"Good artists borrow, great artists steal!" -- Pablo Picasso said it. So did T.S. Eliot. And, more recently, Steve Jobs. Let's face it: If something makes sense and succeeds, it gets imitated.
Though Windows 8 and Linux distributions differ greatly from each other in design, ideology and -- last but not least -- their primary audience, they're all built on the same basic principles of OS design so there's bound to be some overlap. And while Microsoft has long been accused of stealing from the open source community, according to some Linux fans, it's getting to the point where Microsoft simply appropriates good Linux features.
I've been following the Windows 8 development very closely and noticed some hefty backlash on some of the features of Windows 8. This was especially true in some Linux/Windows forums and the Building 8 blog, where Sinofsky and friends write extensively about the new upcoming Windows iteration.
All this fingerpointing made me curious about where some of the best new-to-Windows features in Windows 8 really came from and how Microsoft put its own spin on them (or not).
1. File copy dialogue
In an effort to create more transparency, Microsoft implemented an improved copy, move, rename and delete dialog that doesn't just show the progress of each operation, but also a throughput graph and the ability to actually pause individual copy operations.
Oh, did that cause a firestorm in the open source community! Pretty much the same dialogue has been part of Linux's Dolphin and Nautilus file managers -- the file transfer dialogue also lets users pause operations and view multiple copy jobs in one window. We've even got the gimmicky bandwidth graph that appears once the user hits "More details".
The Microsoft twist: When there's a problem with a file operation, Windows 8 doesn't just stop the entire process but keeps these problems in the error queue. However, it's quite obvious that Microsoft took a good, hard look at the open source world here.
What neither Linux nor Windows 8 have is a queue feature. Of course, you could manually pause and resume individual copy operations, but that's not helping you on a massive copy job. Users of both Windows (see the comments on this post) and Linux have been waiting for this for quite a while.
2. ISO mounting
In Windows 8, Microsoft finally introduces mount ISO files. Once mounted, a new drive letter appears in Windows Explorer that represents the virtual CD/DVD ROM. And while it's a nice addition that lets users finally get rid of annoying third-party tools such as Daemon Tools, Power ISO or Virtual CloneDrive, both Linux and Mac have had this ability for quite a while.
The Microsoft twist: No Linux distro does ISO mounting as easily as Windows 8, as it requires some command line trickery (or, again, third-party tools). Thanks to all commenters for chipping in: Of course, easy ISO mounting is part of various Linux distributions -- both via the GUI and command line.
3. Windows To Go
Windows To Go allows (enterprise) users to create a bootable Windows 8 environment on a USB 2.0/3.0 flash drive. It even supports unplugging the drive, which causes the OS to freeze momentarily until you plug the Windows To Go stick back in. Awesome.
The Microsoft twist: Obviously, such "live environments" have been around for quite a while in the Linux world, but their performance was never quite up to par with a natively running OS. Since Microsoft optimized their NTFS file system for such a scenario, Windows 8 runs fluently even on USB 2.0. Upon testing Windows To Go, I found that both boot and overall speed were far superior to any Linux live distribution I have ever tested.
4. The Metro UI
The basic idea for the Metro UI appeared in Media Center and Zune hardware more than 5 years ago. When you use the Metro UI for the first time, you'll see that it's a very unique way of working with a device. But Microsoft didn't pioneer the idea.
Various Linux distros, such as Ubuntu, and the GNOME desktop environment, have tried to overhaul the user interface to fit the "one UI to rule them all" approach before Microsoft did. There's no denying that updates to the UI of Linux, especially Ubuntu, were made specifically with tablets in mind. But even the most ardent Linux users admit that touch support could by no means be called anything other than half-baked.
The Microsoft twist: Microsoft is taking a very risky step in making the new Metro UI the default view of the new OS, but it's also much more comfortable to use either with touch or a pen.
5. Social integration
Linux distributions -- notably Ubuntu -- have, for a long time now, included social media integration by default. The "Me" menu, which first appeared in early alpha versions of Ubuntu 10.04, allows you to update your status to all your accounts and get important feeds directly to your desktop. And when Microsoft finally added its [email protected], Photo Picker and Socialite app to the developer preview, loyal Linux users again pointed out that this has been done before.
The Microsoft twist: No twist here. Microsoft was simply late to catch on to the trend.
6. Native support for USB 3.0
In their very first blog post, the Building 8 folks explained their new native USB 3.0 stack and, of course, that news was greeted with comments of the "Linux has been doing that for three years" variety.
The Microsoft twist: Move along. Nothing to see here. USB 3.0 devices work pretty well with Windows 7 already since hardware manufacturers provide their own drivers. Microsoft just finally implemented an industry standard.
7. Cloud integration
Both Windows 8 and Linux sport features that let you sync data with the cloud. In Ubuntu 11, the Ubuntu One service offers a free online backup service with 5 GB. If you want more storage space, there's always the option of purchasing an additional 20 GB for $2.99 a month.
The Microsoft twist: Windows 8 is going to tightly integrate with SkyDrive's 25 GB online storage, which is not just for photos or music, but also allows for hosting your user account (personal settings, backgrounds, some data...) for you to log in from anywhere.
Ubuntu, however, counters with their new Music Streaming service.
The system itself is strikingly similar to ZFS (the Z File System) and the Linux-derived Btrfs (B-tree file system) as it also supports copy-on-write snapshots when coupled with Microsoft Storage Spaces. For further security, it also provides integrity checksums and B+ Trees. Also, the increased file/volume/directory sizes are also strikingly similar to Btrfs.
The Microsoft twist: Let's just say that Microsoft didn't do anything from scratch. While I did not dive deep into the file system drivers, I suspect that Microsoft looked very hard at some of the principles that worked years ago in both ZFS and then Btrfs and got the "inspiration" to develop something very similar.
Stealing or innovating?
While I won't deny that Microsoft has "borrowed" many ideas from the open source world, overall they're trying to find their own game in Windows 8.