After the official SteamOS launch on November 10th, 2015, Guy Lunardi gave a talk about how he, as part of the Collabora company, was working with Valve to build SteamOS on a Debian distribution basis. In case you missed the video, it’s a good watch but a tad long (close to 2 hours). I did the work for you and I have prepared some short video clips of the most interesting interventions that are still relevant even in this January 2016.
Guy Lunardi is a french native currently working in New York city. He has been involved with OSes for a long time (more than 15 years) – before working on Debian at Collabora, he worked for OpenSUSE before and was part of the team developing the OBS (Open Build Service) technology. Apparently Valve approached Collabora when they were looking at building the SteamOS solution, and they ended up partnering with them to build the OS. Guy has been a part of that team and although he is not a gamer himself, he has had a blast working with the guys from Valve – repeatedly saying that they are brilliant folks.
What most people do not realize is that it’s not just Gabe Newell who used to work at Microsoft. Because of the proximity of Valve headquarters to Redmond (the HQ of Microsoft), there’s just a huge amount of ex-Microsoft folks working at Valve as well. So if you think that Valve as a whole is a camp of friendly Linux hackers, think again. It’s probably far from being as homogeneous as you’d think.
In his talk, Guy comes back on a number of aspects related to SteamOS and the Steam Controller, and how it all works. By now you guys should be very much aware of a whole bunch of the info he describes, so watching the whole video would be slightly a waste of your time. However there are a few parts that were relatively insightful and that was worth picking up.
There’s something that folks running SteamOS may not realize at first (I did not, until fairly recently), but SteamOS operates with two main Linux users: desktop and steam. The steam user is the user running the Steam client, while the desktop user is the one used when you return to the Desktop mode. They are completely isolated to one another. The Steam client runs full time anyway and the overlay remains active even when a game crashes, so that you return to the client elegantly.
I can confirm that I had to kill a game several times from SteamOS, and the overlay interface was always very much there even when a game crashed for some reason. This is definitely one advantage vs using the Steam Linux client on the desktop.
One aspect I found surprising, is that Guy tackled the lower performance of games on Linux pretty early during his talk, mentioning that it’s no wonder that Windows games made for Windows using Windows drivers run better on that platform than on Linux, and that there is no need for benchmarks to grasp that. Instead, Valve chose to focus on the holistic experience in the living room, and not trying to make a gaming platform that’s faster than the others:
Guy was asked if the team behind SteamOS ever considered using WINE to support games on the Linux platform. While Guy is not privy to what happened internally, his guess is that WINE was very much a no go from the beginning:
He comes back several times on what makes the overall experience great with SteamOS – and he actually gives an example where he plugs a USB headset peripheral, which ends up being recognized immediately by the OS in the audio options:
While Kodi can easily be added to SteamOS, Guy hints at some UI patent issues (Sony) that may prevent Valve from doing so at the moment.
This being said, Valve has prepared some UI in the client to support audio and movie playback (movie playback is only via streaming right now, as far as I know). Guy mentions they could be expanding that in the future, but he does not know Valve’s plans for that at this stage.
Debian Jessie, used in Brewmaster (SteamOS 2.0) uses the 3.16 kernel, while SteamOS uses a much more recent kernel (4.1). This was driven by the need of hardware compatibility:
Valve is not enforcing Open Souce Hardware principles for the OEM. As for the Steam Controller, while to my knowledge they do not publish any of the design information, Valve apparently provides schematics and CAD files if you ask them, as they’d like folks to experiment with them.
VR and 4K support were also among the follow-up questions raised. I find it a little distressing that Guy is not aware at this stage of any VR integration within SteamOS. It may very well be that the VR support for SteamOS/Linux ends up being delayed, but we will have to wait for the HTC Vive release day to know for sure. As for 4K support, Guy mentioned it’s just a matter of hardware performance, yet there are some open tickets on Github regarding 4k support, so it may be a little more complex than that.
Overall, this talk seems to confirm there is a lot of enthusiasm around SteamOS both with Collabora and the Valve team at work on it, and while it’s still far from being a replacement for existing consoles and Windows PCs, as long as they stick to improving it and bringing more ports to the platform, it is bound to become a serious alternative down the road, beyond early adopters.
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