SLIDESHOW

Linux love and Steam Machines: The World Beyond Windows' 10 biggest stories of 2015

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A momentous year

Sure, 2015 was a big year for Microsoft with Windows 10, but it was also a momentous year for the World Beyond Windows.

Valve finally launched Steam Machines with its Linux-based SteamOS. Google’s Chrome OS is increasingly colliding with Android, even as it’s conquered the classroom. Linux distributions continue pushing out stable, polished releases while work continues on new display servers, container technologies, and mobile operating systems. Even Microsoft and Apple are embracing Linux developers!

There truly were some big changes afoot in 2015. Let’s get retrospective!

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Valve's Steam Machines launch

Valve famously works on “Valve time,” taking its sweet time to release products when they’re ready. Gamers are still waiting for a Half-Life 3, after all!

But Valve delivered this year as the first wave of Steam Machines with Valve’s Linux-based SteamOS finally launched. The Steam Controller and Steam Link for streaming games to your TV launched, too. They launched with SteamOS 2.0, based on Debian 8.1.

Not all is rosy in Steam Machine land, as  a few of Valve’s hardware partners bailed on SteamOS and announced their plans to ship Windows-based Steam gaming console PCs instead. That’s no surprise: Developers have had years to optimize for Microsoft’s operating system, and benchmarks confirm the same games perform better on Windows than Linux. Steam OS isn’t a compelling alternative for PC gamers yet, but various improvements—especially the Vulkan gaming API, which we’ll talk about later—could change the calculus.

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Credit: Adam Patrick Murray
Google’s plans for Chrome OS and Android become more confusing

Google has been  bringing Chrome OS and Android closer together for quite a while, with an increasingly full-featured Chrome browser on Android and Chromebooks that can run Android apps. But things became even more confusing this year, as the Wall Street Journal reported that Google would “fold” Chrome OS into Android.

Google denied the reports, but things aren’t that simple. Google shipped the Pixel C convertible tablet/laptop—which was probably supposed to run Chrome OS—with Android, despite the fact that Android doesn’t have split-screen multitasking and isn’t really optimized for the device yet. But it’s a developer platform for Google, and Google clearly wants to encourage its own Android developers to improve the Android experience on a convertible laptop.

Chrome OS isn’t going away any time soon, but Google may begin pushing Android devices more in the consumer market. And it’s possible that Chrome OS and Android could become more similar under the hood, offering different interfaces over the same core. 2016 should be an interesting year for Chrome OS watchers.

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Credit: James Niccolai
Microsoft's Linux love affair continues

“Microsoft loves Linux,” declared a sign behind Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella earlier this year. That affection is somewhat overstated. Microsoft won’t be dumping Windows for Linux any time soon, nor will the company be releasing a desktop version of Microsoft Office for Linux.

But Microsoft loves Linux in the cloud, and it loves Linux developers. Microsoft has made Linux a first-class citizen on its Azure cloud-computing service, even partnering with Red Hat this year. Microsoft now even has its own Linux certification, the “Microsoft Certified Solutions Associate (MCSA) Linux on Azure.” Microsoft open-sourced the .NET server code and released a Visual Studio code editor for Linux, also allowing the Windows version of Visual Studio to compile and remotely debug Linux software.

This is a lot of big news for Microsoft and its relationship with Linux. The patent threats haven’t stopped and Windows won’t be open-source anytime soon, but Microsoft is luring Linux developers into running their software on Azure and using Microsoft technologies without leaving Linux behind. Apple also embraced Linux developers with the release of an open-source Swift for Linux this year.

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Windows 10 beats Ubuntu to convergence

Originally slated for release in 2014, Ubuntu for phones still didn’t see a consumer U.S. launch in 2015, and only a few have been made available in Europe and China. Phones like the Meizu MX4 show Ubuntu is making some progress—but only in certain countries. Even where they’re available, Canonical is only encouraging developers and enthusiasts to buy them at this point.

Windows 10 stole Ubuntu’s smartphone convergence thunder earlier this year with the “Continuum” feature, which lets you plug a Windows 10 phone into an external monitor and have it behave like a Windows 10 desktop PC. Continuum doesn’t support traditional Windows desktop applications yet, only Windows Store apps, but it may do so soon thanks to Microsoft’s Win32-to-universal-app bridge.

In response to Microsoft’s Continuum announcement, Canonical’s Mark Shuttleworth announced a phone with Ubuntu’s converged desktop would ship before the end of 2015. It didn’t, and we haven’t heard anything about the phone since beyond a quiet little admission that the hardware was delayed. Ubuntu fans are still waiting for Ubuntu phones.

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Linux gaming rising

SteamOS may not be taking the world by storm just yet, but Linux users who want to play PC games on Linux have more options and a better experience than ever before.

Steam’s Linux game library expanded from just over 700 games in October 2014, to more than 1500 games in September 2015, to more than 1700 games in mid-December—and many of them are big-name games, too. Crytek’s CryEngine gained support for Linux in 2015, too. Nvidia has improved its already strong Linux graphics drivers, and AMD is working hard on a new Radeon graphics driver architecture. Gaming on Linux still isn’t perfect, but it’s much, much better than it’s ever been.

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OpenGL successor Vulkan begins taking form

The future of gaming technology lies in deeper access to your system’s hardware, and more specifically, the graphics APIs that power that access. Microsoft has DirectX 12 and Apple has Metal. AMD’s Mantle technology died in 2015, but Vulkan rose from its ashes. Vulkan is the successor to OpenGL, an open, cross-platform alternative to Microsoft and Apple’s technologies. Vulkan will run on Linux, and companies as big as Nintendo and Google’s Android team are betting on it for their platforms, too.

Vulkan could be the dramatic improvement that enables easier Linux ports and makes Linux gaming performance competitive with Windows. It’s not out yet, but Vulkan’s announcement was huge news for Steam OS, desktop Linux in general, and all the other non-Windows operating systems out there.

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Chromebooks conquer the classroom

Chromebooks made huge gains in the education market yet again. Google’s laptops now make up more than half the devices in US classrooms. Apple wants to push iPads, but Chrome OS is just a better platform for schools and classrooms.

This is one of the real reasons Google won’t just axe Chrome OS and go all-in on Android. Chromebooks have made huge gains in the education market, and Android just can’t fill that role right now. Chrome OS still has a much better security story than Android, too, with regular updates provided directly from Google as opposed to the messy situation in Android-land.

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Plasma Mobile is interesting, but Linux-based mobile OSes are struggling

This year, the KDE project announced Plasma Mobile, a new mobile interface and operating system based on KDE’s Plasma desktop and KDE technologies. It’s an interesting new development and an interesting interface, despite how negative certain Ubuntu phone developers were in response.

The elephant in the room is that Linux-based mobile operating systems are struggling to find a market. Ubuntu phones still aren’t widely released to consumers. Mozilla just gave up on its Firefox OS smartphone project. Jolla, maker of the Linux-based Sailfish OS, laid off much of its staff. It’s not just Linux OSes either; even Windows phones have been on a downward slide, and BlackBerry is now selling Android smartphones, as BlackBerry 10 didn’t find much of an audience.

I hate to be so negative, but it’s impossible to consider yet another mobile operating system without looking at how the current ones are doing. The KDE project has a big uphill battle if it wants Plasma Mobile to find users.

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Skype arrives on Chromebooks

Chromebooks live and die based on the availability of web-based software. The continuing shift to web-based applications has made Chromebooks increasingly useful for more and more people, with even web-based versions of Microsoft Office available in Office Online.

But Skype was a significant holdout, offering only a desktop application—until Microsoft brought Skype to the web this year. There’s now an official, web-based Skype that can be used on Chromebooks. This plugs a big hole in Chrome’s web-based application availability. If Microsoft ever brings back those unfunny “Scroogled” ads, they won’t be able to say Chromebooks don’t have Skype.

Unfortunately, the web version of Skype doesn’t yet allow access to video and voice chats, but Microsoft has announced plans to add WebRTC-enabled voice-and-video support to Skype for web. This will make it work on Chromebooks, too. In the meantime, you can use Google’s ARC Welder tool to run the Android version of Skype on your Chromebook in a pinch.

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The Linux desktop continues to be boring, stable, and awesome

Linux distributions used to be exciting. New Linux distributions brought lots of bug fixes and new features and big software upgrades. But the average Linux distribution isn’t so exciting anymore.

Ubuntu 15.10 came without any big new features, just like Ubuntu 15.04 did before it, and even Ubuntu 14.10 before that. OpenSUSE made some big news by announcing a new development model in OpenSUSE Leap, but that new model is basing a Linux distribution on more stable enterprise code and making the core less bleeding-edge. Linux Mint is one of the more exciting Linux distributions for desktop users, but even it isn’t making huge changes—just adding more layers of polish to the desktop on top of a stable Ubuntu 14.04 LTS core.

Is that bad? Not necessarily. The Linux desktop is boring and functional and stable, and that’s awesome. Huge changes will arrive in the future with Unity 8 and Snappy packages on Ubuntu, Wayland on Fedora and other distributions, and more. But, even when those arrive, many Linux users will continue using the old, stable desktops for a long time to come. You don’t have to fiddle with Linux anymore. You can actually just use it. That’s been the case for years, but it’s still worth appreciating.