In the 21 years or so since its inception, Linux has gained some amazing enthusiast street cred, but failed time and again to enter the mainstream. This year, however, may afford it an opportunity it’s never had before: to gain the momentum necessary to join the big boys in the operating system world. If that happens, Linux devotees the world over — from users to developers to even Linus Torvalds himself — may have Microsoft and Windows 8 to thank.
Wait! I know I’ve ragged on Redmond’s reductive “new” OS in this space frequently, but… well, er, I stand by everything I’ve written. But this time it isn’t just me talking. This week the person saying it was Gabe Newell, the cofounder and managing director of Valve. So even if you think I’m bonkers for threatening to decamp to Linux if Windows 8 implodes, you owe it yourself to at least consider what he recently told Tricia Duryee of All Things D:
The big problem that is holding back Linux is games. People don’t realize how critical games are in driving consumer purchasing behavior.
We want to make it as easy as possible for the 2,500 games on Steam to run on Linux as well. It’s a hedging strategy. I think Windows 8 is a catastrophe for everyone in the PC space. I think we’ll lose some of the top-tier PC/OEMs, who will exit the market. I think margins will be destroyed for a bunch of people. If that’s true, then it will be good to have alternatives to hedge against that eventuality.
The Oatmeal’s take on the Steam Box video game console
Bingo. Windows 8 is really a make-or-break release for Microsoft. It’s an incredibly ambitious gamble that carries with it a huge amount of risk, wrapped up in the as-yet-unanswerable question of how willing people are to sacrifice their everyday computing just to make things better on tablets and phones. None of us can know the answer to that yet, and if the Microsoft folks bet the wrong way, their company could be on the line. And, yes, the stakes are so dire, and the level of failure so severe, that it really might let Linux get its foot in the door for the first time ever. When that happens, the technology world will change irrevocably.
This is not to say a lot of other circumstances have to line up, too — and that means giving audiences a concrete incentive to choose Linux in addition to choosing against Windows 8. And about this, Newell is exactly correct in saying that games have to factor into the equation somewhere in a far more prominent way than they currently do. Sorry, Tux lovers, but there’s no way around this.
Listen, I’ve been a Linux partisan (if not remotely a monogamous one) for years, and have been on the verge of permanent migration for years. But that’s one of the major reasons I’ve never made the switch. I like playing PC games — real PC games, new PC games — too much to give them up, and hardware and driver support just hasn’t been there in a real, definable way with the kinds of games I’m interested in. Yes, there are some not-terrible titles out there now, and some useful alternatives exist — the compatibility layer Wine is perhaps the most famous, and it’s improved by leaps and bounds over the last couple of years — but for the most part your organic choices have been limited to things like Tux Racer, TORCS, Nexuiz, and “complaining about Unity on web forums,” all of which have their charms but lack the polish of most PC titles. There’s little question about why this is: The absence of great money and world-class QA, and R&D has hampered inspiration, innovation, and implementation. (Come to think of it, this is true about pretty much all Linux software.)
But if — and I realize it’s an Empire State Building–size “if” at this point — games are not just playable on Linux but also high in quality, this could have an interesting impact on the current frontrunners. Admittedly, there’s not much chance Linux is going to usurp the field anytime soon: According to tracking information provided by the W3C, as of June Linux owned only about 1.8% of the market, compared with 15.47% for Apple’s various operating systems and a stunning 78.89% for four incarnations of Windows. But if Windows 8 is the desktop disaster folks like Newell and I are predicting it will be, even its new lower priceswon’t stop some people from defecting.
Is this really the right interface for PC gaming?
So the time couldn’t be better for Valve to finally release its long-awaited version of Steam for Linux, and give users of open source software the truly viable second alternative they’ve never really had. When the choice comes down to Apple (gorgeous but expensive hardware the company is dead set against you upgrading) and Linux (inscrutable software that runs on practically anything, and that anyone can afford) don’t think there’s a not a chance Linux could make a major dent in its competitors’ dominance and skyrocket to objective visibility within a year or so. People want games, and when the playing field is level, they’ll see everything that Linux has to offer (and save) them that Mac and Windows setups no longer will.
All this is contingent, of course, on Apple and Microsoft playing along by not playing along. Mountain Lion has been heralded, but doesn’t boast a ton of game-changing new features (for people in the US, at any rate). And though Microsoft has made plenty of tiny tweaks around the edges of Windows 8, it’s changed so little from its initial developer preview that you may find yourself wondering whether the company has learned anything from its past mistakes. These circumstances suggest both companies are already set in their ways, and their longer development cycles could make them particularly vulnerable to the fast-moving Linux and its uniquely passionate and experienced userbase. (Ubuntu, as but one example, has two major releases per year, with the next, version 12.10, slated to arrive in October.)
Of course, Linux has boasted all those involved Penguin-huggers for ages, and they haven’t helped much. There’s still an enormous gulf out there between everyday computer users and Linux users, in part a necessary byproduct of Linux’s more complicated, makeshift nature, but also because the DIY mindset long ago seeped out of the general populace’s consciousness (as I’ve discussed here before). The fact remains that a lot of people still haven’t realized that Linux offers them almost everything Mac OS X and Windows do, if in a considerably less-flashy and tougher-to-support package. And the learning curve, if you’re not an old-timer or familiar with alternative ways of doing things, can be steep. For the vast majority, paying the extra money and accepting the binding chains that are a condition of the bargain have been worthwhile sacrifices to guarantee software availability and hardware compatibility — assuming they’ve even known about Linux as an alternative at all.
Linux is, as always, facing an uphill struggle, no doubt, and no matter what happens Windows 8 is probably not quite self-destructive enough to blow users over into the open source world. Still, the notion is tantalizing, and not entirely out of the realm of possibility. Newell and Valve have their work cut out for them; if the Linux version of their game distribution software is good it could significantly accelerate the process, and if it’s not it could clamp down the brakes yet again on the operating system’s constant careening toward popularity. But pairing the alignment of the stars that could only happen in 2012 with a selection of instantly accessible triple-A games could upend our preconceptions about PC gaming and force a mini Renaissance within the next few years.
A pipe dream? Maybe. But if it ends up happening, don’t be surprised if the twin driving forces behind the locomotive of change are Windows and Steam.