Update: After publishing this column, I received reader feedback that caused me to review the data I'd used before. See my follow-up post for more details.
Valve's considerable efforts on behalf of Linux-based gaming just aren't paying off. Valve and its hardware partners released the first Steam machines running the Linux-based SteamOS about four months ago. And there are now more than 1,900 games available for Linux on the Steam store. But Linux usage on Steam just keeps falling.
Steam machines haven’t stopped the slide
The evidence comes from Valve’s Steam Hardware Survey. It reveals that machines running Linux—including SteamOS—were at 0.91 percent in February 2016, a drop of 0.04 percent from January.
This is actually part of a long, slow downward slide. Linux has been hovering around 1 percent for a while, and it’s dropping further.
Three years ago, in March 2013, Linux users made up 2 percent of Steam’s user base, and Linux usage appeared to be closing in on Mac usage at 3 percent. That was around the time Valve gave away a free “Tux” promotional item to everyone who signed in to Team Fortress 2 from Linux, a move that encouraged a lot of Windows gamers to try Linux—if only for the free stuff. That promotion seems to have made a greater impact on Linux’s usage numbers than even the launch of Valve’s Steam machines.
The number are sobering. Linux is now a long way from Mac OS X, which has a user base 3.4 percent. Windows usage remains at a whopping 95.59 percent, with Windows growing at the expense of both Linux and Mac last month. Heck, even Windows XP remains at 2.39 percent usage.
Vulkan could help turn things around
It’s not a huge surprise that Linux continues to slide, of course. Despite Valve’s promises to the contrary, Windows still generally offers better performance for PC gaming. Linux users can gain access to all those Windows games just by dual-booting Windows on their current PCs.
It’s possible that the new open-standard graphics API Vulkan, which was recently added to SteamOS, could help close the performance gap and make games easier to port to Linux. That may be the best path forward for SteamOS and Linux generally, as even a growing library of games and Valve’s Steam machines aren't proving to be persuasive.