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Valve's SteamOS Brings New Hope to Linux Gamers

Valve wants the Linux-based SteamOS to take over your living room.

By Mike Williams. Published 6 months ago

Valve has taken the wraps off its first big bid for a spot in your entertainment center: SteamOS. SteamOS is a Linux-based operating system focused on gaming on your television, like home consoles. We have yet to hear about any hardware, but what Valve has outlined here is interesting.

When I speculated about Valve's possible announcements last week, I figured that any possible SteamBox would have a Linux-based operating system. What I didn't foresee was that the operating system would be such a major push for Valve. The announcement mentions SteamOS machines in a generic sense: while Valve may offer it's own SteamBox, SteamOS will be free and readily available to anyone who wants to install it on their PC.

SteamOS will have options for families, including the the previously-announced Family Sharing and filtering options for user libraries. It will also offer "your favorite music and video" services, though the company didn't provide any details on which services we can expect. Steam Cloud, Game Hubs, Steam Community, and Steam Workshop are all along for the ride. If you've come to expect it on the Steam client, you'll see it on SteamOS.

Since there isn't a huge library of Linux-enabled games right now, SteamOS machines can also stream games from existing Steam clients. Like the PlayStation Vita TV or Nvidia Shield, you can stream gameplay to a relatively cheap and weak SteamOS box while your workhorse PC does all the real work. For some, this may be the killer application of SteamOS, but the real news is the fact that Valve is now all-in on Linux.

Linux gaming has been sort of puttering in the background for a very long time. Windows owns most of the gaming PC market, and the sales of MacBooks have fueled a growth in Mac game development. Both platforms see a lot of support from publishers, developers, and hardware accessory makers. In contrast, Linux's driver problems have gotten better, but not enough for gamers and developers to jump in wholeheartedly. Linux hasn't had a big chance to get all the major players on board for gaming. Until now.

"Hundreds of great games are already running natively on SteamOS. Watch for announcements in the coming weeks about all the AAA titles coming natively to SteamOS in 2014," says the Steam OS website. "In SteamOS, we have achieved significant performance increases in graphics processing, and we're now targeting audio performance and reductions in input latency at the operating system level. Game developers are already taking advantage of these gains as they target SteamOS for their new releases."

Valve is big and has strong connections to most of the PC development community. It also has a lot of money. Valve has the clout to sit at the discussion table with PC game publishers like Sega, Capcom, 2K Games. It has 50 million Steam users it can point to and say: "We can probably get those people on our side. You should join us." Microsoft's Windows 8 hasn't gone over well with all PC gamers and assuming improved support from hardware manufacturers, a SteamOS PC could be a new port in a storm. Even if most Steam players stick with their gaming PCs and merely use SteamOS for a cheap TV streamer, that's still a SteamOS user Valve can point to. And every user who switches or even dabbles in SteamOS makes the case for supporting Linux gaming even stronger.

Is SteamOS a big blow to PC gaming? Not really. There's still too many unanswered questions about hardware and software support. And for the time being, major home consoles are probably safe, though Valve's possible hardware announcements could tank smaller offerings like Ouya. But ultimately SteamOS is a long-term play by Valve. Years down the line, SteamOS machines could be a tangible thing sitting alongside Windows PCs and Macs. If Valve plays their cards right, when people turnover to newer PCs, SteamOS could be a compelling alternative to just getting another Windows box. SteamOS isn't an immediate revolution, it's the possible beginning of a slow evolution in the PC gaming market.

Valve's second announcement will be on Wednesday, with the third and final announcement probably coming on Friday. I'm expecting SteamBox, or at least SteamBox official specs, will be Wednesday's release. Anyone else excited by possibilities of Valve's SteamOS?

The best community comments so far 4 comments

  • Daedalus207 6 months ago

    I hope this isn't a Ubuntu-based distro. While I don't necessarily have a problem with Ubuntu itself, I'm not a huge Shuttleworth fan, and I'd prefer something with the stability of, say, Debian.
    I'd probably use Mint if I were going to run a Linux desktop, but right now I'm just running a headless CentOS server.

  • weevilo 6 months ago

    I think Valve can succeed where Ubuntu has failed in capturing a more mainstream audience with a Linux distro. Apple has already does this with good success in OSX (though using a version of BSD Unix). I'm happy with them pushing a gaming/media orientated living room distro like some of the Myth TV distros, ready to run out of the box with minimal configuration. If they can pair that together with SteamBox devices that are easily upgradeable and with hardware manufacturers actually finally dedicating themselves to releasing better Linux drivers, it's a win for everyone. Especially given the direction we're seeing Apple and MS go with their desktop OS's, trying to push everyone in to a more mobile like interface and user experience, when clearly that only has limited application.

    Linux will receive a lot more attention and support in general if SteamBox can gain enough marketshare and momentum to keep hardware driver releases at a good parity with Windows/OS X versions. Hopefully five years from now we'll be a little safer from the whims of those two corporations who are becoming increasingly ambivalent towards providing a solid and open desktop experience for more advanced users, and the console space will be healthier for the increase in competition.

  • weevilo 6 months ago

    This does have the potential to be a bit confusing. It seems to me that a lot of gamers would be better off getting a mid-high end PC with Windows/Steam and getting the cheapest HTPC they can that'll run SteamOS and stream from their PCs. Otherwise, we're a long way off if ever from having a competitive Linux catalog of games, and even then you'll be missing out on all of the thousands of games available on Steam from the last twenty years. I'm hoping the next announcements are HL3 and some kind of Chromecast HDMI dongle that'll let you stream Steam from your PC. Not sure how that would work with input devices, whether the dongle could make USB controllers/input devices available to the host computer, but if they can make that happen and offer most of the SteamOS functionality through the Windows Steam Big Picture mode I'd be set.

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