Out of Steam? Wine draining away? Ubuntu’s 64-bit-only x86 decision is causing migraines

i386 binaries will still run, says Canonical, but it may not be good enough for key apps

Updated  Canonical’s decision to effectively ditch official support for 32-bit x86 in Ubuntu 19.10 means the Steam gaming runtime is likely to run aground on the Linux operating system – and devs say the Wine compatibility layer for running Windows apps will be of little use.…

Updated Canonical’s decision to effectively ditch official support for 32-bit x86 in Ubuntu 19.10 means the Steam gaming runtime is likely to run aground on the Linux operating system – and devs say the Wine compatibility layer for running Windows apps will be of little use.

As a result of the changes, Valve developer Pierre-Loup Griffais confirmed on Twitter: “Ubuntu 19.10 and future releases will not be officially supported by Steam or recommended to our users.” This is because Steam relies on 32-bit x86, aka i386, support for running older games that are 32-bit-only. Without official 32-bit x86 support in Ubuntu, Valve is walking away from the Linux distro.

An Intel 386 processor

Ubuntu says i386 to be 86’d with Eoan 19.10 release: Ageing 32-bit x86 support will be ex-86

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The Ubuntu maker sparked outcry last week with its announcement that “the i386 architecture will be dropped” in its next big release, codenamed Eoan. Canonical’s Will Cooke even went as far as saying: “i386 will not be included as an architecture for the 19.10 release, and we will shortly begin the process of disabling it for the Eoan series across Ubuntu infrastructure.”

Some presumed this meant i386 libraries would not be shipped at all, meaning that no 32-bit x86 applications would run without some sort of containerization or virtual environment in which non-64-bit x86 legacy software could run.

However, Canonical’s Steve Langasek has has since clarified or U-turned, depending on your level of cynicism:

Freezing the libraries may be almost as bad though, from the point of view of Steam, since drivers for new GPUs would be impacted; and Steam without support for the shiniest new GPUs for 32-bit games (of which there are many) would be crippled.

Langasek said last year that “compatibility with legacy software is important, but it doesn’t automatically follow that the right way to provide this compatibility is by continuing to build new versions of the OS for a legacy ABI [Application Binary Interface]. Users who need support for i386 integrated natively into their OS can use Ubuntu 18.04 with security support until April 2023. 18.04 can be run in a chroot or container on top of later Ubuntu releases. 32-bit software distributed as snaps built with an 18.04-derived library runtime can reasonably be expected to work on later releases of Ubuntu for the foreseeable future.”

The problem, though, is that the assumption of 32-bit x86 support is deeply woven into a number of applications, the Wine compatibility layer being another.

“Wine heavily relies on i386,” said Jens Reyer, co-maintainer of Wine on Debian. “Not only for legacy 32-bit software, but also ‘almost all’ 64-bit software uses a 32-bit installer … so although Wine will still be available in the Ubuntu archive on amd64, it’ll be basically useless.

“To support current features in new Wine releases you need recent versions of a few libraries (e.g. faudio, vulkan-loader and vkd3d, and those require other recent stuff like sdl2 [Simple Direct Media Layer]. 18.04 is already too old to fully support current Wine with (all) current features. So the solutions proposed like containers and snaps based on 18.04 will not fully work. Upstream … will probably just stop to build for 19.10+. This is not to say that they are not interested in working on a solution.”

Canonical could, of course, change its mind, but if not, it must expect a proportion of users to move to other distributions as a consequence. Worth it for a clean 64-bit slate and lower maintenance costs? Doubtful. ®

Updated to add

The Ubuntu maker today posted a lengthy statement on its site about the i386 situation. It’s not really crystal clear what’s going to happen next, though, as negotiations over support appear to be in flux between Canonical and various development teams. Here are the key portions:

So, in short, Canonical will try to keep some older legacy i386 software running in some shape or form in the future, but it really, really doesn’t want to, and thus you’re better off just running Ubuntu on 64-bit x86, or one of its other supported CPU architectures.

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