07.18.21

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A Longtime Reader’s Thoughts About Valve and Steamdeck (and What That Means to GNU/Linux)

Posted in DRM, GNU/Linux, Hardware at 5:57 pm by Dr. Roy Schestowitz

Video games fan
Versatility and general-purpose computing through a Trojan horse of sorts?

Summary: Another person’s interpretation of Valve’s strategy and motivations/ambitions

IN OUR Daily Links we continue to post additional news picks regarding last week’s big news from Valve, as noted in yesterday's post. It’s a bit of an ongoing story because additional details are gradually being revealed. In the next batch of Daily Links we’ll include some focus on Arch Linux and the response from Epic, which is a competitor. Microsoft isn’t even commenting. They seem to be somewhat rattled by the whole thing, as it devastates them on multiple fronts at the same time. It also seems like a good uplift for GNU/Linux on desktops and laptops — a frontier long sought by the loudest Free software enthusiasts.

Our reader Daniel sent us some thoughts, which are based partly on his personal experiences (I myself never used Steam and don’t intend to, either) and partly on what he read/saw. Daniel split that into 5 parts, as follows (with mild corrections in the English text as Daniel’s native tongue is Spanish):

1. You say “its [Valve's] successor to efforts like Proton, SteamOS (Debian), and Steam Machines that never quite materialised”.
I’m not sure if you mean “Steam Machines never materialized”, or “[all of that stuff are past efforts that] never materialized”.
The former is mostly right, whereas the latter mostly wrong. The device does use Proton (it’s pretty much alive and well, even without this device), and uses SteamOS (v3, Arch based, as they got away from Debian some time ago).
But this point wasn’t about correcting you (which I believe wasn’t necessary), but about focusing on your mention of the “efforts”. What are they doing these efforts for? It’s just about money?

The part about materialising was about Steam Machines alone. I’m not the first to point this out, as at least 2 more publications did the same. We included them in Daily Links.

The point is, for the uninitiated at least, Valve hoped to work with hardware partners on computers that have the Debian-based SteamOS preinstalled. That never quite happened at the end, perhaps because Steam surveyed the market, in the same way Palm did with “Foleo”.

This time will be different as the strategy is inherently different in a number of ways. Daniel continues:

2. You also say in the article’s summary: “Valve has chosen GNU/Linux for its power, not for its freedom”.
This is a typical interpretation from Free Software activists — and one that can ultimately be generalized in this way: “either they go fully Free software, or they have other interests — different from freedom”.
Of course I agree with that interpretation: Valve does have other interests, most likely reduced to just simply power and money.
But the thing I don’t like about that interpretation is the implicit binary narrative about freedom.
You see, part of the idea behind this thing they’re doing is this: “It’s a PC. You can do with it whatever you do with a PC. We don’t believe in restricting it.”
That is actually huge. I struggle to make people understand their computing devices (mobile phones, modern gaming consoles, smart TVs, and so on) are artificially-limited computers.
That point is actually about freedom.
They even actually say you can install on there stuff from their rivals (like EA or Microsoft), which contradicts the idea of them “simply wanting power and money”.
They clearly want to establish a hegemony. But that hegemony happens to be kinda OK to me (not the DRM part, of course).
My point: is not “simple” what they’re doing, in fact it is complicated, and so it also involves explicit increased degrees of freedom (specially in contrast with what the gaming ecosystem offers to people).
So I’m not so sure about your lecture. I believe freedom is one of the reasons behind the GNU/Linux choice. It’s not a binary choice between power and freedom, nor any other binary choice. And maybe not be exactly the freedom Free Software activists talk about. But it is partly about freedom, and a significant part of it.

Up to a certain point in time Sony did something similar with PS3. That was a very long time ago. Later came Google with Android (wherein freedom is being lessened over time). Valve would not be the first. This is mostly connected to the “general-purpose computing” battle, which is connected to “right to repair” more than Free (as in freedom) software. It’s the idea that people can do as they please with devices that they have purchased and therefore assume they own.

3. Remember also Steam’s history.
At first, it was revolutionary somehow inside the Windows ecosystem, at the cost of DRM.
Before involving GNU/Linux, gaming on Windows was already full of problems that Steam solved.
It was basically the same effect Netflix had on pirating [sic] movies, but for games: by giving comfort to the people by centralizing problem-solving, they got everybody on the boat.
That’s deeply problematic from a Free software point of view. But it is actually a happy event from a people’s experience perspective. People are just ignorant or unaware of the freedom they’re giving away, and so they have no problem with it.
To that point in history, Valve and Netflix are basically the same shit. However, at the gates of Windows 8, Steam declared war on Windows and went to GNU/Linux, even saying that Windows was a disaster for gaming.
Then “Steam for Linux” came out, and from that day on they never stopped pushing GNU/Linux gaming, even when we’re <2% of their user base 10 years later. And they keep working and keep on pushing GNU/Linux, no matter what “the market” says about it. If you also see that you can buy games without DRM and add them to Steam (so, Steam acts then as a CDN and not a DRM provider/encloser), that they allow stuff like sharing games, that they actually added code to drivers and software layers, and that they even make GNU/Linux-first hardware, they’re very far away from Netflix.
Valve has shown ideals. I doubt you or me will share those ideals any day soon. But they’re certainly not a two-bit power and money-hungry bunch of people like Microsoft or Netflix are. This is different.

Steam comes from a person who once worked for Microsoft. So he seems to be aware of how much of a danger they pose; GNU/Linux reduces Microsoft’s control over his company. Recall what Microsoft did to RealPlayer (and Networks).

As Daniel puts it:

4. Microsoft is their enemy, on various fronts. But it is not their only enemy.
With Steamdeck, Valve is also explicit about the goal of opening the door to other people doing hardware like this. It is not about buying their hardware but about changing the relationship people have with devices.
And so this hardware, strangely cheap for the product and at the same time strangely up-to-date, is also a declaration of war on the hardware front.
Valve is no longer a declared enemy of Microsoft and Windows, but WINTEL itself.
The time was perfect for striking a punch to Intel. And also a strong blow to Nintendo and Sony.
And with stuff like “this is a PC” they’re also taking distance from Apple, not just Microsoft: those bastards try to set “PC” as another word for “Windows”, and “Mac” as something different; Valve says otherwise, and not just by wordsmithing but by embracing GNU/Linux.

That’s an excellent point actually. They also embraced KDE and a distro (as base) not many expected to see (like Google picking Gentoo).

About the distro crafted by Valve, Daniel says:

I saw a few videos the day the news went wild, and every time they showed SteamOS v3 it looked very much like Windows 10.

Minute 04:19 here: To be honest, I don’t use KDE and have not used it since some brief 2008 tests, so I don’t know what it looks like these days.
And the same goes for Windows 10 — an OS that I barely touched, exclusively because of job-related tasks.
But if I’m reading this right, they tuned the UI, making it look like Windows 10.
So… add wine/proton over that, and they’re also bringing back LINDOWS from the grave!
I know there were several attempts at something like that: but if Valve publishes the recipe for it, and back it over time with money and work, they’re making a Windows replacement everybody can clone without using Valve’s trademarks. I mean: Dell, HP, Lenovo, or whatever hardware maker can just copy-paste the proper bits of configs to deploy their own brand (an important detail in business world) instead of using “SteamOS”. And of course there will be community forks.
The point being: this is a poisoned dagger against Windows. Valve is really making a Windows killer here, from ALL fronts at the same time (hardware, software, community, and corporate world), and using gaming as vector.
If I’m right about this, we should REALLY let them play their game, at least for a while.

Finally, Daniel says:

With all of this in mind, my conclusion:
Valve certainly does things we don’t like, and most likely that will never change: it’s hard to think of Valve leaving behind DRM and some questionable practices with devs. But they also seem sincere about the consumer’s interests (or at least their experiences), they’ve showed a stronger commitment to GNU/Linux than most other big tech players (specially in gaming), they show a vision (at least compared with players like Microsoft or Apple), and while they seem as pragmatic and money-based as any business, they also insist in pushing costly long-term ideas like a GNU/Linux based SteamOS or PC-based hardware replacing artificially-limited options.
So, Valve is not our enemy. It’s just that they’re not free software activists either: they’re a business. I was about to compare them with Canonical, but I believe the case is different: Canonical is more like hypocrites, Valve is more sincere. Valve is not about GNU/Linux: they’re just embracing it. And in exchange for the power GNU/Linux gives, Valve also gives stuff back. That doesn’t seem like a parasitic relationship to me, even when the thing Valve gives back may not exactly be software freedom.
If Valve ever wins these gaming wars, they will most likely end up being another Mozilla or Canonical. But Valve does not claim to be a Free software activist organization: they’re not even “not for profit” as Mozilla was. And if they win these wars, the gaming world will be completely different, most likely better for GNU/Linux. So I believe that, if we can’t be Valve supporters, we also shouldn’t be too vocal a critics either, as they’re the closest thing we have to a powerful friend in the gaming world: we should let Microsoft try to fight Valve the wrong way, while we find ways to make more freedom around the software Valve already brings to GNU/Linux ecosystem.

We might revisit this subject some other day because no doubt it’s a game-changer, if you pardon the pun…

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