1 but announced at this year’s Build is the arrival of GUI support for Linux apps running in WSL2 thanks to Wayland and RDP painting the app on the Windows desktop. Access to GPUs from Linux is also on the way.

The two features regularly top the list of “wants” from developers and will be welcomed by the community, even if the thought of a graphical Linux app nestling among the Windows might cause some long-time Microsoft watchers to pass coffee through their noses.

Users prepared to jump through a few hoops have been able to coax WSL into displaying graphical Linux apps for some time. Back in 2018, open-source startup Whitewater Foundry released a distro preconfigured for graphical shenanigans in the form of Debian-based WLinux, which required the addition of a Windows X server to make the magic happen.

Now, according to Microsoft, “support for Linux graphical user interface (GUI) apps will enable you to open a WSL instance and run a Linux GUI app directly without the need for a third-party X server.”

Hayden Barnes, Canonical senior developer advocate, told us the company had been looking at including an X Server in its own Microsoft Store distro but instead elected to collaborate with the Windows giant on its preferred path: “Both opened up a handful of edge cases, and it’s just better to work together on these than try to do it on our own.”

Microsoft frees Windows Subsystem for Linux 2 from the shackles of, er, Windows?

Canonical is no stranger to collaborating with the former Linux-loathing (and now Penguin-petting) behemoth, having seen Ubuntu 18.04 LTS elevated to a first-class citizen of Microsoft’s Hyper-V hypervisor in 2018.

In terms of what Windows users might actually use this graphical Linux support for, Microsoft suggested that developers might have a Linux IDE they’d prefer to use. Barnes agreed, putting forward KDevelop or GNOME Builder as use cases. “You don’t want to torture some people with Emacs,” he laughed.

While the GUI support may be the most eye-catching (when it arrives in Windows 10 – it took a few weeks after 2019’s Build for WSL2 to arrive in the hands of Insiders), it is GPU support that has many excited. It will accelerate GUI applications and “it also unlocks GPU accelerated workflows,” explained Barnes, “things like TensorFlow on MicroK8s on WSL.”

The arrival of GPU acceleration for WSL2 will indeed remove a few roadblocks for users, particularly those wishing to experiment on-premises ahead of a transition to dedicated Linux machinery or a full-on Hyper-V session.

Getting those GUI Linux apps running will still require diving into the command line (although we have no doubt that some enterprising users will soon have seamless links up and running on their Windows desktops). However, Microsoft also announced that WSL would be receiving a simplified install experience, “which will make it easier than ever to start using Linux apps on Windows.”

The Year of the Linux Desktop appears to be upon us. We’re just a bit surprised that it seems to have turned out to be Windows. ®


How Windows and Chrome quietly made 2019 the year of Linux on the desktop

Both Windows 10 and Chrome OS are embracing the Linux kernel and the software that runs on it.

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After years of endless jokes, 2019 is truly, finally shaping up to be the year of Linux on the desktop. Laptops, too! But most people won’t know it. That’s because the bones of the open-source operating system kernel will soon be baked into Windows 10 and Chrome OS, as Microsoft and Google revealed at their respective developer conferences this week.

Microsoft is overhauling its Windows Subsystem for Linux, which surprisingly debuted in the operating system three years ago. It allows users to run the iconic Bash application and other Linux software via the command line, but because it relies on emulation, performance often suffered.

The cleverly named Windows Subsystem for Linux 2, announced at Microsoft’s Build event this week, shakes things up by shipping a full Linux kernel (version 4.19) within Windows itself as a lightweight virtual machine. Doing so should supercharge performance for developers who use the tool.

“This same kernel is technology used for Azure and in both cases helps to reduce Linux boot time and streamline memory use,” Microsoft corporate vice president Kevin Gallo said in the announcement post. “WSL 2 also improves filesystem I/O performance, Linux compatibility, and can run Docker containers natively so that a VM is no longer needed for containers on Windows.”

A companion post by Craig Loewen, the program manager for the Windows Developer Platform, filled in more details. “File intensive operations like git clone, npm install, apt update, apt upgrade, and more will all be noticeably faster,” he wrote. “The actual speed increase will depend on which app you’re running and how it is interacting with the file system. Initial tests that we’ve run have WSL 2 running up to 20x faster compared to WSL 1 when unpacking a zipped tarball, and around 2-5x faster when using git clone, npm install and cmake on various projects.”

Those are impressive jumps indeed, with the bigger 20X improvement numbers fueled by changes in how the Windows Subsystem for Linux’s file system management behaves. It’ll be interesting to see how WSL2’s performance holds up in the real world when it ships later this year. Microsoft’s also planning to release a jazzed-up Windows Terminal to run your Linux commands, complete with tabs and the sexiest trailer for a command line tool that I’ve ever seen:

Linux software on all Chromebooks

Chromebooks have been intertwined with Linux since their inception. Chrome OS is built atop Linux, so you’ve been able to install Linux on Chromebooks for years. In 2018, Google added the ability to run Linux applications on Chromebooks by moving to a beta channel. That capability has been limited to specific Chromebooks, however—but not for long.

During its Google I/O developer conference this week, Google pledged that going forward, all Chromebooks will be able to run Linux apps, regardless of whether the processor inside was built by Intel, AMD, or ARM, ZDNet reports. You’ll be able to run terminal commands and even graphical applications like GIMP and LibreOffice, right from inside the standard Chrome OS interface. Giggity. How-To Geek has an excellent explainer on how to coax Linux software into running on compatible Chromebooks today.

Get this: Chromebooks also support Android apps, as Google’s mobile operating system is also built on Linux. Which means that developers could run software from three different operating systems at the same time on a Chromebook. So much for the stigma of Google-y laptops being glorified web browsers.

Whither Linux?

There you have it: Between lurking in Windows 10 and Chrome OS, and the tiny portion of actual Linux distro installs, pretty much any PC you pick up will run a Linux kernel and Linux software. Macs won’t, but it’s based on a Unix-like BSD system that already runs many Linux apps with relative ease (hence Apple’s popularity with developers).

You have to wonder where that leaves proper Linux distributions like Ubuntu and Linux Mint, though. They already suffer from a minuscule user share, and developers may shift toward Windows and Chrome if the Linux kernels in those operating systems get the same job done. Could this fruit wind up poisonous over the long term?

Alex Campbell/Rob Schultz, IDG

Ubuntu Linux running on a Dell laptop.

We’ll have to see. That said, Linux is healthier than ever. The major distros are far more polished than they used to be, with far fewer hardware woes than installs of yesteryear. You can even get your game on relatively well thanks to Valve’s Proton technology, which gets many (but not all) Steam games working on Linux systems. And hey, Linux is free. If you want to dip your toes into the open-source life, be sure to check out our beginner’s guide to Linux. The world’s headed in that direction anyway, it seems.

Normal users may never be aware of it, but 2019 may finally be the year of Linux on the desktop—just not Linux operating systems on the desktop.

Senior editor Brad Chacos covers gaming and graphics for PCWorld, and runs the morning news desk for PCWorld, Macworld, Greenbot, and TechHive. He tweets too.