Why does the Steam Deck run Linux? Blame Windows

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Valve’s “Steam Deck” handheld PC has caused quite a stir among PC gaming geeks, but the biggest shakeup might not be its Nintendo Switch-like form factor. The software running inside of it is the real surprise. Why does the Steam Deck run Linux? Blame Windows.

The Steam Deck and the software inside of it are the culmination of a nearly decade-long “hedging strategy” embarked upon by Valve chief Gabe Newell and company many moons ago, when Microsoft tried exerting more control over developers with Windows 8.

But it’s also the next phase of Valve’s escape plan.

“A catastrophe”

Windows 10 smoothed over Windows 8’s worst sins, so you may not remember how different—or “a catastrophe,” to use Newell’s words—that operating system was when it launched in 2012.

windows 8 Loyd Case/IDG

Windows 8’s radical new ‘Start Screen’ was…divisive, to say the least. (Spot the desktop “app”?)

Windows 8 bent over backwards to make mobile UI a priority, relegating the desktop to “just another app” status in a screen full of colorful tiles. More ominously, the Windows Store launched alongside the operating system, with strict requirements about the sorts of software allowed and a steep gatekeeper fee similar to what Apple and Google charge for inclusion in their app stores. Developers feared Microsoft would become increasingly draconian in its rules. Their concerns were escalated by the simultaneous launch of Windows RT, an Arm-based version of Windows that restricted users to using only software sanctioned by the Windows Store. (RT quickly fizzled.)

Devoted PC game developers felt especially anxious. Newell called it “a giant sadness.” Blizzard executive VP Rob Pardo tweeted that Windows 8 is “not awesome for Blizzard either” in the wake of Newell’s ‘catastrophe’ comment. Minecraft creator Markus “Notch” Persson told Microsoft to “stop trying to ruin the PC as an open platform” when it asked him to certify the game for Windows 8.

While Notch ironically sold Minecraft to Microsoft for $2.5 billion just a couple of years later, Newell and Valve reacted to the “catastrophe” the way most sane folks would: Disaster prep, so they wouldn’t be caught flat-footed if Microsoft decided to clench its fist around the open PC ecosystem.

The SteamOS escape hatch

Windows 8 launched on August 1, 2012. In December, 2013, Valve introduced SteamOS to the masses.



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