The Next Edition of Operating Systems?

Thousands of games, millions of users. Everything you love about Steam.
Available soon as a free operating system designed for the TV and the living room. As we’ve been working on bringing Steam to the living room, we’ve come to the conclusion that the environment best suited to delivering value to customers is an operating system built around Steam itself. SteamOS combines the rock-solid architecture of Linux with a gaming experience built for the big screen. It will be available soon as a free stand-alone operating system for living room machines.’                                                                                                              -Valve Corporation

In this post, we are going to discuss the concept of the Steam Operating System (SteamOS) and the implications, importance and criticisms.

What is Steam OS?

Sometime in 2013, Valve announced plans to bring out a new operating system that is completely built around Steam itself (which will come from ‘Steam Boxes’-their version of a console). Essentially, we are talking about Steam as more than just an online digital rights service and more about Steam being its own operating system.

Why are they doing this? Valve explains some of the reasoning as wanting to expand the way people use the Steam service. In their own words ‘entertainment is not a one-size-fits-all-world.’ So by creating SteamOS (see picture below), Valve hopes that the system will provide greater capabilities for the user.

We must, however, be careful about ‘greater capabilities.’ SteamOS does not introduce anything drastically different from the current version of Steam. SteamOS will do much of what it already does for PC users. The difference is how it will be used, which is what presumably Valve were  asking when they released the ‘Big Picture’ feature.

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‘Big Picture was proposed back in 2013, which allowed people to use Steam (as a user-interface) on their TVs and gamepads besides their computers. As they say, ‘this year we’ve been working on even more ways to connect the dots for customers who want Steam in the living-room.’

What’s more, SteamOS will be completely free to use. The OS is open source, meaning anyone can build upon the existing coding. This continues Valve’s commitment to its community (including a beta-testing for SteamOS), as well as for would-be developers and designers.

Is entertainment still one size only?

So what does this all mean in the grand scheme of things? For Valve, this is a big statement. Using Steam on a TV may not seem that drastic, but in terms of the gaming world, is a significant step. I don’t want to put words in their mouths, but let’s be honest. This could be seen as a challenge to Microsoft and Sony for their share of the market. Steam has done well on the PC side of things, so what is to stop them from expanding their portfolio further?

By using Linux rather than Windows, this can be interpreted as signalling a challenge to the stranglehold that Microsoft currently has over the computer market. Gabe Newell, Valve’s Managing Director, went about on record saying that Windows 8 was a ‘catastrophe’ for PC games. His comments were perceived as ‘criticism of the changed user interface in Windows 8 as well as its built-in Windows Store. The Windows Store could dent the success of Valve’s own online market, Steam, through which players buy games’ (BBC, 2012).

He sees Windows 8 as less ‘open’ then previous versions, something which Steam thrives upon and therefore threatens. A large part of Steam’s success has been the way in which users have been able to utilize and create their own content as we have seen.

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A Steam Machine and Controller Pad

Linux is geared towards the developers and designers, something Valve are keen to promote. The console that SteamOS will run upon – Steam Machines – can be custom modified to suit a user’s needs. Those system enthusiasts will be able to choose their rig. This results in a flexible price range depending on the system.

Criticism: Is There A Need?

As a potential consumer, the first question, surely, would be: ‘what does a gaming PC with SteamOS provide over a similar Windows machine that has access to a much larger library of natively compatible games?’ (Orland, 2014).

In his article, ‘Analysis: Why SteamOS probably won’t cause a PC gaming revolution’, Orland questions the validity that many people would choose this route as opposed to just using a PC. He argues ‘the Steam client on Windows already has a Big Picture mode that makes it work just as well as a “part of the living room” as SteamOS does. In fact, you’d be hard pressed to tell at a glance whether a computer is running SteamOS or a Windows-based Big Picture mode.’

He has a point. If you could just hook your computer to a TV, why need a Steam Machine? SteamOS maybe more streamlined but still it seems like a strange choice to get one when a computer can do the job. 75 million people use Steam on the computer. How many of them would switch to SteamOS you wonder.

In the console market, the trick to ensure success is to convince people to switch to the newest edition to the family. With the recent releases of Xbox One, Wi U and PlayStation 4, this has ensured long-term marketability until the next in line inevitably arrives. Unlike consoles, computers can be customized from many different hardware parts (e.g. graphics cards). As Orland says ‘that’s a bit harder to do in the PC world, where Windows machines and SteamOS machines can be built with exactly the same raw hardware parts.’ This, again, presents a redundancy. Wouldn’t it be cheaper to plug a Windows computer into your TV?

Criticism: Linux-based Architecture

The Valve statement at the top explains that SteamOS combines the Linux architecture rather than Windows. Their reasoning is that it is more ‘open-source’ friendly and considerably cheaper in that you don’t need to pay for a license like Windows does. Now I’m not familiar with Linux, but that poses some problems.

Firstly, the ratio of the games library (how many games are playable) currently is 486 games for Linux – 2,483 games for Windows. This presents a massive gulf in titles available for Linux users. As Orland points out ‘the 75 percent of the Steam library that doesn’t run on Linux includes an overwhelming majority of the titles on Steam’s top sellers list as well as a number of big name titles that most any potential SteamOS customer is going to want to play.’

We can speculate that Valve is going to address this issue by adding more games to the list. It was only recently that Steam became useable for the Linux client. But to complete the list is going to take a very long time to make each game compatible.

Which leads to another issue. A lot of games on the library are made by third-party developers/publishers. They are going to have to help in porting over their games to Linux, something that will be a major constraint. ‘Bringing Windows-level game selection to SteamOS will also require major third-party publishers to play ball and devote resources to Linux ports, something they’re unlikely to do until and unless there’s a proven market for those ports. In turn, the market of gamers on SteamOS is likely to stay small until there is a critical mass of games that the platform supports. This chicken-and-egg problem of developer adoption vs. player adoption is incredibly familiar in the console gaming space, where companies have to convince their customers to essentially throw out their old OS for a new one every five or six year’ (Orland, 2014).

This ‘chicken and egg’ scenario is also mentioned by Rivington (2014), staying ‘it’s a classic chicken and egg scenario. Porting games to Linux costs money, so of course publishers will only do so if they think there are enough Linux gamers out there to buy them. There aren’t. So if you’re going to buy a gaming PC, why wouldn’t you just buy a Windows system, swallow the slight premium that a Windows license will cost you, and then get access to the whole Steam library in Big Picture mode and reap the simplicity and comprehensive functionality that Windows brings with it?’

The Future?

There is potential for this to grow into something big. Valve, by using Linux, can offer slightly higher maximum frame rate via reducing overhead from the OS. This can be a real selling point, especially for the PC gaming enthusiasts who demand the very best systems to play at the fullest.

This issue of the game library, which is significantly reduced in Linux, poses a real problem. This is not like 10 or 20 games unavailable, but hundreds. Can Valve convince other developers to port to Linux? Whatever their choice, it will be a lengthy process.

I’m sure there are many who would welcome a challenger to Microsoft as far as PC gaming goes. Steam has been praised for its ‘openness.’ I think what this demonstrates, most of all, is the changing nature of how we use systems. Of course, this is how technology works – it always strives to make itself work better than the last version. For Valve, they wish to branch Steam into the living room culture that consoles enjoy. Perhaps it was only a matter of time before this would happen.

So is there a future for SteamOS and gaming on Linux? The answer is ‘maybe’, possibly even ‘yes.’ But only time will truly tell. I’ll leave you with two quotes to sum up the story.

‘There’s also the problem of expectation versus experience. It’s that and the lack of native Linux games that are my real worries about SteamOS. Everyone seems to be talking about the Steam Machines as a console-like experience rather than a PC experience. People who drop £700 on a Steam Machine, plug it into their TV and then have to struggle through inevitable driver updates and peripheral incompatibility may not be that happy with the end result. It’s an open platform and that’s at once its biggest draw and its biggest potential pitfall’ (Dave James cited in Rivington, 2014).

‘But anyone expecting SteamOS to cause a revolution in the PC gaming space, or for the OS to become the new de facto gaming standard in place of Windows, has to answer a lot of questions about how exactly Valve is going to overcome decades of lock-in and network effects that have given Windows a stranglehold on PC gaming. As long as Steam for Windows continues to remain a “really good option” in the eyes of Valve and other developers—and a better option than SteamOS by important measures like software selection—then SteamOS is going to struggle to be more than a niche player in the PC gaming space’ (Orland, 2014).

Bibliography

Kyle Orland’s article: Analysis: Why SteamOS probably won’t cause a PC gaming revolution

http://arstechnica.com/gaming/2014/01/analysis-why-steamos-probably-wont-cause-a-pc-gaming-revolution/

James Rivington’s article: What is the point of SteamOS? I can’t think of a single one

http://http://www.techradar.com/news/gaming/consoles/what-is-the-point-of-steamos-i-can-t-think-of-a-single-one-1216862/1

BBC article on Gabe Newell and Windows 8:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-18996377