Debian-based SteamOS. Wait… what? Debian? SRSLY?

A few days ago, several sources reported that SteamOS, the long-announced game-oriented OS has been released by Valve. Steam is a gaming platform currently available for Ubuntu, and it has been a major reason of advertising for the Ubuntu community. Actually, SteamOS was expected to be built on top of Ubuntu itself.

Quite surprisingly instead, SteamOS is Debian-based. Yes, you read that well. This is quite impressive, given the amount of testing that has been done on Ubuntu so far, where quite a big number of users has been piled up.

I don’t know the reasons why Valve made this choice. Looking at their FAQ, I can read that “building on top of the Debian core is the best way for Valve to deliver a fully custom SteamOS experience to our customers.” Which is quite odd, given that Ubuntu looked the perfect platform up to just a few days ago. I really would like to know what made Valve change their mind.

Another bizarre thing I noticed is the complete black-out of news on Planet Ubuntu. I can remember the great excitement when Valve announced Steam for Ubuntu. The release of SteamOS has passed silently instead. Maybe someone is quite upset by this choice, or maybe we are no more interested in Steam after this “treason” 1.

In any case, I’d say this is one more blown away opportunity for our community. One more after a long series of other incidents happened in the years. The number of people who quit for not feeling part of the project anymore has reached an impressive value. Several (both technical and non-) decisions has caused puzzlement and conflicts in the community; some of them are unanswered, many of them have been badly-answered. Ubuntu is more and more under the eyes for its privacy concerns 2. This time, we just lost quite a big opportunity to land in millions of houses, and we had wide open doors, a chance we could not have again for some time ahead.

First step in solving any problem is recognizing there is one. Ubuntu has a problem, and we should find a solution. Or at least be more sincere with regard to what this project really aims to.

  1. Just kidding, I am intentionally exaggerated
  2. which are quite exaggerated IMO, but still.

27 thoughts on “Debian-based SteamOS. Wait… what? Debian? SRSLY?

  1. Arpad Borsos

    Well, while i switched away from Ubuntu in favor of Arch for performance, privacy and timeliness of package updates, I’m still very disappointed that they base it on top of debian.
    I mean `testing` would have been kind of acceptable, but `stable` is by definition lagging years behind recent upstream releases.
    So Valve instead relies heavily on patching and backporting, which will sooner or later lead to failure.

    Reply
    1. Johnny

      Arpad, SteamOS is not a full blown desktop system. It’s a gaming platform, designed to turn your computer into, for lack of a better word, an XBox or Playstation. It doesn’t need anything backported other than system security updates and the custom Steam stuffs. Although you probably can install desktop apps on it, if you do, Valve has no responsibility to keep them updated. If that’s what you want, use the Steam app on the distro of your choice.

      Reply
      1. Alexandre P.

        Still, it might be interesting for that platform to receive over time new kernels for greater stability, or new drivers for better performance, or even new libs. That’s what I understand from Arped’s comment.

        Reply
      2. Arpad Borsos

        Well yes, sure, the focus as a console is very different from that of a generic desktop.
        Still, it should have a more recent technological basis.
        On other sources I have read that Valve has backported glibc, and they certainly have backported the kernel.
        They still have an outdated Xorg, missing out all the great performance relevant stuff that DRI3 can offer (not to mention more forward approaches as wayland [or mir]).
        Or mesa for the open source drivers.
        This is exactly what matters most for the gaming focused console world.

        And I can totally pull out my hair when reading about an “LTS version without big changes for 10 years”.
        We don’t want another Windows XP which leads the industry into stagnation for 10 years; Or another Android which added support for GLES3 in recent versions but developers simply can’t use it because noone is getting that upgrade.

        The users and the industry need an evolving system that drives innovation. (And still has great backwards compat [I still love playing old win95 games on my win7])

        A debian stable, which is by definition already one year outdated when it is released simply can not provide that.

        Reply
      3. Arpad Borsos

        And then again, BECAUSE the aim is not a desktop or server OS, the point of having the great portability, package database, etc of debian is completely moot; and a more upstream approach would have been a winner.

        Reply
  2. Johnny

    Seeing as how Ubuntu is Debian based as well, they just went back to the roots and got rid of the crap that Canonical has infested Debian with. Makes perfect sense to me. Ubuntu has shot itself in the foot on more than one occasion and Valve, I’m sure, doesn’t want to deal with that.

    Debian is one of, if not the purest form of Linux out there. It’s why Ubuntu and many other distros choose it for a base.

    Reply
  3. Winfried Maus

    Over the last few years, Canonical has earned the reputation of “trying to be another Apple”, in both the good and the bad meaning. Good, because it shows that Canonical has a vision and follows it. Bad, because Ubuntu is not the community-driven product that so many believed that it was or maybe should have been.
    In any case, I’m certain that Valve had very good reasons not to go with a Linux distribution that is “owned” by another company – they are already in such a situation with the OS X and Windows versions of their products. They probably wanted to have full control over what they are doing and no longer wanted to rely on the choices of another party and possible competitor – after all, Steam and the Ubuntu Store -are- competing solutions. Even Valve’s “Big Picture” and Canonical’s “Ubuntu Touch” or “Unity” are competing solutions that have no place on the same system; one environment tries to lock the user into Valve’s ecosystem, the other environment tries to lock him or her into Canonical’s ecosystem.
    Debian is not “owned” by a company and does not contain any proprietary extensions that might conflict with Valve’s interests or that have the potential to put them into a problematic legal situation. For Valve, Debian is a good choice. FreeBSD would have been an even better choice for licensing reasons – which is why Apple chose it as the foundation for Darwin – but Debian is close enough and Linux has a generally better hardware support than FreeBSD. Debian is also close to Ubuntu, so most of Valve’s development efforts were not in vain and can easily be re-used.
    For the user, none of this actually matters. Most SteamOS users will never notice the difference, simply because they will never leave Steam’s “Big Picture” mode and fall back to the desktop environment.
    I’m not sure if Ubuntu ever had a real chance of winning this: Valve ported Steam to Ubuntu not because Ubuntu is such a great environment, but because Ubuntu is the leading Linux distribution for the desktop with the largest user base — a gaming company has to go where the users are.
    But does it make sense to base your own system software on a desktop distribution when you want to build a system that is not a desktop but a console? Do you really want to bundle your own store and ecosystem with the store and ecosystem of somebody else? No.
    Just like they would not use Windows RT, OS X, iOS or Android with bundled Google Apps and Google Play Store as the foundation of their own operating system with an integrated distribution channel, they certainly did not want to have the Ubuntu Store and Ubuntu One on their SteamOS.
    At a first glimpse, Valve’s decision might seem surprising and disappointing for us Ubuntu users. But when you give it some thought, it makes perfect sense. After all, Valve is still a company with commercial interests.
    (I think I’m going to post this on my own blog as well.)

    Reply
  4. Luis Fernando Planella Gonzalez

    Seriously, dude? Is your memory this short, or have you been in some other planet for the last year?
    Let’s remember the old MIR thing: Ubuntu really wanted to remove X from the repositories on 13.10 already (couldn’t because of technical issues).
    SteamOS relies on X, having built their own compositor. What if they were Ubuntu based and had the floor removed from under them?
    Surely Valve did a great choice. Ubuntu is a distro for itself, not for others to build upon it.

    Reply
    1. Sven T

      That and exactly that it is. Even close to Ubuntu-Distributions like Kubuntu have extra-work because they are based on Ubuntu and not debian. Its a simple calculation and if the extra-work needed is larger then the gain then its hard to justify to stick. The xorg-situation is even more worse because its absokute unclear when any investment done into that may gone or needs much more investment on top to just keep things working. Never underestimate the advantage of backwards-comparibility and roadmaps giving investment-safety.

      Reply
  5. Cynic

    I’ve just checked steamOS specs and I would have done exactly the same choices.
    Debian is a solid and flexible distro. And Linux 3.10 is also a good choice, RHEL 7 beta has just been released with it. And RHEL is a big target for graphics driver and kernel developers.
    I think graphics vendors played a major role in the kernel version choice.

    Ubuntu on the other hand is guided by Canonicals interest. In the near future will lead to heavily patched Ubuntu-only graphics stack (mesa, X, mir, drivers, toolkits…).
    Mix in Ubuntu patching with Valve’s patching and it will be a maintenance hell.

    Reply
  6. Andrea Colangelo Post author

    One clarification: I am not hurt nor shocked by Valve’s decision, and quite agree with it. My post is not complaining about this, rather it’s a discussion on the fact that Ubuntu is losing its momentum, (part of the) community is quite worn out and we are even letting fall good opportunities like steamos.

    Reply
  7. Alan Bell

    Planet Ubuntu is a blog aggregator, it picks up feeds and posts what it finds. The fact that nobody who is aggregated there found anything blogworthy about this steam thing does not mean that it is being censored. I didn’t blog about it because I have no interest in games, and no interest in proprietary software. This is news about proprietary games. Debian is a great choice if you want to build something on a generic Linux platform.

    Reply
    1. Andrea Colangelo Post author

      @Alan: your take about censorship is quite out of place, I never said anything about that (and don’t even think the Planet is censored, too).

      Reply
  8. Marcos

    Good point of view :)

    I think Ubuntu has to give a really LTS version for maybe 10 years and maintein his our kernel. Valve would use it because Valve would want a LTS version without big changes for 10 years.

    I think our (free) community has an endemic sick like this https://twitter.com/migueldeicaza/status/411804006408028160 :( You’re on my team or you’re my enemy??? Come on! We are all on the same team, the free software. If Steam OS gets Debian, Free Software wins, if Ubuntu goes to mir, Free Software wins too because we don’t know now if mir could be better or not in the future, etc.

    Best regards! :)

    Reply
  9. B. Kell

    My answer as to why not Ubuntu:
    Because as they have risen in popularity, they have become proprietary!
    They are “drunk” with their perceived power, and, like most drunks, are starting to stumble.
    (Careful Ubuntu, your “attitude” is starting to sound… dare I say it,… like m$.)

    I DUMPED Ubuntu when Unity hit (stupid name… great oxymoron though), and no Gnome3 either. Both are garbage! I’ve used Linux since the mid ’90′s, mostly because “I” decide how my desktop functions, both of those took away my choices (and not for the better). I am ecstatic at Steam’s news. It was a very intelligent business decision.

    Ubuntu needs to go back and reassess the thought process at the “inception” of Ubuntu. Hopefully, that will help them figure out where/why they became so monolithic. (remember a word called, community?)
    The king (Ubuntu) is dead, long live the Queen (Debian)!

    Reply
  10. James

    I just read the tweet by Miguel de Icaza. It is so childish – anyone would think he was in a school playground.

    Personally, I think it’s fine that Valve have used Debian. Linux will benefit overall from another company entering the Distro space. Valve need a really stable base which Debian can provide. Ubuntu is innovating alot and will break things from time to time. The key thing is that it will bring more users to Linux.

    Reply
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  12. Luis Matos

    Ubuntu is a moving target. New technology, new things, new *stuff*.
    SteamOS just want to have their system tunned with some apps on top.

    For Steam (and other 3rd parties) the stability (in time it does not change too much and all things work well) is the key. Experimenting is nice for end user. Bad for stable long term products.
    In Debian they know the library X will always be that version, the system will always be like that and the library X is not something quite new and untested.

    Reply
  13. Jorge

    I think it’s fine that SteamOS is based on Debian, I haven’t posted about it because I’ve been too busy using it! You can easily replicate SteamOS with Ubuntu if you want. Ubuntu is still the development platform, they even say: . “As long as your development environment targets Ubuntu 12.04 LTS with the Steam Runtime, it will run without change on SteamOS. ”

    Our goal is to make Ubuntu an end user operating system for clouds, desktops, and phones. Sure it would have been nice if SteamOS was built on Ubuntu, but Debian isn’t that far away, and the things that are actually important (like SDL, drivers, xpad fixes, and so on) benefit everybody so there’s nothing to worry about. It’s not really a competition.

    Just some clarifications for the people making up their own reasons:

    - Ubuntu was never going to remove Xorg from the repositories in 13.10, I don’t know where that came up.
    - Ubuntu is not proprietary.

    Reply
    1. Andrea Colangelo Post author

      Thank you Jorge, I appreciate your comment, and I agree with you. Actually, I’m not disappointed at all by the choice of Debian (speaking with my DD hat on, I’m quite pleased instead). My post is rather a discussion about the Ubuntu community with regard to the troubles we faced in the past.

      Reply
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  18. analogtek

    Steam had/need to use a parent distro to build on. They wisely choose debian as the most stable. I and other’s that use pure debian or a distro that is very close to parent debian, have a problem with Ubuntu breaking thing’s if you us the debian repo’s with Ubuntu. Ubuntu even warns you of this.

    Reply
  19. Jo-Erlend Schinstad

    Why do some people consider it odd that Valve wants to use a rolling OS for their Console OS? Debian is, Ubuntu is not. So they’re doing exactly what Ubuntu is doing, but for different reasons. They don’t want people to have to perform massive upgrades on their consoles, but rather have upgrades come in small and steady.

    For desktops, obviously, Ubuntu is quite nice for Steam. For dedicated Consoles, it’s probably better to base it directly on Debian. Nothing to get upset about.

    Reply

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