SteamOS - Windows Beater?

SteamOS - Windows Beater?
Clearly, it should come as no shock to suggest that Microsoft's recent attempts to capture the hearts, minds and wallets of computing and gaming enthusiasts aren't turning out quite as well as expected. The impression so far is of a company being forced into humiliating u-turns over its Xbox One console, a firm battling to get Windows 8 onto the computers of the masses and an organisation still trying to prise open the Apple-Android dominance of the smartphone market. When Microsoft bosses were in the boardroom working out the strategy for the next few years, it must have looked so much easier.

Imagine how they must have felt, then, when Valve, the company which brought to the world the delights of Half-Life and games distribution channel Steam, started to reveal its own software and hardware delights. In the last few weeks. Valve has made three earth-shattering announcements (insofar as technology unveilings can be). It has produced a games-focused operating system, it has plans for a console and it's set to end the keyboard/mouse combination of gameplay on a PC by introducing a gamepad that it claims is far better.

In doing all of this, Microsoft executives - who are already looking enviously at Sony and its near-flawless path to next-gen glory - must be feeling their hearts beating ever so faster. It's one thing having to make a dimbdown when dealing with the fallout surround the Xbox One (ditching the always-on connection and mandatory Kinect use and embracing self-publishing and indie games), but it's quite another thing having the world's gaming press proclaim the PlayStation 4 to be the next-gen console most people will want to own.

However, when a company that has long-professed its love for the PC suddenly tries to whip away reliance on Windows and conjures up a new, open way of producing games consoles with an instant library of some 3,000 games, it must have Microsoft execs fishing out those PowerPoint presentations and working out where in the game plan all of this was mentioned. If Valve's new announcements have any effect on any company, then surely it must be Microsoft.

For what we have is an operating system for PCs that plugs into a living room computer to offer games, music, television and films. But more than that, what we have is an operating system for PCs that plugs into a living room computer to offer games, music, television and films that is made by Valve - a company which has barely put a foot wrong in all of those years of operation.

Valve is worshipped by gamers who not only love its games but adore the ease of use of its distribution channel. Steam, which it created to allow people to quickly buy not only its own games but thousands of other triple-A and indie games developed by others. It has been a major hit and it has, in recent times, been making inroads into the Mac and Linux markets. In doing all of this, it has amassed some 54 million active users.

Windows Beater?

It's clear when looking at what Valve is aiming to achieve that such a question is justified. SteamOS, after all, is intended to turn Steam from a distribution channel into an operating system. Suddenly it becomes a platform just like Xbox. PlayStation, Wii and all of the other smaller players that have come (and gone) over the years.

As soon as someone boots up a PC that has SteamOS installed on it, they will see only SteamOS and all its menu-driven options. They won't see Windows at all. Windows will cease to be the master, and it will, for those machines on which SteamOS is installed, be cut out of the game.

SteamOS brings many features to entice people to tread this path. Not only does it open up choice for players - who will be able to play a game on their PC. Mac or television - it lets games be shared with family members, each of who can have their own libraries of games, amass their own achievement points and save their own progress in the Steam cloud. Gamers who already use Steam can play the games they've purchased without having to rebuy them and they can also stream titles from a PC or Mac to their SteamOS machine in the living room.

Valve says we should also expect all of the usual streaming services for film and music (Netflix, Lovefilm and so on), putting SteamOS and its console up against the likes of Apple TV too. About the only thing you won't be expecting to do is word process or mess around with a spreadsheet. This is an OS that is all about having fun and its whole being is about making sure that you do. It is, therefore, a direct challenge to the success of Windows and Microsoft's Xbox Live (48 million users and counting). The majority of games bought on Steam are played on a PC rather than a Mac and, in fact, most of those PCs are Windows-based. SteamOS is an attractive alternative proposition to this, being a Linux-based, open source operating system specifically geared up to playing games. It does not cost anything in terms of licensing and it can be freely installed on to a PC. It means people creating a gaming PC can just cut out the costs of Windows and either get a cheaper gaming machine or put the money into better components.

Console Yourself

Similarly. SteamOS will cut into the console market. Valve wants to reposition the way PC games are played, allowing them to be taken into the living room and hooked up to a television. As it currently stands, playing PC games in the lounge is a cumbersome process because Windows and PCs are not really designed for that purpose and we're not quite at the stage where we can enjoy anything approaching an Apple console.

Valve's co-founder and managing director of videogame development and online distribution is Gabe Newell, and he understands this situation. He knows gamers have stuck to Windows because, as a platform, it has more games for it than Mac and Linux, but he also knows it could do better.

After all, this is a man who worked for Microsoft for 13 years, describing himself as producer on the first three releases of Windows. He left to work on the game Quake for id Software before going on to found Valve in 1996, and in all that time, his accumulated knowledge has become a vast resource that has only served to cement his long-standing love affair with PCs.

Such is his loyalty, he called console development “a waste of everybody’s time” in 2007. However, it seems his stance softened because he would later take to the Sony stage and announce Portal 2. When faced with a relatively open platform that he felt catered well for developers and gamers, he could see the possibilities and so he began to ponder a fresh market and what Valve could achieve within it.

Certainly, he was becoming rather fed up with Windows. 'We want to make it as easy as possible for the 2,500 games on Steam to run on Linux as well," he said earlier in the year. 'It's a hedging strategy. I think Windows 8 is a catastrophe for everyone in the PC space. We'll lose some of the top-tier PC/OEMs, who will exit the market. I think margins will be destroyed for a bunch of people. It will be good to have alternatives to hedge against that eventuality." It was to prove a pivotal moment, no doubt prompted by thoughts of taking the market to a new height.

The PC Market

If Valve succeeds, it will be a major triumph. Although the PC Gaming Alliance insists there are a billion PC gamers around the world, the perception is that the market for PC gaming is not as big today as it once was. Valve obviously feels it should take greater control of it and help to turn things around.

Why? Well, it has so much invested. Steam controls 75% of PC games buying, and it would prefer to have 75% of a buoyant market. SteamOS will help it to future proof itself to some extent, giving it the ability to take a further monetary cut of the gaming market and ensure resources are piled into gaming.

It feels it can only do this by setting out a clear stall. The SteamOS, unlike Windows, is designed to be an ideal gaming platform, and Valve says it has “achieved significant performance increases in graphics processing' and that it is working on 'audience performance and reductions in input latency at the operating system level".

To further help crack that living market. Valve is today encouraging manufacturers to create quiet PCs that are small enough to become a living room feature while packing in high-end and customisable components to push games to their limits. The SteamOS will take care of the settings and help gamers to get on and play.

Giving Choice

SteamOS will also give people a choice. It will be made available on gaming PCs sold by manufacturers. It will be downloaded, for free by users on to their own gaming setups. It will also be available on consoles in 2014 called Steam Machines. This last part is important because it means the operating system has a physical face. SteamOS therefore becomes more than just a piece of software in the minds of consumers. It becomes part of a brand new games console that just happens to be available for PCs too.

Here things become a little trickier, since Valve is not producing just one Steam Machine but several. It's working with third-party manufacturers to create a range of SteamOS-compatible consoles with differing specifications, prices and performance to suit specific needs and budgets. Whether or not this will lead to confusion has yet to be seen, but consumers have been shown with Android to like having the choice, and it has worked well with Android in getting the operating system out there and known.

However, it can backfire. It can fragment a market and it lead to some games working perfectly fine on one setup and less so on another. Some people are put off using PCs for gaming because they have to pay attention to the specifications. When you buy a game on the Xbox 360. Xbox One, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Wii or Wii U, you have no such problem. You know when the box says Xbox One it will work on Xbox One. When you see a game on Steam, you have to check your system is up to it first. At least the gamepad won't cause problems.

SteamOS will be the unifier, of course. It will undoubtedly check that a game will work before allowing it to be downloaded. Being open source, it will also allow people to tinker and improve the code if they know what they're doing. It should also lower the cost of buying a gaming PC and make it a more accessible market. For those who love PC games, this really could be the revolution they've been waiting for, and it will be of great interest to those who live in the 185 countries in which Steam has a sizeable market.

The Cons

However, there are also downsides. Valve is a hardcore service, and while it has millions of users, if the PC Gaming Alliance is correct with its one billion PC gamers figure, then the 54 million Valve users is a tiny proportion. So many of those one billion gamers will be casual, playing puzzle games on the desktop. Playing games on a Windows platform will not be wiped out by SteamOS.

The fact is SteamOS is geared up for those who want to dedicate their entire PC to gaming. They will have their gaming rigs for this purpose. Someone who plays the odd game here and there will not want to lose their computer to SteamOS, and Valve does not intend for this to happen (hence the option for streaming). SteamOS will be better for gaming than Windows, but Windows will still beat it for a whole raft of other uses.

SteamOS may lead to higher development costs for companies too. Developers may decide, at first, to create a SteamOS native game and one for Windows and that won't come cheap. At the same time, they may want to make the two versions as similar as possible. Since the Irving room PC running SteamOS is intended to run using the new Steam controller, games will be made for that, rather than a keyboard/mouse combo in mind. Keyboard/mouse gaming for major games could become a niche product.

Perhaps more importantly than even that is the monopoly Valve would come to enjoy from SteamOS. There is nothing to suggest that gamers will be able to play games bought from the likes of or that they will be able to take advantage of direct-to-consumer games like World of Tanks. These companies and games will suffer unless they tie in with Valve in some way. Not everyone will want to do that.

And how much will these Steam Machines cost anyway? Prototypes are being tested, but will they be more expensive than the three major consoles? If they are. then you can bet they will not be denting the success of Xbox, PlayStation and Wi to the degree that Valve would hope. Where's the incentive, too, for third-party manufacturers? If Valve is creaming off this extra money through Steam purchases, wii the manufacturers see some of that? Valve is not in the position of Sony or Microsoft, as it stands, where it can offer a console at a loss and hope to recoup through games, because it stands more on the software rather than hardware side of the industry. It admits it could make mistakes given its inexperience and that could prove a gamble for those buying into the concept.

Competition Rules

Above all else, though. Valve's entry into the console, living room space is very much as welcome one. The more competition there is in the gaming industry, the more innovation there will be. The controller will be looked at very keenly by Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo, especially given that the recent console wars have centred on input mechanisms. Each of them will also be keeping an eye on how much of a rival the PC market will be when it starts to make its move downstairs courtesy of Valve.

Will Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo head the other way, even? Will they decide that a stand-alone gaming OS for PC would be a way to expand their gaming base? By having dual boot, a PC could become the ultimate gamng machine, capable of runnng games from all of the different systems. It’s a gargantuan task but not completely beyond the minds of those who do these kinds of things for a living. For now, we wait and see. Valve has set out its stall, bringing SteamOS to gamers this year and deciding not to plunge in to the console market with its Steam Machines and gamepad before Christmas and preferring to wait until 2014. By harnessing the attention and input of gamers, though (its prototype programme will involve 300 punters), it wants to become the people's machine. Who's to say it won't?


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Sunday, October 27, 2013 ×

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