Tech Focus: The Evolution of Steam and the "Windows 8 Catastrophe"
Digital Foundry on why Valve is embracing Linux as a hedge bet against the new Microsoft OS.
Valve's Gabe Newell is no stranger to controversy. PlayStation 3 was "a waste of everybody's time" and a"total disaster on so many levels". Xbox Live was a"train wreck" and the Xbox 360 itself "doesn't make my life any better, and in fact, it makes it a lot worse" - and now, the latest gem: "Windows 8 is kind of a catastrophe for everybody in the PC space".
Quite why Newell believes that Windows 8 is such a disaster isn't entirely clear. Initially, he points to PC manufacturers exiting the market, and says that "margins are going to be destroyed for a number of people". Perhaps Newell knows something about Microsoft's licensing costs that we don't - he did work there, after all - but it's hard to imagine that the Seattle giant is going to hike OS costs to a degree that would bring about the end of its hugely lucrative OEM income. The mobile market isn't so clear-cut though and many believe that the future of computing will take on a more portable form: OEMs don't have to pay a penny to Google to use Android, and the introduction of licensing costs for a Windows OS on tablets and smartphones isn't going to go down very well at all.
"Windows 8 is all about the unification of tablet, phone and desktop, but the creation of the Microsoft Store effectively removes Valve and Steam from the mobile side of the equation."
Perhaps the biggest issue with Windows 8 is that it comes across very much as a product designed for strategic, business purposes that puts Microsoft's interests before its end-users': it seeks to unify mobile and desktop operating systems to an ambitious degree that not even Apple has (yet) attempted. This obviously has huge amounts of potential for Microsoft, but only a small minority of PC owners will experience that. For the average desktop user, innovations like the Metro interface have little "real life" usage in the here and now - touch-screens aren't the norm in the average office or study - and questions also need to be asked about the design of Metro itself. The multitude of videos on YouTube demonstrates the problems people have getting on with the interface.
In addition to that, the previously open platform introduces an element that is sure to rub Valve up the wrong way: the Windows Metro store is an iTunes App Store-style "walled garden", curated by Microsoft, with code running in its own virtual machine that allows for compatibility between mobile and desktop devices. Metro apps can run on all hardware running Windows 8, but crucially, non-Metro programs won't run on the mobile "RT" version of the OS. This is seriously bad news for Valve, as Steam is effectively locked out from the expansion of the Windows market as it moves into mobile territory. Bearing in mind the revenue Microsoft is likely to generate from its own "App Store", it's safe to say that the firm will do everything it can to entice developers and publishers to move there.
Valve's response? It is hedging its bets by supporting Linux - the open source OS that OEMs can adopt without incurring license fees, and which will never include an App Store-esque digital distribution channel. In the here and now, rightly or wrongly, Linux has a reputation as a nerd's OS with little mainstream interest and few of the refinements of OSX or Windows. Newell has the solution:
"We're trying to make sure that Linux thrives. Our perception is that one of the big problems holding Linux back is the absence of games," he said.
"I think that a lot of people - in their thinking about platforms - don't realise how critical games are as a consumer driver of purchases and usage. So we're going to continue working with the Linux distribution guys, shipping Steam, shipping our games, and making it as easy as possible for anybody who's engaged with us - putting their games on Steam and getting those running on Linux, as well. It's a hedging strategy."
That's Venturebeat's edited transcript of Newell's words, anyway - apparently conditions for audio recording weren't particularly great. This may explain why All Things D, also at the event, has an alternative take on what Newell said:
"The big problem that is holding back Linux is games. People don't realise how critical games are in driving consumer purchasing behaviour... We want to make it as easy as possible for the 2,500 games on Steam to run on Linux as well."