For a while now, I’ve had some thoughts on the Steam Deck and what it means for Linux. After some discussions about it in various places, I thought it’s finally time to put the thoughts down on (digital) paper.
If you for some reason do not know, the Steam Deck is a handheld gaming console made by Valve. It somewhat resembles the Nintendo Switch but it’s a bit larger and much more powerful, housing an AMD APU. The most important difference from the traditional consoles for this post is the fact that it’s still practically a handheld PC, shipping with Linux by default in the flavour of Arch Linux based SteamOS.
Valve and Linux
The Steam Deck appears to be the culmination of various Linux oriented efforts Valve has been involved in for the past few years. The efforts include but are not limited to SteamOS, Steam Runtime SDK, Proton, dxvk, ACO, gamescope and more.
Since Valve’s first foray into Linux with SteamOS and the Steam Machines, which weren’t such a big hit as Valve perhaps anticipated, it was pretty clear why is Valve investing so heavily into Linux. They saw the future Microsoft envisions for the PC with Windows 8 and started working on a backup plan, should Microsoft tighten its grip on the ecosystem. Microsoft’s plans didn’t exactly come into fruition either, but since the Steam Machines, Valve has definitely not dropped their efforts but if anything, they were doubled.
The year of Linux on the desktop
‘XXXX: the year of Linux on the desktop’ is somewhat of a meme in the Linux community, every year it seems it’s almost there, but not quite. If you’d ask some people though, they will say it already got there.
Is 2022, when the Steam Deck is set to release finally the year then? In general, I don’t think so. Linux (and all the distros) still has some way to go. But in my opinion, the Steam Deck is a very important piece of tech to make it happen.
Linux has always had a bit of a chicken and egg problem. There’s not enough support for it, because the user base is relatively small. And the user base is relatively small because there’s not enough support for it. By support I mean the fact that while there’re alternatives, there is no MS Office, no Adobe or Affinity suite, very few native games, and the list goes on. The other big hurdle is that there simply isn’t really that much affordable hardware, oriented on non-power users, that ships with Linux by default. Enthusiasts will take a PC and install anything they want, but the majority of users will just use whatever is given to them, and also what they are used to.
The year of Linux on.. the console?
This is where Valves comes in with their competitively priced games console; The basic version of the Steam Deck, with 64GB of internal storage, costs 419€ which isn’t far off the price of the OLED Nintendo Switch, which also comes with 64GB of storage for 365€. Like I mentioned above, and like the Steam Machines of the past, the Steam Deck ships with Linux preinstalled out of the box and that is a big deal. Sure, it’s still a PC and you can install Windows on it if you want, but I really believe that the majority won’t.
Unlike Steam Machines though, the Deck doesn’t rely on native Linux titles only. Thanks to the efforts also mentioned above, Linux gamers can now enjoy a large variety of Windows titles right out of the box, with no tweaking necessary. You just click Install in Steam and it usually just works! Of course, it’s still not perfect, some titles don’t work, mostly thanks to anti-cheat, but Valve is working with anti-cheat developers to resolve that, and they are also manually reviewing games, so Steam users know, what games work on their Deck right from the Store page.
Playing non-Steam titles on the Deck is also an option, but there is way more work involved, so it’s not very viable for many non-technical users. Lutris is a key player in making Windows non-Steam games work on Linux with minimal tinkering necessary.
Through games, Valve has an opportunity to get many more eyes on Linux, and to sort of strong-arm developers and publishers into making their games playable on the Steam Deck, which in turn helps the Linux ecosystem overall. This could also bring some much-needed attention to often ignored pain points of Linux (or of individual Linux distributions), which can then be addressed.
In conclusion, I don’t think the Steam Deck will mean everyone will start switching their desktop PCs to Linux. But it is an important stepping stone to making people and companies take Linux a bit more seriously if it succeeds. Valve has a big advantage in having complete control over the hardware and the software, paving the way for tight integration.
It might just be a dawn of a new era, a solution to the chicken and egg problem, and a gateway to getting more software and hardware working on Linux.>> Home