Introduction: The Impossible Has Happened!
Well, it has finally happened. Linux has reached 1% marketshare on Steam! In the July 2021 hardware survey, Linux marketshare rose by 0.11 percentage points to go from 0.89% to 1.00%. On top of that, statcounter shows Linux hitting an all-time high of 2.68% in general OS marketshare.
Is it time to pop the champagne and party? Is the "Year of the Linux Desktop" finally upon us? I can say for sure that it's usually best to practice cautious optimism. While Linux has finally reached what seemed to be a mythical milestone, it took 3 years after the launch of Proton to accomplish that. Not only that, as demonstrated by the above graph, the marketshare tends to fluctuate up and down, meaning there's a good chance it can fall back below 1% by the August 2021 hardware survey. That said, while Linux marketshare tends to fluctuate to a larger degree than Windows and MacOS, the trendline suggests that it will gain more marketshare in the long run.
But Why Now?
Though what was responsible for the significant rise? A lot of people would likely point towards Valve's Steam Deck announcement (my thoughts on the hardware here), but I don't think you can isolate it to just one reason. Yes, the Deck has garnered a lot of enthusiasm from gamers. Within the first 90 minutes, preorders exceeded 110,000 units and I explained how that can drastically boost the concurrent Linux user count. Valve seems to have learned from its past mistakes and it appears likely that the Deck will not be a repeat of the failed Steam Machines.
But even so, the Steam Deck preorders will not contribute to the Linux marketshare until December 2021 at the earliest. As a result, something else must be going on. Some speculate it is due to Windows 11 requiring a Trusted Platform Module (TPM) 2.0 chip to install the OS, and the fact that you're required to have an internet connection and a Microsoft account for first time setup. So if you're using hardware that is 5+ years old, you're out of luck. And if you value privacy... ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Timestamped to 8:09.
It's not just Linus Tech Tips that is not all too happy with TPM 2.0 and required Microsoft account. Among Gamers Nexus's audience, enthusiasm for Windows 11 is rather tepid. A week before this article, the channel posted a poll asking its audience about its plans regarding Windows 11. The majority of the respondents responded with "I'll wait and see what happens" at 56% with another 16% stating that they would stay on Windows 10 or older.
On top of that, many users underneath the poll either state they already have a Linux distro installed or are planning to install Linux in the future.
On July 22, 2021, Linus Tech Tips uploaded a tutorial on how to install Pop!_OS instead of Windows 11 and set up the desktop to play games, including Windows-only games. While the video didn't garner as many videos as the channel's other similarly aged videos, it still raked in a respectable 966K views and 82K likes, so there was bound to be a handful of audience who decided to try Pop!_OS out.
Linux May Be Better for Older Hardware
Remember the Windows 11's TPM 2.0 issue I described earlier? If your system is too old to upgrade from 10 to 11, you're out of luck... or are you? If your old hardware has Vulkan support, then Linux may actually be a viable option. The reason? AMD's FidelityFX Super Resolution.
I've already written about it before, but to recap, FidelityFX Super Resolution algorithmically upscales a lower resolution image to your monitor's resolution. The benefit of FSR is that by rendering at a lower resolution, you get higher framerates while algorithm helps maintain most of the image quality. Overall, the end result is significantly better than point or bilinear upscaling.
When FSR launched on June 21, I concluded that the image quality looks really good at the Ultra Quality preset with the Quality preset also not looking too shabby. As long as you're not, for instance, upscaling to 1080p on Performance mode, then the overall experience should be a net positive.
But what does this have to do with Windows 11's TPM 2.0 and installing Linux on your old hardware instead? Well, thanks to AMD's GPUOpen mission, FSR is open-source and the code is publicly available. A person by the name of Georg 'DadSchoorse' Lehmann found a way to implement FSR on nearly all Vulkan games (including those that run on DXVK or VKD3D) under the Linux environment. He managed to replace Proton's full-screen hack's (fshack) traditional linear/nearest filter with FSR. GloriousEggroll has demonstrated that using FSR on Linux indeed works with games such as Forza Horizon 4 and Warframe.
There is one caveat, however. Normally, FSR is supposed to work in the middle of the graphics pipeline. After anti-aliasing and tone mapping, FSR kicks in to upscale the image before the post-processing filters and UI elements come in. This is why even when you use the lower quality settings of FSR, the UI elements don't look all pixelated and blurry. In contrast, the fshack solution implements FSR at the end of the pipeline, meaning the post-processing effects and UI are also upscaled.
How FSR works normally.
However, it's not the end of the world as demonstrated by GloriousEggroll's Forza Horizon 4 video and the fshack FSR solution can prolong the life of older hardware that are not compatible with Windows 11. On top of that, the fshack FSR method is not exclusive to Valve's Proton. Lutris has launched the beta of version 0.5.9 and among the new features include a "FidelityFX Super Resolution (FSR) option for compatible Wine versions". That means if you own software from other storefronts like GOG or Humble, then you can use FSR on those games, too.
Was Linux's rise to 1% Steam marketshare a blip or a sign of greater things to come? Based on what I have found from my quasi-investigation, I think there are plenty of signs that suggest that there is legitimate momentum behind the Linux desktop. Enthusiasm surrounding Windows 11, at least among the PC enthusiast crowd, is pretty low. On top of that, the fshack FSR solution is already available on Linux, enabling users of older, incompatible (with W11) hardware to eke out some more performance and years.
I have already iterated before and will continue to reiterate that Linux will likely never surpass Windows. However, it doesn't necessarily need to do that. It just needs to gain a large enough marketshare for developers to take notice. Early signs suggest the Steam Deck is preordering very well. Even just a million Steam Deck users will substantially grow the Linux userbase. In addition, Valve has stated that there are many improvements to Proton that have yet to go public, and the company is working with BattlEye and Easy Anti-Cheat to bring compatibility. In the past, I mentioned how multiplayer games have been one of Linux gaming's biggest Achilles heels. If Valve stays true to its word, then the number of compatible games will skyrocket.
This the best opportunity the Linux desktop has had since arguably Windows Vista. Hopefully, this time, the opportunity is taken advantage of fully.