Could Linux take off thanks to Windows 8?

In the 21 years or so since its inception, Linux has gained some amazing enthusiast street cred, but failed time and again to enter the mainstream. This year, however, may afford it an opportunity it’s never had before: To gain the momentum necessary to join the big boys in the operating system world. If that happens, Linux devotees the world over – from users to developers to even Linus Torvalds himself – may have Microsoft and Windows 8 to thank.

Wait! I know I’ve ragged on Redmond’s reductive “new” OS frequently, but… well, er, I stand by everything I’ve written. But this time it isn’t just me talking. Last week the person saying it was Gabe Newell, the cofounder and managing director of Valve. So even if you think I’m bonkers for threatening to decamp to Linux if Windows 8 implodes, you owe it to yourself to at least consider some of his recent comments. He told Tricia Duryee of All Things D:

“The big problem that is holding back Linux is games. People don’t realise how critical games are in driving consumer purchasing behaviour.”

“We want to make it as easy as possible for the 2,500 games on Steam to run on Linux as well. It’s a hedging strategy. I think Windows 8 is a catastrophe for everyone in the PC space. I think we’ll lose some of the top-tier PC/OEMs, who will exit the market. I think margins will be destroyed for a bunch of people. If that’s true, then it will be good to have alternatives to hedge against that eventuality.”

Bingo. Windows 8 really is a make-or-break release for Microsoft. It’s an incredibly ambitious gamble that carries with it a huge amount of risk, wrapped up in the as-yet-unanswerable question of how willing people are to sacrifice their everyday computing just to make things better on tablets and phones. None of us can know the answer to that yet, and if the Microsoft folks bet the wrong way, their company could be on the line. And, yes, the stakes are so dire, and the level of failure so severe, that Microsoft’s strategy really could let Linux get its foot in the door for the first time ever. When that happens, the technology world will change irrevocably.

This is not to say a lot of other circumstances have to line up, too – and that means giving audiences a concrete incentive to choose Linux in addition to not choosing Windows 8. And regarding this, Newell is exactly correct in saying that games have to factor into the equation somewhere in a far more prominent way than they currently do. Sorry, Tux lovers, but there’s no way around this.

Listen, I’ve been a Linux partisan (if not remotely a monogamous one) for years, and have been on the verge of permanent migration for years. But that’s one of the major reasons I’ve never made the switch. I like playing PC games – real PC games, new PC games – too much to give them up, and hardware and driver support just hasn’t been there in a real, definable way with the kind of games I’m interested in.

But if – and I realise it’s an Empire State Building-size “if” at this point – games are not just playable on Linux but also high quality affairs, this could have an interesting impact on the current frontrunners. Admittedly, there’s not much chance Linux is going to usurp the field anytime soon: According to tracking information provided by the W3C, as of June Linux owned just 1.8 per cent of the market, compared with 15.47 per cent for Apple’s various operating systems and a stunning 78.89 per cent for four incarnations of Windows. But if Windows 8 is the desktop disaster folks like Newell and I are predicting it will be, even its new lower prices won’t stop some people from defecting.

Valve releasing Linux Steam

So the time couldn’t be better for Valve to finally release its long-awaited version of Steam for Linux, and give users of open source software the truly viable second alternative they’ve never really had. When the choice comes down to Apple (gorgeous but expensive hardware the company is dead set against you upgrading) and Linux (inscrutable software that runs on practically anything, and that anyone can afford), don’t think that there isn’t a chance Linux could make a major dent in its competitors’ dominance and skyrocket to objective visibility within a year or so. People want games, and when the playing field is level, they’ll see everything that Linux has to offer (and save) them that Mac and Windows setups no longer will.

All this is contingent, of course, on Apple and Microsoft playing along by not playing along. Mountain Lion has been heralded, but doesn’t boast a ton of game-changing new features (certainly not for people in the US, at any rate). And though Microsoft has made plenty of tiny tweaks around the edges of Windows 8, it’s changed so little from its initial developer preview that you may find yourself wondering whether the company has learned anything from its past mistakes.

These circumstances suggest that both companies are already set in their ways, and their longer development cycles could make them particularly vulnerable to the fast-moving Linux and its uniquely passionate and experienced user base. (Ubuntu, as but one example, has two major releases per year, with the next, version 12.10, slated to arrive in October.)

The fact remains that a lot of people still haven’t realised that Linux offers them almost everything Mac OS X and Windows do, if in a considerably less flashy and tougher-to-support package. And the learning curve, if you’re not an old-timer or familiar with alternative ways of doing things, can be steep. For the vast majority, paying the extra money and accepting the binding chains that are a condition of the bargain have been worthwhile sacrifices to guarantee software availability and hardware compatibility – assuming they’ve even known about Linux as an alternative at all.

Linux is, as always, facing an uphill struggle, no doubt, and no matter what happens Windows 8 is probably not quite self-destructive enough to blow users over into the open source world. Still, the notion is tantalising, and not entirely outside of the realm of possibility.

Newell and Valve have their work cut out for them. If the Linux version of their game distribution software is good it could significantly accelerate the process, and if it’s not, it could clamp down the brakes yet again on the operating system’s constant careening toward popularity. But pairing the alignment of the stars that could only happen in 2012 with a selection of instantly accessible triple-A games could upend our preconceptions about PC gaming and force a mini-Renaissance within the next few years.

A pipe dream? Maybe. But if it ends up happening, don’t be surprised if the twin driving forces behind the locomotive of change are Windows and Steam.