Chromebooks rising, SteamOS stalling, Linux's civil war: The World Beyond Windows' 10 biggest stories of the year

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This wasn’t the pined-for year of the Linux desktop, but 2014 was still huge for the anything-but-Windows PC universe.

Chrome OS made massive strides in 2014, and so did more traditional Linux distributions. SteamOS remained in hibernation after a launch delay, but it’s getting ready for a big 2015. Heck, even Microsoft couldn’t resist getting in on the open-source action—or miming many of Linux’s killer features in Windows 10.

Let’s get retrospective!

SteamOS lags, but Steam Machines move forward

Valve’s SteamOS operating system—basically a specialized Linux distribution built around living-room gaming—and the accompanying Steam controller generated a ton of enthusiasm for a 2014 launch. And then, nothing: Both were delayed until 2015. It feels like a long wait, but hey, gamers have been waiting for Half-Life 3 for more than seven years.

“Obviously we're just as eager as you are to get a Steam Machine in your hands. But our number one priority is making sure that when you do, you'll be getting the best gaming experience possible,” wrote Valve employee Axiom back in May.

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Origin PC's Chronos box was one of the 14 Steam Machines revealed at CES 2014, before SteamOS' delay.

The sooner Steam Machines and SteamOS launch, the better. But Valve still has the support of 14 PC manufacturers to building Steam machines (unless any got cold feet after the aborted 2014 launch). Hardcore PC makers want a piece of consoles' living-room pie.

Some hardware makers aren’t waiting for Valve anymore. Alienware recently launched the Alienware Alpha, which was originally intended to be a Steam Machine. It runs Alienware’s custom, gamepad-friendly interface over Windows and boots into Steam’s Big Picture mode. Alienware says you’ll be able to upgrade to SteamOS when it launches. Or just dual-boot and get the best of both worlds!

Systemd controversy in Linux land

One of the biggest and noisiest Linux stories this year was the continuing controversy over systemd. A systemd developer alleged that people were pooling Bitcoins to assassinate him, arguing the open-source community is “quite a sick place.” Maintainers of systemd packages have resigned and entire communities are tearing themselves apart over systemd. Devuan is a fork of Debian spawned from the systemd controversy, though we’ll have to see whether it lasts.

linux attack rore via Flickr/Creative Commons

You can’t write about a new Linux distribution with systemd integration without getting comments about how systemd is the Linuxpocalypse. While the rage over systemd seems excessive, its opponents do have some good points. Binary log files don’t seem like the right fit for Linux.

It’s a shame. The Linux desktop has enjoyed some other huge advances this year—such as amassing a growing game library from Steam—but the systemd arguments have sucked a lot of air out of the room.

Netflix comes to Linux

Speaking of huge advances, Linux finally got official Netflix support this year. Yay!

Okay, okay, Netflix will technically work only if you’re running the Chrome browser on Ubuntu. But it’s a start—and everyone else can still coax Netflix into working on Linux with a few dead-simple tricks.

PC OEMs get on the Chromebook bandwagon

PC manufacturers jumped on the Chromebook bandwagon en masse in 2014. You can now buy a Chromebook from Samsung, Acer, HP, Asus, Toshiba, Lenovo, and Google itself. Intel now seems committed to Chromebooks, and more Chromebooks are shipping with powerful Intel CPUs inside.

samsung chromebook 2 lid detail oct 2014 Image: Rob Schultz

Samsung's Chromebook 2.

Call it a potential Plan B for Microsoft’s PC partners—shaken by the launch of Microsoft’s Surface devices and the startling failure of Windows 8. Regardless, there’s now more competition in the computing world, better choices than ever for Chromebook buyers, and more affordable PCs period all around.

Chromebooks overtake iPads in education

Chromebook shipments to U.S. schools leapfrogged iPad shipments in the third quarter and are nearing 50 percent of the educational market. For all the iPad hype, an expensive tablet that lacks a keyboard and multi-user support just doesn't work for most schools.

chromebook kids Kevin Jarrett via Flickr/Creative Commons

Children using Chromebooks in elementary school.

Google’s Chromebooks offer a familiar interface and integrated keyboards for users, and for school IT departments, low prices, simple management, and support for easily passing Chromebooks among students. There have also been good signs for Chromebooks in business, so expect to see Google-powered laptops gain even more momentum in 2015.

Ubuntu’s relentless pursuit of the smartphones

Ubuntu, probably the most talked-about Linux distribution, has shifted gears—or rather, platforms. While the recent Ubuntu 14.10 saw almost no changes, a ton of work is going into Ubuntu Touch for smartphones.

ubuntu touch meizu mx4 photo taken from meizus blog

A Meizu-made Ubuntu Touch phone.

Recently, Ubuntu Touch for phones was finalized, and Canonical signed a “strategic agreement” with smartphone manufacturer Meizu. Phones should soon follow. This is the culmination of Ubuntu's vision of computing convergence in 2013. Canonical has previously announced it wants Ubuntu to power tablets and smart TVs, so clearly there's more to come.

The marriage of Chrome OS and Android

Chrome OS and Android are Google’s two consumer operating systems, but they’ve often felt rather disconnected. When Chrome OS launched, you couldn’t even get a Chrome browser app on Android!

Things are different now. In 2013, Sundar Pichai was placed in charge of both Chrome OS and Android. In October, 2014, vice president of Android engineering Hiroshi Lockheimer was placed in charge of Chrome OS, too. The benefits of this engineering mind-meld are starting to show with new features such as Smart Lock, which will automatically unlock your Chromebook when your Android phone is nearby. This also means Android apps are beginning to run on Chrome OS. The future no doubt holds even more harmonization between Chrome and Android.

Chrome OS becomes more capable

Chrome OS made some huge strides in software support in 2014. Chief among them was gaining an official version of Photoshop provided by Adobe. This is currently offered only to education customers, though.

chromebookphotoshop Google

Photoshop running on a Chromebook Pixel.

Microsoft added its Office Online apps to the Chrome Web Store back in April. Sure, they’re just fancy shortcuts to the Office Online website, but this is a meaningful gesture from the company that recently argued Chromebooks weren’t real computers because they didn’t have Office. Could an offline version of Office Online be far behind?

In other Microsoft news, it’s bringing Skype to the web with WebRTC, which makes voice and video chat native to your web browser—no plugins required. Once that happens, Skype should work just fine with Chromebooks.

Windows 10’s aping of Linux

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then Microsoft has nothing but good things to say about Linux. Windows 10 is abandoning many of the more jarring changes of Windows 8—while simultaneously copying features from Linux.

Windows 10 includes virtual desktops, a centralized notification center, and a vision of apps that can run in windows when you’re using a proper PC, or full-screen when you’re using a mobile device. It’s a smattering of ideas from 15-year-old Linux desktops, GNOME Shell, and Ubuntu’s vision of convergence.

windows10 tech preview virtual desktop Image: Microsoft

Windows 10's take on virtual desktops.

In fact, a vast number of Linux features I thought Windows should copy have already appeared in Windows 10. Windows 10’s app store will include desktop apps, and there’s already a Linux-style package manager named OneGet. The new Windows Snap Assist feature introduces something akin to Linux’s tiling window management, too.

Microsoft’s love affair with Linux

Microsoft [heart] Linux.” That’s what it said on a slide behind Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella as he talked up Microsoft’s love for Linux back in October. Microsoft wants to host all the Linux servers it can on its Azure cloud service. The company also wants Linux server applications to be written in .NET—hence the open-sourcing of the server bits of .NET late in the year.

satya nadella microsoft loves linux James Niccolai

Microsoft sure has come a long way from the “Linux is a cancer” and “open-source software is un-American” days under Steve Ballmer.

But Microsoft’s love for Linux isn't unconditional. It loves Linux on the server, but don’t expect Office or any other Microsoft software for Linux any time soon. Nor will it open-source the parts of .NET necessary for porting graphical applications to the Linux desktop. And Microsoft’s still shaking down Android, Chrome OS, and other Linux-based device makers as they argue Linux is violating its patents.

The more things change, the more things stay the same.

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