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Will the Steam Box be the final push Linux needs?


Will the Steam Box be the final push Linux needs?

Valve Software is about to start making Valve hardware too but the Steam Box isn't just going to change console gaming, it could help change your desktop PC too.

At CES 2013 we finally got a peek at the first Steam Box - a low-cost, compact PC designed to run Valve's games distribution and multiplayer network, Steam. There were a number of unusual things about the Steam Box, compared to other console announcements. Firstly, the Steam Box is actually going to be lots of boxes. There will be an 'official', Valve-branded device but essentially it is just a PC. Anyone can make a PC and Valve seems to be perfectly content with that.

Steam Box

Secondly, this is a 'console' that will be entering the market dominated by the PS3, Wii and Xbox 360 but it will be doing so with a ready made infrastructure and user base. In a sense the Steam Box IS its infrastructure as you can run Steam on any decently-specced PC and Valve will still get paid, as will game developers.

There is another interesting aspect to Valve's plans, though. And this is one that could be game changing in a different sense. The Steam Box will run Linux - the free operating system based on UNIX which is widely used to power servers (many of the biggest sites on the web rely on it) but which has never really taken off as a personal OS for desktop or laptop use.

Valve founder Gabe Newell has made no secret of his disdain for Windows 8 - an opinion shared by many developers - and Valve has quietly been working on a Linux port of its Steam software for some time. Steam on Linux would be nothing more than a curiosity without a library of games to back it up, but Valve has been hard at work here too, porting some of its own games and helping other developers make their games run on the free OS. At the time of writing there are around fifty games available to play via the beta of Steam for Linux with more being added.

Steam Big Picture

Windows is arguably at its weakest position in years. Windows 8 was designed to transform the OS into a touch-friendly rival to iOS while keeping the backward compatibility required to run the wealth of high quality applications and games that PC owners have come to expect. The reality has been somewhat different, with a confusing product range consisting of ARM-based Windows RT devices that have no backward compatibility with software written for old-school x86 processor-based PCs being unleashed on an unsuspecting public.

In an attempt to beat Apple, Microsoft may have made some rather rash decisions regarding the Windows 8 user experience, retooling the OS for fingertips when there are plenty of both users and applications that are better suited to mouse and keyboard.

Linux on the other hand has for the past few years been quietly growing and maturing. Thanks to investment from the likes of IBM and Canonical some real inroads have been made in de-geekifying Linux and making it both simple to install and easy to use. Although there are thousands of applications available for Linux there has been a serious lack of the kind of commercial software of the kind so abundant in the Windows ecosystem.

linuxThat is changing. The 'no software' argument used to mean the likes of Microsoft Office, Photoshop and of course games. Now, though, there are well made and very usable packages like OpenOffice and The GIMP (Gnu Image Manipulation Program) - neither quite rival the latest Office or Photoshop but they're not bad for free - that run natively on Linux as well as compatibility libraries like WINE that can run many Windows programs under Linux. In addition, cloud-based software has taken off and many people can and do work entirely in the cloud and touch desktop software only when they have no choice. Although Office (for example) is by no means dying it is probably at its most vulnerable since the days of WordStar and Lotus 123.

Gaming has long been one of Windows' trump cards in fighting off the Linux desktop. You might be able to use a MS Word clone like AbiWord to edit your CV but playing Dark Souls or Portal required you to either dual-boot into Windows or if you were wedded to the idea of working in Linux, to cough up for a console.

Importantly, this isn't another company using Linux as an embedded system - various flavours of the open source operating system can be found all over the consumer electronics space in everything from PVRs to sniper rifles and is the OS that underpins Android - what Valve is proposing is running Linux on a line of PCs that differ from the one on your desk or your lap only in size and the number of video out ports. Steam for Linux can already be installed on a commodity PC with a suitable graphics processor and Valve aren't going to care if you buy games on your laptop or on a purpose-built set top box. Your money is still good.

If Valve's Steam Box can encourage developers to target games at Linux then another barrier will have been removed. There will be one fewer reason to stick with a Windows desktop or upgrade to Windows 8. A move to Linux could also be great news for developers. With no Microsoft to control the development libraries like Direct X there should be more scope for open libraries and cross-platform gaming could be made easier.

Should Microsoft be worried? Microsoft Studios boss Phil Harrison was obviously rattled enough about the Steam Box's impact on the console market to give an interview with Eurogamer in which he felt compelled to warn Valve that "Entering the hardware business is a really tough business." but perhaps it should be the executives down the road in the Windows 8 office who should be feeling nervous.

Stuart HoughtonStuart Houghton is a former UK Associate Editor of Kotaku.com and has been writing about technology, games and geeks for over a decade and using technology, playing games and being a geek for much longer. He is also part of the IT team for a major UK charity.

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PJ Matthews

January 11, 2013, 4:28 pm

The console makers have nothing to worry about. This thing will be overpriced and goes completely against the trend of low power multiple core arm based processors. Also linux missed the boat for becoming mainstream a long time ago. The only thing that could rival windows are evolved versions of android and iOS aimed at the desktop.

Sure the piston is cute, but if you don't have the cost vs gaming capability vs productivity we last saw with AMIGAs and Ataris which were replaced with cheap PCs you couldn't possibly hope to make a dent in any of the markets.

I hope valve haven't put all their eggs in one basket. Perhaps the competition question needs to look at why each console has a closed sales environment, that's where steam needs to be fully, on our ps3s, iPads etc where they drive competition


January 11, 2013, 5:15 pm

PJ Matthews,
Your comment is silly. You clearly are very short sighted. Windows will not dominate PC's forever. Also note that ANDROID is linux...


January 11, 2013, 7:06 pm

Really? A real contendor to playstation or Xbox? You must be joking. First price estimations: 500-1000 $


January 12, 2013, 1:53 pm

Have a look at the Xi3 site http://xi3.com/
That seems to be Steam/Valves model.
High spec, yes, Expensive, yes, but the change in architecture, Wow!

A modular system, (not just one expensive motherboard, but interchangeable/upgradable), a lower spec version seems to be on the cards.
Done right it might be more affordable / sustainable, lets hope.

As for Gamer PC vs Useful PC, the PC allows both uses, just pricey for gaming.
I'm not a gamer, so my PCs are cheap Intel Atoms and ubercheap ARM (Raspberry Pi).

Linux, count me in!
90% of my usage is in the browser, linux is faster, free and no viruses.
WINE covers my one Windows program must have, (Digiguide).
I used Open Office when I used Windows.

Build (or refurbish) your own PCs, add Linux, much less expensive.
Kinda satisfying as well!


January 12, 2013, 4:42 pm

Did you read the article? Steam will run on any decent spec PC running Linux. A decent spec PC can be had for £200+ these days if you shop around. Not only will it be your games console. It will be your desktop, HTPC, music centre etc. Something so versatile could hardly be described as "over priced".

PJ Matthews

January 13, 2013, 4:36 pm

Shaun what planet are you from? Android is Linux based but isn't Linux anymore than MacOS is unix (but is unix based). I am fully aware how much Linux is used in the commercial world, it's what I do for a living.

However don't geekgasam just yet, this doesn't mean Linux will go main stream. As pointed out by jomaweb this thing won't be able to compete with its console cousins in price. Plus don't forget the brand. Microsoft Xbox had the name Microsoft to launch it, and Sony with the playstation. Who outside of the world of PCs has heard of steam or valve for that matter? A couple of console successes in the form of portal and a rehashed half life 2 don't constitue a major brand outside of the PC.

PJ Matthews

January 13, 2013, 8:16 pm

Name a current console running x86? Hmmm
Also why discuss the server environment. All of our system at work are Linux or FreeBSD based, but does that mean I run Linux at home? No. In excess of 90% market share for Windows will not be turned from the current 1.25% for Linux.

Steam is not a walled garden in the same sense as IOS. I can setup my own store accessible from just about any Linux or Windows platform. I cannot do the same for the PS3 or IOS legally. This needs to be tested in court but I doubt valve have big enough pockets. That's where steam could succeed if allowed, not via this method.


January 13, 2013, 9:37 pm

I'm not here to dispute anyone's opinion on Steam on Linux or the Piston box, but I do want to correct a misconception.

MacOS X _is_ a Unix. It's a Mach-based and certified Unix (UNIX 03). And Android runs a Linux kernel, therefore it's just as much Linux as any other distribution. It's the stuff on top of them both that makes them unique from others of their species, but under the hood they are what they are; UNIX and Linux.

Bruno Silva

January 14, 2013, 6:25 pm

A little bit of historical research would help some poeple to understand whaot Windows is and how MS play their cards. It is good to see the game is inevitably changing, it will be just a matter of time. MS was quite clumsy with Windows 8, which isn't bad at all but it is confusing or at least it is not as good as IOS or Android for touch device. MS has never been able to explain Surface running Windows RT and it seems to be Windows 8 Pro is quite overpriced. However, the markt will say who's right and who's wrong inthe folowing months.

PJ Matthews

January 14, 2013, 9:36 pm

This gentleman speaks sense.


January 15, 2013, 2:37 pm

Not really sure who the steambox is aimed at after this announcement. Most PC gamers don't want to spend money on extra dedicated gaming hardware, above and beyond gaming oriented components for their existing computer, and it's unlikely to replace a decent gaming rig because of it's diminutive size and platform. Console gaming is all about big budget cinematic experiences these days (so-called "hardcore" console gaming is anyway), such as COD, Mass Effect, Halo etc, which the steambox wont be able to offer, since it's gaming library - at least for a significant period of time - is going to consist mostly of Indie titles. Don't get me wrong, i'm not down on indie games or developers, but they won't replace the console experience for many existing console gamers. And PC gamers, like me, already play those indie games on our desktop rigs. Mine is also hooked up to an HD tv for couch gaming with steam big picture mode and an xbox 360 pad.

So, who's going to buy it? Can anyone here, who at present games solely on either a 360 or ps3 or both, really say they'll buy a steam box instead of ps4 or nextbox if it's gaming library consists of primarily indie titles? Can anyone here, who presently has their own desktop gaming rig, seriously see this thing replacing that rig?

If the answers to both those questions are "no" and "no", then the audience for this thing seems to be limited to people who only play indie games at present, or people who have enough money to speculate on one out of curiosity. And even then, it probably comes at the bottom of the list after: PC, xbox/ps4.

As an addendum, whilst a predictable direction for this discussion to take, I don't see this as a windows vs linux debate at all. The platform is irrelevant really, other than what it means for game availability. That's why, in my opinion, linux was a poor choice. Not because it sucks, or because windows is amazeballs. Just because it massively constrains the content gamers have access to. There's no denying that will put some people off.

Robert Malone

January 15, 2013, 6:46 pm

"Just loads the drivers"? WHAT drivers? Nobody can be assed to write any for Linux which was, is, and always will be the perennial problem with it! Well, that and the lack of any decent software not hacked together by some basement-inhabiting fatbeard with assburgers who wouldn't know usability or UI design if they were stuffed up his fat ass.


January 16, 2013, 6:02 am

If they make a box that plays games I might use it. As long as I have options for both mouse and keyboard for fps and shooters and a controller for Dark Souls then im good!


January 18, 2013, 8:32 pm

Wow, how amazingly wrong can anyone be? In 2012 = Linux has... 22.1% of the new server market... so your only 63% off... I REALLY wish people would check their facts before spouting off randomly with figures that are so way WAY off! (http://en.wikipedia.org/wik...


April 16, 2013, 10:22 pm

I think your all missing the point I really do. What steam is going to be offering here is an os specifically a gaming os. They have said it will work on any half decent pc from the last few years.

There are lots of games on steam and more will become available as the big software houses wise up to the market.

The problem with windows is that it's fekin windows! It has huge system overheads for, backwards compatibility, and widely different hardware. Not to mention the huge cost of a licence to use it. Buying a windows pc just to play games makes it expensive.

The problem with linux is that it can be more complicated than most people can be arsed with make it do anything other than basic surfing/browsing/office functions.

However most of us use linux every day of our lives in one form or another. The strength of linux is the way it can be made specific for a purpose relatively easily. Android phone anyone? Xmbc or mythtv sat at home? Media centre or car sat nav people?

This is what valve are offering but in a gaming environment.You wont have to buy a pre built steam box if you don't want to just install it on a pc. Be it a custom built gaming rig or just a spare one thats kicking around. As long as you check the hardware requirements when buying game the you're good to go.

If a game designer wants to make a pc game at the moment they HAVE to make it windows compatible. Whether that's the most efficient way to go or not it has to be direct x compatible.And how much from game sold goes to microsoft?

Freed from those restrictions and allowed to solve problems as they see fit you would be amazed what could be achieved on relatively modest hardware. A perfect example is xmbc running on raspberry pi. Highly functional, cheap, and it proves you dont need quad core with an expensive gfx card to play music,video, or to stream tv shows. It shows you can do all that with 20 year old specs.

Linux will never replace windows as everyones go to default desktop os of choice except possibly with android which is already running into problems as it tries to be all things to all men.

Just free your thinking away from one os to do everything and think streamlined low overhead environments to do specific things. Steam os or whatever it ends up being called will almost certainly include some sort of media centre and browsing. And multiboot systems aren't really that hard to set up if you want to do it on an existing pc.

We have this idea that a "PC" means windows, it didnt years ago there used to be several common os's in the early days, and hopefully it wont in the future.

You pay for the hardware use it how you want.

A linux os aimed at gamers? I personally say what do we have to lose? It will be free so why not try it. It might end up being very good indeed


October 10, 2013, 5:52 pm

It will boil down to how expensive it will become compared to a PC.
Today we can plug in a controller and play from the bench on our 1080P TV.
Games that require a contoller that is.
Mouse and Keyboard is never ever going to be replaced by a controller especialy for shooters and RTS games.
But alot of games we can just play with a controller.

If the Steambox offers the same games we see on PC and Consoles for similar prices and a cheaper hardware then my PC wont be upgraded anymore but instead i buy the Steambox.

its small to move around from 1 room to another, or to take over to a friends house etc etc.
I see this as a HUGE improvement compared to my big tower 40 kilo powerhouse wich is a pain to move around.

I can see benefits from this box, but like i said it all boils down to games / price / studio support.

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