Acer Aspire Switch is Linux Unfriendly

Now that the hardware of an Acer SW5-012 (Aspire Switch 10) is back up and running, the focus turns to software. Windows 8 is installed but locked with passwords I don’t have. I didn’t care much for Windows 8 anyway, and whatever data exists is not mine to recover. So – a clean wipe is in order.

As with the Latitude X1, my first thought was to turn this little old machine into an almost-Chromebook with Neverware CloudReady. And just like with the Latitude X1, the attempt was foiled. The Latitude X1 was too old and did not support some processor features required by CloudReady. The Acer problem is just the opposite – the hardware is too new and deliberately blocks the installation.

The blocking mechanism is Secure Boot, which according to its own web site is a “security standard developed by members of the PC industry to help make sure that a device boots using only software that is trusted by the Original Equipment Manufacturer.” I would describe it with different terms. Either way, trying to install CloudReady – or a Linux distribution – results in the error screen “Secure Boot Error”.

Intentional or not, this puts the Acer in a bad state. It gets stuck neither fully on nor off, the screen dark but burning battery power and making itself warm. I had to disassemble the computer again to pull the battery from the main circuit board in order to reboot the machine.

In theory Secure Boot can be disabled, but various efforts by other people on the internet indicated this isn’t straightforward. I certainly had no better luck when I tried it: I can see the menu option, and I could change it from black on white (disabled) to white on gray (enabled) by creating an admin password, but I couldn’t figure out how to actually change the Secure Boot mode out of “Standard”.

Acer Secure Boot Menu

And it might not even be worth the effort, as forum traffic indicates there is very poor Linux driver support for this class of hardware. Probably related to the secure boot barrier but either way I’m giving up. I’ll stay with Windows on this machine.

Windows Subsystem Returns for Linux

One of the newest features in Windows 10 is the “Windows Subsystem for Linux” (WSL) allowing a limited set of Linux binaries to run on the latest 64-bit edition of Windows 10. It may be a sign of open-source friendliness by the new Microsoft CEO but for trivia’s sake: it is not a new concept.

The lineage for Windows 10 traces all the way back to Windows NT, built-in the early 1990s as a heavier-duty operating system (or according to some, “a real operating system”) to move upscale relative to the existing DOS-based Windows (“not a real operating system”). As consumer-level hardware grew more capable, the old DOS core was phased out and the NT kernel took over. Windows 2000 was the modest start, followed by the successful Windows XP.

But back when Windows NT launched, it was intended to capture the business, enterprise, and government markets with higher margins than the consumer market. At the time, one requirement to compete for government contracts was support for POSIX, a IEEE-defined subset of Unix. The software architects for Windows NT built a modular design that supported multiple subsystems. In addition to the home-grown Microsoft Win32 and the POSIX subsystem to meet government requirement, there is also a subsystem for IBM OS/2 to compete in enterprises that had invested in OS/2.

History showed those subsystem were barely, if anything, more than lip service. They were not used much and gradually faded away in later evolution of the NT lineage.

But now, the concept returns.

Microsoft has a healthy and profitable market in desktop software development with Windows, but is only a marginal player in the web + cloud world. The people writing code there are more likely to be using a Linux workstation or a Macintosh with its FreeBSD-based MacOS. In an attempt to make Windows more relevant to this world, they need to provide access to the already entrenched tools.

So just like before, Microsoft is building a Linux subsystem for business competitive reasons. But unlike the POSIX subsystem, they couldn’t get away with just lip service to satisfy a checklist. It will actually need to be useful to gain meaningful traction.

The method of installation is a little odd – the supported Linux distributions are listed on the Microsoft Windows app store. But once we get past this square peg jammed in a round hole, it works well enough.

WSL is not a virtual machine or even a container. The Linux executables were not recompiled for Windows, they’re the exact same binaries. And they’re not isolated – they run side by side with the rest of Windows and has access to the same file system.

Personally, I’m using WSL so I can use the same git source control commands that I’ve learned while working in Ubuntu. I know Github has a Windows GUI and associated command-line toolkit, but I expect running the Ubuntu git via WSL would work better with git outside of Github. (Bitbucket, Heroku, etc.)

This is a good start. I hope WSL has a real life ahead to help Windows play well with others, and not fade away like its predecessors.