Ever since Valve announced Steam OS last year one small detail has left many in the Linux community a little confused: why is the gaming OS based on Debian rather than Ubuntu?
The question may sound presumptive, but it is not without merit.
Valve invested considerable resources, manpower and money to bring the Steam desktop client to Linux, using Ubuntu as the reference platform. Even now, Ubuntu remains the only Linux distribution listed as ‘officially supported’ on the Steam website.
So what happened to stop Valve from ripening further such a fruitful relationship? Putting aside the more elaborate (and loaded) allegations made by some (‘They hated Mir!‘, ‘They hated Unity!‘, ‘They hated Mark Shuttleworth’s new Beard!‘) are two more prosaic explanations from more level-headed sources.
Gabe Newell, Valve’s co-founder and managing director, is said to have blamed the switch on a legal issue, the German-language tech site Heise.de say (translation courtesy of Joshua W.):
“Steam OS itself is still a huge work-in-progress. This is mainly due to the fact that the distribution it is based on was only recently changed. Ubuntu was originally planned to be the base, but because of legal uncertainties regarding some additional components, they changed on the verge of completion to Debian. Thus, some software already present on Ubuntu had to be reprogrammed from scratch.”
Precisely what those legal issues concerned it not stated.
Canonical’s Community Manager Jono Bacon, speaking before Newell’s comments at CES hit the web, has his own thoughts on the matter. Responding to a question on why Valve opted for Debian over Ubuntu, Bacon told viewers of his weekly YouTube show:
“I don’t want to speak for Valve but I honestly don’t know. I think there’s a few reasons. If I had to guess [it could be] that Valve would prefer it if they didn’t have to pay a trademark fee to Canonical. If you want to use Ubuntu in a commercial setting, and the trademark, [to] say ‘Powered by Ubuntu’, you have to pay Canonical a fee for using the trademark. It’s one of the ways Canonical makes money.
My feeling here is that the margins on Steam [Machines] are super low, and they’re competing in a really, really heavyweight industry. They’re competing with Sony, and Microsoft…and they’re competing with lower players like Ouya and Nvidia. My guess is they wanna keep the margins super low. And their feeling was ‘We can get Debian, and we’ll probably have some engineering work to do, but it might be cheaper for us…”
This deduction, Bacon stresses, is just a guess.
Doesn’t Really Matter
Curiosity aside, the distribution Steam OS has chosen to build upon is a trivial footnote. Valve are committed to building their living room gaming experience on Linux.
Regardless of whether it’s Ubuntu under the hood or not the net result will still benefit all Linux users in the long run.