Steam on Linux is a very big deal

Two years after writing that Steam on Linux would be a big deal, I got to play Team Fortress 2 on Linux. Steam on Linux is finally no longer vapourware and it is a very big deal. It was pretty amazing to see it running natively on Linux after all this time.

Screenshot from 2012-12-20 14:38:55
While it certainly did run, for me it was largely unplayable. On the few instances were I was able to connect to a server and join a game it was incredibly laggy. Most of the time it would freeze and crash.  I suspect my experience is not the norm because this was pretty bad even by Beta standards.  My individual issues aside, Steam coming to Linux has already already pushed Nvidia to double the speed of their Linux drivers and have already gotten Left for Dead 2 running faster on Linux than on Windows.  I think it safe to say that we can expect many more improvements as other companies start taking Linux seriously as well.

2012-12-20_00001

Canonical, the company behind Ubuntu, is working closely with Valve and game engine developer Unity to make Ubuntu a solid gaming platform. This focus on gaming is evident all over the Ubuntu blog and is clearly transforming the company. With all this activity going on its interesting to remember that it all started with moves by Microsoft to start closing their platform (perhaps prompted by their first loss?).

The opening move from Microsoft was to force developers using the new Windows 8 “metro” interface to sell their software through the new Microsoft app store so they can take a cut of the transaction. I guess nobody likes being reminded that they are only a sharecropper because the reaction was fierce. Former Microsoft employee and now Valve CEO Gabe Newell called Windows 8 “a catastrophe for everyone in the PC space”,  a sentiment that was echoed by Blizzard’s CEO, Minecraft creator Notch and Croteam developer Alen Ladavac who explained:

Gabe Newell did not overreact. What you don’t see here is that, under the hood, the new tiled UI is a means for Microsoft to lock Windows applications into a walled garden, much like the one on iOS. There is this “small detail” that Microsoft is not advertising anywhere, but you can find it dug deep in the developer documentation: One cannot release a tiled UI application by any other means, but only through Windows Store!
While, theoretically, desktop applications are exempt from these requirements, it looks more and more like just a foot-in-the-door technique. A large number of developers have expressed their concern with possibility that, probably in Windows 9 or something like that, the ability to get even desktop apps in any other way than through Windows app store may very well be removed. When that happens it will be too late.

The effect of this according to Newell is that “margins will be destroyed for a bunch of people” as Microsoft claims an Apple-like 30% from each sale. Moving to Linux for him was a “hedging strategy”. The silence from other quarters of the software industry has been interesting but I am sure they are all watching carefully what is going on. So thanks to Microsoft I am now playing Team Fortress 2 on Linux with a 50% faster drivers. How’s that for a Cobra effect?

All that said, Steam, the games it runs and the Nvidia drivers are all just binary blobs being loaded onto my computer. While I am happy to have them, none of this represents knowedge/code entering the public domain for others to build on… so the big question that needs to be answered now was asked by Richard Stallman:

I suppose that availability of popular nonfree programs on GNU/Linux can boost adoption of the system. However, our goal goes beyond making this system a “success”; its purpose is to bring freedom to the users. Thus, the question is how this development affects users’ freedom.

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