If Windows Goes Open Source

Monday Apr 20th 2015 by Matt Hartley
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The possibility of an open source Windows OS has big ramifications for Linux users.

Recently there has been concern surrounding the possibility that one day Windows could be open source. The previous CEO of Microsoft stated point blank that he viewed the concept of open source as a cancer. Is this about-face an indication that Microsoft has evolved and accepts that open source provides far greater value? Even more provoking, could Windows one day join other open source projects?

In this article, I'll look at what happens if Windows goes open source. How it affects Linux desktops and whether or not open Windows could be a good thing or a Trojan horse.

Open Source vs GPL

Even the most die-hard Linux enthusiasts sometimes become confused when they think of open source licensing. They forget there are countless other open source licenses besides the famed GPL license. If Microsoft offers Windows source code under an open source license, you can be sure they'll guarantee that said code will prevent any competition.

In addition to making sure Windows couldn't simply be cloned using an existing code base, Microsoft will have waited until their software as a service model has matured. I bet it'll have matured to a degree that even if someone comes up with Windows "Reloaded," their proprietary software projects will still only work on the operating systems they've blessed.

Microsoft is beginning to accept that the operating system is losing its importance. Web applications and applications that can be run locally in a cross platform nature are beginning to put Microsoft on notice. Software, not operating systems, will run the desktops of tomorrow. Their focus will remain true to this revelation. Anyone competing with Microsoft who fails to realize this will end up a distant second place, even as Windows loses its importance.

It starts with a freebie

One of the best ways to gain adoption is to remove barriers to said adoption. Microsoft apparently is trying their hand at this. They will for at least a year upon its release, make Windows 10 upgrades free to users of Windows 7 and 8. To make matters even more disturbing, there's also talk of how they'll offer that upgrade via the Windows Update feature. That's right folks, Microsoft will now offer something Linux desktops have offered their users for years now. Welcome to the 21st Century, Microsoft.

In their defense, one thing Microsoft is doing right is allowing technical preview releases of Windows 10 to automatically upgrade to Windows 10 proper. Great for Microsoft, deeply troubling for those who might be considering a switch to Linux in the future.

An important thing to remember is this: If you ask most people why they switched to Linux over Windows, their reasons will vary. However a large chunk of those recent converts will come about because Linux is available at no cost. This is especially true of those who didn't want to pay to upgrade to Windows 7 or 8. So while the cost of an operating system might not be a primary motivator for users such as myself, it can be for others.

It may start off with just an upgrade being made free, the next step could be to open source the entire operating system a few years later. Microsoft might be going for the long play on this one. And if they're successful, it will absolutely hurt Linux adoption.

Secure boot is a control move

The official line from various pro-Windows pundits is that in Windows 10 manufacturers will have a "choice" as to whether or not to provide a secure boot kill switch. On the surface, this sounds benign enough. But it also leaves the door open for Microsoft to "encourage" vendors to lock down the computer. Considering this isn't beyond the scope of something Microsoft might do, it behooves us all to be careful when considering Windows 10 PCs.

While it's probable that this choice will only affect a few computers upon the Windows 10 release, companies like Dell would be all too welcoming to abide by Microsoft's wishes. Dell selling Ubuntu in other countries or simply testing the market here in the US isn't a clear indication that they'll support the Linux desktop going forward. They've pulled back before and if the deal is sweet enough, might do so again. Don't believe me? Go to Dell.com and browse their "vast selection" of Linux computers.

Dell and others will jump at the chance to minimize their support calls after someone installs Linux or any other non-supported operating system. If it's locked down, chances are the support calls will remain centered around Windows 10 only. Just watch, I bet it will happen. And if it does other vendors will follow along given the opportunity.

Open or Closed Source – Windows 10 is a threat

Regardless of its licensing, Windows 10 challenges the Linux community on multiple fronts and thus far the community has done little to nothing to really prepare for its release. Unlike previous releases, we're looking at a two-front attack.

Windows 10 will be automatically installed on existing Windows computers for free. This alone only serves to further lock people into Microsoft's ecosystem.

Windows 10 will likely be released onto hardware designed for Windows 10, exclusively. Want to run Linux? Too bad, better find another vendor as you could potentially be out of luck in your quest to save a few bucks if you buy a Windows 10 computer.

And how is the community bracing for this issue? We're whining about systemd vs init solutions, or beating our chests as to why distributions based on a distro are just copycats of more established distros.

Folks, it's time to wake up and smell the coffee. No longer is this a matter of adoption stagnation – this potentially could affect our ability to install Linux on off-the-shelf computers in the years to come. It will still be doable, but only if you're smart enough to buy from vendors who won't lock-down their computers.

In years past, I've scoffed each time Microsoft released a new release of Windows. I'll have a good laugh at the 101 versions they come out up with, or how legacy hardware is once again treated like a second-class citizen. Because peripheral vendor support for Windows is only as good as the recent Windows release. But not this time. This time Microsoft is coming out of the gate in a whirlwind of fists and elbows and we're asleep at the wheel.

Windows 11 and forward

In the coming years, I do believe Microsoft Windows will be open source. Not with a license designed to benefit the computing community, but instead with one designed to provide a strong public relations position within the public eye.

Think about it – what are the three hottest things going on right now in computing? Open source code, containers and cloud computing. At the time of this article, Microsoft is entrenching their position into both containers and cloud computing. The final nail will be Windows running with an open source license of Microsoft's own creation.

Even if vendors decide to allow us to choose what operating systems we install on their systems, Windows 10 being offered for free remains a threat.

Over the years, I've found that my intuitions on subjects relating to technology tend to be painfully accurate. My hunch is that this time is no exception – now more than ever, we need to be very wary of whom we choose to buy our computers from. Buying from vendors who have a slated history in slighting Linux on the desktop at every opportune moment need to be avoided.

Some of you will undoubtedly equate my concerns to Don Quixote chasing windmills. Others will see what I see and are in a position to join me to get the word out. Microsoft is aiming straight for the Linux desktop market. While secure boot is currently semi-supported on popular distros right now, who knows what this will look like come Windows 10, with participating vendors, going forward.

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