25 September 2013

Valve announces SteamOS, a free Linux-based OS for your Steam Box

Last week, Valve teased an official announcement regarding its plan to bring Steam to the living room. We all presumed this would be the Steam Box we heard so much in the past year. It turns out Valve broke the announcement into three parts. The company didn’t announce the console, but did announce the console’s operating system, SteamOS.

Back when Valve first discussed the Steam Box, the company — along with Gabe Newell himself — hinted at little tidbits about what the hardware and operating system would be like. Everything discussed was bordering on vague, but Valve did say that it aims to allow anyone to build a Steam Box — from hardware manufacturers to homegrown do-it-yourselfers. So, in theory, the software is what would make the Steam Box tick more than the hardware, and today Valve announced that SteamOS would be free. Anyone can slap it onto a rig of their choice.

Rather than rely solely on Big Picture mode, Valve will turn Steam into a standalone operating system, stating that an OS is the best delivery method for the company’s vision of Steam in the living room. As you might’ve expected based on all of Gabe Newell’s anti-Windows rants, the OS is built on Linux. The reveal is light on hard details, but champions openness, stating that content creators can directly connect to users, and users can directly alter the hardware whenever they want.

SteamOS will focus on four new features: In-home streaming, family libraries, media streaming services, and the aforementioned family sharing plan. The family library appears to be similar to Netflix profiles — everyone shares the same account, but can change which games appear in the library per user. If, for example, you don’t want your middle schooler playing games with adult themes, you can hide those games. The media streaming services were not specifically named, but it’s probably safe to assume that SteamOS will include the usual suspects of media streamers, like Netflix. The family sharing plan is a way to digitally mimic the experience of loaning a physical copy of a game to someone else; if your sister is playing one of your Steam games, you can’t play it until she’s done (or you kick her off). However, you guys only have to purchase one copy. The description of the in-home streaming feature, though, is where the Steam Box’s goal becomes extremely confusing.

Valve states that with in-home streaming, you can beam your PC games — both Windows and Mac — to your SteamOS box that is connected to your living room television. Does that mean the Steam Box is more of a set-top box than an independent games console for the living room? Surely, the box would still have to be powerful enough to run Linux games on its own, so it’d still have gaming hardware packed inside. If you need a gaming PC in order to get the majority of the Steam library (Windows games) over to your living room via the Steam Box, then the Steam Box doesn’t bring in a whole new market. Instead, it targets a niche market of PC gamers that would rather sit on a couch to play their PC games than in front of their PC.

There are still two portions left to Valve’s announcement, which it has mercilessly decided to roll out over the remaining week. So, whatever assumptions we have about SteamOS — particularly what the controller will be like, and just how many games will end up getting ported to natively run on the Steam Box — should be held in check until we have more information. However, if the end goal of the Steam Box is to stream games from your gaming PC to your living room, that’s not nearly as compelling as a box that can competently run Steam games in the living room without requiring a fancy gaming rig nearby.


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