The majority of the time that Linux gets dragged in the spotlight is when there are high-profile security bugs that remind people how Linux practically runs the world behind the scenes. This time, however, the controversy is ironically around one of the operating system’s weakest points: gaming. A Valve developer just “announced” on Twitter that the company will be dropping support for future releases of Ubuntu and, as expected, it has driven Linux users into a slight frenzied panic.
Steam runs on a wide variety of Linux distributions but it has had a particularly close relationship with Ubuntu. On a technical level, its “Steam runtime” set of libraries is based on Ubuntu and now Canonical, Ubuntu’s creator and owner, has just pulled out the rug from under Steam and a couple of other important programs.
Canonical recently announced that it was dropping support for 32-bit packages starting Ubuntu 19.10 in October. This mirrors a move Apple made a few years back but gave developers time to update. While the vast majority of Linux software could move forward with few problems, it presents an almost insurmountable task for games and Windows programs running on Linux via the WINE.
A large number of games on Steam’s library, including those compatible with Linux, are 32-bit programs. On Linux, they’re able to run on 64-bit systems thanks to the presence of 32-bit libraries. By dropping support for those libraries, Canonical is practically slamming the door on Valve and WINE. Since these games and proprietary software cannot simply be recompiled for 64-bit systems, especially if they’re no longer actively developed, they will never run on a 64-bit only world.
In a post on its Discourse forums, Canonical’s Steve Langasek clarifies that they aren’t dropping support for 32-bit libraries entirely. They are, instead, just “freezing” those libraries in the version they are in as of Ubuntu 18.04 LTS. This practically means they will no longer be receiving updates but that they might still ship in future versions of Ubuntu. For how long, no one knows yet at this point.
Whether that will be enough for Valve and WINE is still unknown. Valve developer Pierre-Loup Griffais says they’re looking into switching Linux distributions and will find ways to minimize breakage. Hopefully they won’t give up midway and simply declare Linux a lost cause. This could, however, cause Linux gamers to start looking away from Ubuntu as their distro of choice.