September 24, 2013, 6:00 AM —
Last Monday at LinuxCon, Valve Software's Gabe Newell promised more info about the company's proposed 'Steam Box' this week. The Steam Box concept is essentially a PC dedicated to gaming and intended for the living room.
Valve's first announcement (they appear to have 3 planned for this week) came yesterday, and it was about a new operating system the company is developing, SteamOS.
SteamOS is based on Linux, and while Valve says it'll always be free, it's not clear that it's open source. What is clear is that 3rd party hardware manufacturers can build dedicated boxes running it, so we can expect to see a variety of "Steam Box" hardware hit the market in the months to come.
Valve claims there are "hundreds" of games running natively under SteamOS now (no surprise given that there are about 200 games supported in Steam for Linux) and they say they'll have AAA titles coming in 2014. Valve also says they're talking to "many of the media services you know and love" and that soon 'they' (no names were mentioned) will be available on SteamOS, too.
Honestly most of Valve's SteamOS announcement felt a bit like spin to me. If you load up Linux on a PC, run Steam on it and hook it up to your living room TV it'll do most of what Valve is promising that SteamOS offers right now.
But the one big exception is in-home streaming. Since there's such a vast library of games on Steam that run exclusively under Windows, Valve has made the smart move of letting you stream games running on your gaming PC to a system in the living room running SteamOS. That's pretty cool.
But I'm still a little conflicted. Gabe Newell has been very vocal in his dislike of Microsoft's 'closed' ecosystem, particularly since Windows 8 launched with a store built in. But how is SteamOS, an operating system built around the Steam store, any better? Will we be able to use our SteamOS machine to play games we buy from EA's Origin service, or GoG.com or Desura or any of the many other digital game stores out there? We don't know for sure but I suspect not.
Valve also is aiming at the console market, saying "With SteamOS, “openness” means that the hardware industry can iterate in the living room at a much faster pace than they’ve been able to" which seems like an obvious slam at the 7+ year hardware cycles of the PS3 and Xbox 360.
I see this as a double-edged sword. There's something to be said about spending $400-$500 and knowing your hardware is going to be 'current' for half a decade or more. If I need to buy a new Steam Box every 2 years to play the latest games, that's not always going to make me happy. Also, the fact that "Users can alter or replace any part of the software or hardware they want" is again, a double-edged sword. One of the nice things about consoles is that they're pretty much plug & play with no need to worry about software drivers or hardware upgrades that may not be supported by your favorite game.
These are issues that Windows gamers are comfortable with, but virtually all gaming PC rigs have HDMI-out on them these days and it's trivial to connect them to the living room TV and do all the things that SteamOS is promising to be able to do (minus the streaming but if you're running Windows you can just run titles natively). So what's the benefit here? It'll have to be cost, I think.
So we'll see. As a gamer I guess I'm 'supposed' to love everything Valve does, but even though I'm a Steam user I don't feel the warm fuzzies about SteamOS. I have an Alienware X51 hooked up to the living room TV that doesn't get much use and I'll give SteamOS a try on that when it launches, but I'm a bit skeptical.
What about you?
Valve's next announcement is Wednesday afternoon. I don't think it's a stretch to imagine we'll see the first Steam Box hardware announced.
Read more of Peter Smith's TechnoFile blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Follow Peter on Twitter at @pasmith. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.