I've had linux installed on at least one pc in the house for the last ten or so years. It will usually be some old, or underpowered machine that I can prod back to life. Sometimes I’ll have a dual boot setup going, or just run a linux vmware image. It comes in handy, like when I had a hard drive failing and wasn’t able to read it from windows. Typically I'll install it, poke around for a bit, and then leave it for a fe months. Mostly, I boot up a linux to update it, and then shut it back down.
I’ve often thought it would be great to use linux as my primary OS. The problem is that I use a lot of art creation tools. They tend to be very specialized, complex, and only on Windows or Mac. That will change, and here’s why.
When I went to school for animation we used Silicon Graphics machines. Ridiculously expensive workstations full of proprietary hardware and a unique OS called IRIX. IRIX was a UNIX based system that was made to run on these graphics powerhouses. Your average Ipad would run polygonal laps around those SGI machines, but they were the construction site for a lot of your favorite Jurassic Parks, Terminator 2s, and Jumanjis. I would say that “at the time” they were the best graphics processing machines available, but that wouldn’t be true. By the time I was in school they were already being leapfrogged in the graphics hardware department. The fuel driving this innovation? Quake2.
The big two in computer animation were Alias Power Animator and Softimage. There were a few other programs, 3DSMax and the like, but if you wanted to do some serious computer animation, you used those programs, or wrote your own. Outside of an R&D lab and a few brave souls running WindowsNT, if you wanted to use Softimage, you used a SGI workstation running IRIX.
In the early 90’s there were no 3D acceleration parts for home computers, windows and DOS PCs, since there were no applications that required them. QuakeGL changed that. A whole slew of games started coming out around the same time, driven by the power of the polygon. A two dimensional sprite created by a talented artist might look nice, but it put serious limits on the kind of game you could make. This was the dawn of the first person shooter, and if you wanted to make a detailed 3d world that a player could walk around in, you made it out of textured polygons. The x86 and powerpc cpus in the PCs and Macs of the time were bunk at drawing polygons to the screen at any kind of acceptable speed, so dedicated 3D graphics cards started coming out. Fairly soon, the same raw power in those SGI workstations was available in a few hundred dollar graphics board you jammed into your home computer. Unlike the SGI machines, these boards were made to play games.
Fairly early in my formal animation education, Alias released Maya. Maya is the successor to Power Animator, and was created by wickedly intelligent people. Being so intelligent, they determined that creating better tools was not enough. Instead they created Maya which is a platform and language that can be used to make tools. The fact that it persists to this day, more capable, but largely similar to that first version should tell you something. But that’s not the kicker. Before the year was out, it was also available on Windows and could use the polygon crunching horsepower of those consumer 3D boards. I finished of my school year, often working from home on cracked copy of Maya, and bringing my scene files into school to render final frames on the network of SGI machines overnight.
A lot of companies, including SGI, made high end “PRO” 3D graphics boards. They were (still are) very expensive beefed up versions of consumer hardware. Hardware designed to run games.
We can be as high minded as we like, and say that computers are these fantastic multipurpose machines. We can say that every type of business and human industry has been positively affected by the computer. But what drove the development of the computer? Games. it’s always games. What do people buy in enormous quantities to feed into each digital maw? games. What spurred the development and advancement of digital audio, video, memory speed, processor speed, specialized hardware, input devices, sensors, artificial intelligence? I could go on, but we all know, it’s games.
Games sold thousands of Commodore64s, AppleII varients, and IBM PCs. People will buy any device that has the most games available for it, and then other industries, like Alias creating Maya for Windows, will follow. If you want to sell your software, you put it where the people are, and people go where the games are.
The entire computer industry has settled on a couple of hardware standards, so making your software talk to the hardware has become, more or less, a solved problem. All games are either made for X86 or ARM processors, and the incredible power of the current graphics chips means that most developers write to an intermediary language, like OpenGL, rather than trying to deal with the hardware itself. The small amount of overhead required by intermediary languages is usually acceptable. What developers are really looking for is an easy way to get their games to as many people as possible as easily as possible.
Right now, the easiest way to get a game to as many people as possible is on windows, and probably through the Steam store. Valve, the company behind Steam is making a big play to try and get people to play games on linux. Except this isn’t a big play at all. Valve are trying to get out in front of the iceberg.
Alias Moved Maya over to windows well before the software and hardware were ready for it on that platform. Hollywood moves more slowly than the game industry. People making special effects for movies held on to their SGI workstations for much longer than they really should have, but by the time that they were ready to move on to new PC or Mac machines, Maya was already there, waiting. Where the games are.
It has, with the advent of ubuntu, become fairly easy for a PC or Mac user to install and use linux. My last linux install was simpler than my last windows install, and I’m a person with an abnormally high tolerance to digital knob twiddling so I already don’t consider windows installs a real hardship if that tells you anything. If you like to surf the web and write a document or two you could do far worse than installing linux. You can run it on pretty much anything. You could probably install it on your kettle at this point.
I know that a few people who have read this far think this is pure nonsense. Linux will never become the dominant OS, because business is so heavily invested in Windows. To anyone who thought this, you are looking at the wagon and you think it’s pushing the horse. Business moves slow. There are businesses out there that still have vax machines in operation. If you want to know what a vax machine is, go look up mainframe in an old encyclopedia. That picture of the industrial refrigerator or washing machine that has “computer” written under it, that’s a vax. Games go where they can run fast and sell to the most people in the easiest way. Games push computer technology forward.
Most of the popular game engines now deploy games to android, a linux based OS that may be on your phone right now, as well as vanilla debian or ubuntu linux, or even straight to a browser where the underlying OS makes no difference. Linux, due to it’s open nature, can become what people need it to be. It is already the platform that most of the internet is built on. Linux can and likely will, be made into the fastest, most stable game running platform available. It has become fairly easy for a developer with no interest in the esoterica surrounding linux to make their game available on that OS. Easy is the key.
This isn’t a revolution that will happen overnight, but it is inevitable. It might be a few years, but more games will become available on linux. If it’s easy as pressing the “build to linux” button, why the hell would they not. Steam is probably the largest game store on the planet, they don’t need linux. They aren’t hoping to drive adoption of an alternate OS. Valve are opening up a shop where the products will be. Where the games go, everything, and everyone, will follow. It would seem to me that Valve want to be there waiting when they do.