Canonical returning 32-bit Ubuntu Linux support after gaming uproar

32-bit software should be functionally obsolete, but it turns out to live on in a 64-bit computing world. So, Canonical is putting 32-bit libraries back in to its next Ubuntu Linux releases.
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor

At first glance, Canonical dropping support for 32-bit Ubuntu Linux libraries looked to be interesting -- the end of an era -- but of no real importance. Then, Canonical announced that, beginning with October's Ubuntu 19.10 release, 32-bit -computer support would be dropped. And both developers and users screamed their objections.

Canonical listened and has changed course. "Thanks to the huge amount of feedback this weekend from gamers, Ubuntu Studio, and the WINE community, we will change our plan and build selected 32-bit i386 packages for Ubuntu 19.10 and 20.04 LTS."

There are few--if any--people demanding new Linux versions for their antique i386 PCs.Linux itself dropped support for the seminal 32-bit processor in 2012. At the time, Linus Torvalds bid 32-bit Linux good-bye saying, "I'm not sentimental. Good riddance."

So, when Canonical stopped shipping 32-bit Ubuntu Linux ISOs a few ago it wasn't a big deal. Canonical didn't expect dropping the 32-bit libraries would cause much of a fuss either. 

Canonical stated, "After the Ubuntu 18.04 LTS release we had extensive threads on the Ubuntu-devel list and also consulted Valve in detail on the topic. None of those discussions raised the passions we've seen here, so we felt we had sufficient consensus for the move in Ubuntu 20.04 LTS."

Thus, the Ubuntu engineering team "concluded that we should not continue to carry i386 forward as an architecture," explained Steve 'Vorlon' Langasek, a senior Ubuntu software developer. "Consequently, 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."

If you really needed those libraries for a particular program, Canonical suggested you download and install them with software packages, such as Snap, which include all the libraries needed for a particular program. 

After all, as was stated in another Ubuntu forum, "Hardware which will only run a 32-bit operating system is getting pretty rare these days and is unlikely to have enough resources to run the latest release of Ubuntu Desktop."

No problem, right? Wrong. 

Ubuntu developer Will Cooke explained that while "386 makes up around 1% of the Ubuntu install base," the potential problems were larger. While the 32-bit operating system are history, it turns out, 32-bit software libraries have lived on, and some very popular programs -- mostly games -- still use them. Developers and Ubuntu users were not happy.

In particular, a Valve, creator of the popular Steam gaming platform, developer, announced, on Twitter: "Ubuntu 19.10 and future releases will not be officially supported by Steam or recommended to our users. We will evaluate ways to minimize breakage for existing users, but will also switch our focus to a different distribution, currently TBD."

On WINE -- the program most often used for running Windows applications on Linux -- another programmerwondered "whether to even bother trying to package Wine for Ubuntu 19.10 and up."

It's been known for some time that both Steam and Wine depended on archaic 32-bit libraries. "On the list of known blockers for removing the i386 port are Steam and Wine." It also appears that some drivers -- in particular for older Brother printers -- are only functional with 32-bit libraries. 

In the meantime, a bit of testing by Alan Pope, a Canonical developer advocate, found that some existing Steam and Wine programs won't run on beta Ubuntu 19.10. Ubuntu developers worried --naturally enough -- that this will make some Linux desktop users drop Ubuntu.

That won't do. 

Moving forward, Canonical has decided "it's relatively easy for us to change plans and enable natively in Ubuntu 20.04 LTS the applications for which there is a specific need."

Canonical also stated it "work with the WINE, Ubuntu Studio and gaming communities to use container technology to address the ultimate end of life of 32-bit libraries; it should stay possible to run old applications on newer versions of Ubuntu. Snaps and LXD enable us both to have complete 32-bit environments, and bundled libraries, to solve these issues in the long term."

But, in the short term, you no longer need worry about the next few versions of Ubuntu running Steam games, WINE-enabled Windows programs, and older hardware. 32-bit Linux will live on for at least another few years.

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