I have always been a die hard Linux fan boy. I prefer to work on Linux whenever possible; partially because I respect what it represents and I like to stick it to Microsoft. Any time I can use a computer without shelling out any money towards Microsoft, or Apple for that matter, it is a victory for me (which is also why I love Android). For those of you who do not know what Linux is, I will summarize. Linux is an operating system (OS) for your computer. It is kind of like Windows and Mac OSX, only it is free, you do not have to pay any licensing fees to use it, and you will never have to. For more information, please visit the Linux Wikipeida Page.
However, Linux is not without its shortcomings. The biggest one is support for gaming, and this is a multi-tier problem.
Tier One: Linux is perceived as a difficult OS to use, for the most part this concern is almost completely gone, 10-15 years ago however nothing could be truer. Even today when doing some very specific tasks, it can still be difficult to use. The average computer user may encounter problems while doing things such as updating video drivers, or other essential everyday functions. This perception stems from the fact that Linux is still, largely, a server focused command line operating system (with an interface similar to MS-DOS). Many Linux server administrators choose not to even install a Graphical User Interface (GUI) to save on resources. For server administrators, this does not pose a problem since they are trained to use this OS, and have gotten used to implementing it in order to run many of their systems. However, for the everyday computer user, this can become very tedious and confusing, as many of them have become reliant on the click of a button.
Tier Two: In direct relation to tier one, because Linux is perceived as so difficult to use, the market share is very low. This results in many major video games never being released for the platform. This fact is a shame, due to the fact that some developers have actually discovered that the Linux version of their games actually outperform the other versions. A good example of this would be when Valve was in the process of porting Left 4 Dead 2 to Linux. They wrote about how the Linux performance was better than Windows, despite how long they spent on Windows development in comparison to Linux development. In addition, they helped improve OpenGL performance on Windows as a direct result of their work on Linux.
As for Valve, I am definitely excited for the release of Valve’s SteamOS. I personally believe that Valve could substantially alleviate, or even eliminate Tier One problem as it relates to gaming. Tier Two would most likely resolve itself over time. Hopefully Valve will follow, or improve what some other Linux distributions, like Ubuntu, are already undertaking.
A key factor in the popularity of Mac OSX is the claim that is extremely easy to use or that their products “just work”. This is accomplished by taking options and customizability away from their end users as fewer variables mean less points of failure. A prime example of this technique is demonstrated in the iPhone, in comparison to, say, an Android device. Out of the box the iPhone will be set up and ready to go, and there is very little that end user can change besides the location of the icons on the main screen.
Some Linux users will cry foul at this notion of eliminating options and creating a more restrictive Linux, but guess what! Those Linux distributions that actually let you customize your OS, distributions like Gentoo or Linux from Scratch, will still exist. Ideally, Valve would publish a list of supported hardware to run the OS, the OS updates, drivers, and game dependencies. These could easily be installed automatically, in a manner that is transparent to the user. If this is implemented in SteamOS, then it could very well be viewed as “easy to use” resulting in further adoption of the OS and Linux market share would increase.
Why has the iPhone App Store been a success? The answer is simple; curation. Before an application can be put up for purchase it needs to meet a minimum set of standards, even then they can be rejected for one reason or another. This curated experience means that any application you want to use would just work. The end user does not want to have to run an installer. and then have to fiddle with options. They want to click run and have the application launch.
Ubuntu took notice of this, and started their own a curated app store. The applications will, typically, run smoothly after you have installed them from the Ubuntu app store. It has a great interface and promotes popular applications. This is another step to transforming Linux into an OS that is very easy to use, and this is very important.
My own experiences with Steam on Linux have been hit or miss. Some games have installed and launched with absolutely no issues. I have also attempted to launch a game, and had the game crash for no good reason, or I have had some odd problems here and there (FTL and SPAZ I am looking at you!). I have been able to resolve most of these problems after doing some research. This usually involves playing with the configuration files or installing dependencies. This extra work is the problem with gaming on Linux. People have become accustomed to having an application work flawlessly, or very close to it, after just clicking install. The end user should not have to worry about the multitude of reasons why an application is not working or try to understand cryptic error messages.
If game development shifted to a single platform managed by Valve, issues related to what dependencies are pre-installed would be virtually eliminated and then developers would know what they have to work with. With the current Linux ecosystem, developers do not want to produce anything for the OS because there are currently no standards to follow. Trying to anticipate what software is included in the multitude of distributions is a daunting task. If every developer was attempting to get their game running on Steam OS, then everybody would know what is available for them to use and if something was missing Valve would then be able to push out the missing pieces in a software update.
This is how Apple does it; iOS 6 is virtually the same across all devices with some very minor variations (iPhone 5, Retina Display, etc.), so there are no missing dependencies or unaccounted variables. Having just one supported distribution that is still free to install and use, will help developers start thinking about Linux as a platform worth supporting.
I am definitely looking forward to the release of Steam OS, but hope that Valve does not botch it. They need to get gaming on Linux right and encourage developers to use the OS. The year of the Linux desktop is still very far away. Hopefully, Steam OS will bring us another step in the right direction.