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Response to Eric Raymond (ESR) on “Last Phase of the Desktop Wars”

Liberty matters; to Microsoft it's all about control/coercion

Statue of Liberty



Summary: Eric Raymond (ESR) talks about Microsoft's "embrace"; but there are many misunderstandings and misconceptions in his blog post, as we'll explain patiently, based on known facts

THE co-founder of the OSI (an anti-Free software organisation), ESR, has just published "Last phase of the desktop wars?"



"ESR is thick-skinned, so he can certainly take the criticism."The article is full of some strange slant/take on positivism; as if we should be happy about Microsoft, or as if Microsoft is "embracing" this thing called 'Linux' (GNU) with good intentions. I found myself shaking my head a lot (side to side, not top to bottom) while reading it; there are many factual errors there, which makes it hard to read without face-palming a bit. "ESR forgot to take the pink glasses off," MinceR said in IRC and XRevan86 "stopped reading at the mention of MS Edge being ported," he has just said. We've decided to respond. Of course chromium-browser already supported GNU/Linux since the very beginning, so the 'port' from Microsoft is a joke. It's a PR stunt from which we have nothing to gain (GNU/Linux users won't touch it); Microsoft used it to bombard the media with proprietary software (spyware) marketing on the same day Firefox 81 was released; guess what media paid attention to (vapourware, not an actual release of an actual FOSS browser). But we'll get to that in a moment...

ESR is thick-skinned, so he can certainly take the criticism. Constructive hopefully...

I spoke to him before (online) and he's responsive, albeit abrasive at times. We won't remark on his professional or his political views (he tried to 'cancel' RMS more than 2 decades ago and nowadays he promotes militia nonsense); we'll focus 100% on the substance (or lack of it). Reply in full, in-line, just like the Halloween Documents that he published with editorial interpretations. A lot of the reply below is based on an IRC debate, which is still ongoing.

Without further ado (and quite frankly with respect):

The two most intriguing developments in the recent evolution of the Microsoft Windows operating system are Windows System for Linux (WSL) and the porting of their Microsoft Edge browser to Ubuntu.


As noted above (prematurely perhaps, as that part was particularly off-putting), the core of this browser has long supported GNU/Linux (not just "Ubuntu") and mostly because of Google and code that it had repurposed; that had nothing to do with Microsoft, which merely 'borrowed' other people's work, initially removing GNU/Linux support (similar to what Microsoft did to Skype).

Regarding "Windows System for Linux" [sic], it's a deliberate misnomer. There's no Linux in WSL. WSL2 does have Linux, but hardly anyone uses that. It has been a devastating failure for Microsoft (their Project Manager got really stressed when we spoke about it and presented evidence) and last night we finally saw reports about Microsoft 'fixing' it after breaking it almost a fortnight ago. Only a crazy fool would do any serious work on WSL/WSL2.

These Microsoft 'toys' are widely seen as experimental laughing stocks among actual users of GNU/Linux. They'd never touch that stuff; at best, they'd run virtual machines with GNU/Linux in them (using something like VirtualBox). WSL/2 is like 2 decades behind (Cygwin).

ESR calls these "intriguing developments" (Microsoft giving up on MSIE and Edge, redoing the whole thing using someone else's product, just like with WSL/2). The word "intriguing" can be (mis)interpreted in all sorts of ways; if by "intriguing" he meant something negative, then fine. But let's press on with the next paragraph:

For those of you not keeping up, WSL allows unmodified Linux binaries to run under Windows 10. No emulation, no shim layer, they just load and go.


Wow. Welcome back, 2001. Cygwin. Sort of...

I experimented with Cygwin when I was still a teenager.

Microsoft... bringing you the distant past... today.

Aside from that, today's PCs come with so much RAM that one can just run these "unmodified Linux binaries" in a virtual machine (with no noticeable performance toll).

Microsoft developers are now landing features in the Linux kernel to improve WSL.


Read as: Microsoft is taking control of the competition. It even bribed the Linux Foundation several times to keep it off-guard. It hired some kernel hackers to make sure it has key positions in development and inside the Technical Advisory Board of the Linux Foundation.

Some accomplishment, eh?

And that points in a fascinating technical direction. To understand why, we need to notice how Microsoft’s revenue stream has changed since the launch of its cloud service in 2010.


He then goes along with a likely bogus narrative. Many companies do "clown computing" these days; few are actually profitable (AWS is, as the network effect helps, along with brand recognition and lock-in). Many shut down for financial reasons. I'd know; I've seen that at my nighttime work (datacentre and service/product closures, forcing migration/relocation with little prior notice).

Ten years later, Azure makes Microsoft most of its money.


Stop right there!

This is what Microsoft claims. While refusing to disclose underlying figures. Microsoft whistleblowers say it operates at a loss and likely constitutes fraud (defrauding the shareholders and more).

So the same ESR who published the Halloween Documents suddenly believes what Microsoft is saying? Come on, Eric, turn back on your critical skills and assess counter-arguments with corresponding evidence.

The Windows monopoly has become a sideshow, with sales of conventional desktop PCs (the only market it dominates) declining. Accordingly, the return on investment of spending on Windows development is falling. As PC volume sales continue to fall off , it’s inevitably going to stop being a profit center and turn into a drag on the business.


Ariadne responded to this in IRC, saying that "the thought that PC sales are declining is a fallacy..."

She said "people are still using PCs..."

"Remind him of Minecraft Bedrock," XRevan86 noted.

"I'm starting to suspect Teams is an experiment in which they're trying to find out how long can they delay messages before people give up on Teams," MinceR added.

Microsoft's products and services are still rather shoddy.

Ariadne then noted that "NT is a problem though [as] writing drivers and subsystems for NT is a huge pain in the ass. It is possible that NT could be replaced down the road with a Linux kernel. That much I would believe. But POSIX? Yeah right :) [...] if you are going to make developers transition to new APIs, you would get them to transition to whatever the present state of the art is, not POSIX... I guess what I'm saying is that we could see a windows OS based on Linux kernel, in the same way that android is based on Linux kernel, but otherwise unrelated to UNIX environment... the shortcomings of NT are becoming more and more visible."

"If something like that would occur," XRevan86 responded, "it would definitely happen in such a way it wouldn't make anyone happier than Microsoft."

I agreed with MinceR when he said: "maybe they don't care anymore, they're just looking to do damage [...] they'll just tell gkh [Greg K-H] to declare a stable ABI and if it stops Linux development, they don't care..."

"Free kernel," as XRevan86 called it, "completely useless to everyone else."

"I suspect that is the plan anyway," Ariadne responded.

XRevan86 recalled the "extend/extinguish" going months back: "It was funny hearing about the DirectX 12 shim for WSL as "Microsoft ported DX12 to Linux, they care!" [...] If Microsoft will port their calculator to GNU/Linux, everyone will lose it. Albeit that's very unlikely."

oiaohm said "it's more interesting [to talk about] the DX12 userspace libraries from Windows being brought on top of Linux [as] there has been some talk [regarding whether] Microsoft is pondering DX12 work on the Linux DRI layer. (Mind you this could be evil profit)"

More on that in a moment (or in raw IRC logs, to be published tomorrow).

"Anyway," XRevan86 concluded, "I think we can all agree MS Edge coming to GNU/Linux is not the Sign of Microsoft moving Windows to Linux."

Ariadne responded with "absolutely not [as] even if Windows were to use a Linux kernel in future, they would still use their own APIs just like Android..."

"MS Edge has been available on Android all this time," XRevan86 said.

"DX12 coming it Linux would not surprise me," oiaohm said. "Of course it most likely will come with you have to pay fee to Microsoft."

"That would make them less appealing than FOSS," XRevan86 replied. "Probably not a fee. Not at first anyway."

More in IRC logs. Let's move to the next on to the next paragraph.

Looked at from the point of view of cold-blooded profit maximization, this means continuing Windows development is a thing Microsoft would prefer not to be doing. Instead, they’d do better putting more capital investment into Azure – which is widely rumored to be running more Linux instances than Windows these days.


At a loss. Say former insiders. There's even a formal complaint filed with the SEC.

We'll soon be able to publish some Microsoft leaks.

Our third ingredient is Proton. Proton is the emulation layer that allows Windows games distributed on Steam to run over Linux. It’s not perfect yet, but it’s getting close. I myself use it to play World of Warships on the Great Beast.


Nothing new. WINE has long been able to make this DRM mess run (more or less), not that it's a favourable thing for GNU/Linux or software freedom.

The thing about games is that they are the most demanding possible stress test for a Windows emulation layer, much more so than business software. We may already be at the point where Proton-like technology is entirely good enough to run Windows business software over Linux. If not, we will be soon.


Computers get more powerful over time and old computers are discarded. The performance aspects don't matter today (like emulation layers' penalties or compatibility layer in WINE's case) like they did 10 or 15 years ago. The translation toll is lessened relative to other parts of the rendering pipeline. Also, graphics cards with their drivers for Linux are rapidly improving (workloads on GPUs) and they offload all that stuff onto proprietary silicon chips. Not an 'OS thing'...

So, you’re a Microsoft corporate strategist. What’s the profit-maximizing path forward given all these factors?


Patent blackmail. An hour ago MinceR recalled that "manufacturers already bundle a ton of Microsoft crap with their android devices..."

I told him that this is "as part of patent settlements," recalling that as recently as last year Microsoft still sued a large OEM/manufacturer (Foxconn) over patents in relation to ChromeOS and Android (Linux). "Microsoft blackmails them into bundling," I reminded him, "because they're still a bunch of gangsters and if you say this, you're racist, as Ballmer is out..."

He agreed.

How many billions of dollars per year does Microsoft make by blackmailing companies using ridiculous software patents, or settling with them by means of Microsoft bundling (and/or other business favours)?

It’s this: Microsoft Windows becomes a Proton-like emulation layer over a Linux kernel, with the layer getting thinner over time as more of the support lands in the mainline kernel sources. The economic motive is that Microsoft sheds an ever-larger fraction of its development costs as less and less has to be done in-house.


The simple reality is, Windows is becoming obsolete as more people now use Android (than Windows). But that does not mean that WSL/2 somehow becomes a basis for Windows itself. It's just a failed experiment. Nobody uses WSL2. Almost nobody (about 150,000 people worldwide last we checked). Remember that WSL is not Linux and it doesn't even have Linux in it. It's Windows.

If you think this is fantasy, think again. The best evidence that it’s already the plan is that Microsoft has already ported Edge to run under Linux. There is only one way that makes any sense, and that is as a trial run for freeing the rest of the Windows utility suite from depending on any emulation layer.


Once again he goes back to this Microsoft "ported Edge to run under Linux..."

No, Edge was thrown out (except as a brand) and Microsoft took a codebase that already supported GNU/Linux.

Not much done there. ESR perpetuates Microsoft propaganda here. Or PR ploys/stunts.

"If you think this is fantasy, think again," ESR said. XRevan86 responded with: "*thinks* nope, still pure fantasy..."

Similar to the one SJVN was spreading in the Microsoft propaganda site, ZDNet.

"What the hay is he smoking," XRevan86 added.

MinceR thinks "he failed to recognize what happened to Linux, which is extra weird because I thought he'd at least notice the CoC issue..."

"So now Microsoft will have two consumer-oriented projects for GNU/Linux: Edge and Skype (client), both are based on Google's cross-platform code," XRevan86 said. "Big flipping deal."

"You missed Teams," oiaohm wrote. XRevan86 agreed and MinceR said it "doesn't work properly anywhere..." (they're mostly rebranding and pretending to 'add' GNU/Linux support -- for the illusion of 'growth' or 'market share').

So, the end state this all points at is: New Windows is mostly a Linux kernel, there’s an old-Windows emulation over it, but Edge and the rest of the Windows user-land utilities don’t use the emulation. The emulation layer is there for games and other legacy third-party software.


Pure nonsense. WSL/2 isn't at the core of Windows. It's just some toy added on the side -- a 'side dish' like Cygwin.

Economic pressure will be on Microsoft to deprecate the emulation layer. Partly because it’s entirely a cost center. Partly because they want to reduce the complexity cost of running Azure. Every increment of Windows/Linux convergence helps with that – reduces administration and the expected volume of support traffic.


Azure is a failure. We need to stop helping Microsoft's propaganda. They keep googlebombing "Linux", so perhaps some people are led to absorb lies. Even people who should know better.

Eventually, Microsoft announces upcoming end-of-life on the Windows emulation. The OS itself , and its userland tools, has for some time already been Linux underneath a carefully preserved old-Windows UI. Third-party software providers stop shipping Windows binaries in favor of ELF binaries with a pure Linux API…


No, they can just target proper GNU/Linux instead. Many already do.

…and Linux finally wins the desktop wars, not by displacing Windows but by co-opting it. Perhaps this is always how it had to be.


You got it the other way around, ESR. Who is co-opting who?

Ariadne said, "I do believe Microsoft are shopping for a new kernel [...] that much seems plausible [as] you have to keep in mind that Linux provides, even for Microsoft, lower capex and opex [...] than redesigning NT to scale properly to these hundreds of cores systems being sold today..."

Just because Microsoft can take advantage of the Linux kernel doesn't mean that GNU/Linux somehow 'wins'; unless we're led to think that the Free software movement boils down to some kernel made in 1991 (8 years after the GNU Project) and running Office/Skype on Windows is "winning"...

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