For those of you who don’t know, Steam is an online game store and distribution platform that is a product of a gaming developer called Valve. Valve has been know for creating several very popular gaming franchises such as the Half Life series, Left 4 Dead, Portal and Team Fortress among a couple of others. Steam is their online store/software client that gives consumers ability to purchase and install over 1,500 games from other developers alongside their own games. The key features of Steam are ease of use and the ability to keep games you’ve purchased linked with your user account, so games you’ve bought are yours forever and will carry along with your User ID for years and years without any need to keep track of installation CDs or key codes to install the game, not to mention automatically download and install updates for every game you have automatically and cloud sync save-game data between different computers (if supported by the game itself, and many games do). Oh, and they have a tendency to throw incredible sales campaigns from time to time that will net you some of the most popular games on the market for next to nothing.
Recently, Valve made an announcement that it will be porting Steam to Linux (with official support for Ubuntu Linux in particular) and is entering the Beta Testing phase as I write this. This has a lot of buzz going on in the Linux community of course and there is a lot of speculation about why Valve is deciding to do this. After all, there are a lot of software development companies out there right now with major product lines (games and productivity software) that could have ported their products over to Linux (or even Mac for that matter) but very often decide against doing so because in most cases it wouldn’t be worth the effort. Linux is the third most popular operating system in the world and it’s a far distant third at that. Putting money towards developing native ports of their complex programs probably wouldn’t pay off because the user base (and the number of paying customers in those markets) is small, introducing risk with doing something like deciding to invest in Linux as an officially supported platform.
In a likeness to the way Steam works, Microsoft’s Windows 8 is going to have its own integrated “app store” built into the OS, just like an app store is on any smart phone or iMac (or Ubuntu, for that matter). However, I don’t think it will necessarily prove to be something that will lure current Steam users away. In the future there might be a group of new users who associate such an app store as being the best place to shop for things like games and other software and come to believe that competing app-stores (if they’re even aware of them) are inferior, but I don’t think that is Valve’s primary concern. Sure, it will be great to see Ubuntu (and other Linux distributions) having Steam running naively and for its games to outperform Windows-based systems (which has already been demonstrated by Valve in benchmark tests when comparing the two OSs), but I don’t think Valve is looking to diversify Steam on to Linux simply because they think more people are going to outright switch over to Ubuntu on their PCs because they’re looking for an alternative to Windows 8 or because users are looking for a small boost in performance. There are a lot of benefits to using Linux instead of Windows, like not having to worry about getting a virus on your system or a majority of the software being completely free (because it’s open source). While all of that is attractive I have another theory that goes beyond users simply adopting Linux, one that has very little to do with Linux on the surface.
It’s only a rumor at this point (one that’s been floating around since March this year) but I believe Valve’s ultimate goal is to use Ubuntu as the basis for a new console system, similar to the Xbox, Nintendo Wii and Playstation, one that uses Linux as a transparent foundation where most people aren’t even aware of it’s presence. Right now the beta testing is to simply get things up and running stable on PC hardware and demonstrate a proof-of-concept to prospective developers who might consider following their footsteps and start developing future titles with Linux in mind. Once their flagship games have been ported over they may soon after decide to release their very own “Steambox” console, a multimedia systems that will dominate the living room entertainment center as we know it. It will basically take all the best things about the PlayStation 3 and improve upon it, becoming a console system that isn’t just for gaming but a comprehensive entertainment system with features like access to on-demand video (Hulu, Netflix, etc.), the ability to DVR live television, the ability to browse the web with browsers like Firefox, run thousands of applications for word processing, video editing, sync with your phone and really anything else the user might want to do; anything that Linux is already capable of or will be capable of in the near future (and it’s already got QUITE a lot to offer right out of the box, all completely for free).
I own a PS3 and a Nintendo Wii. I barely use the Wii at all (it is, granted, dated hardware) but I have been very pleased and frankly surprised by how relevant my PS3 has remained, considering that the first model hit store shelves 6 years ago and it’s still a thriving platform. You can watch Netflix on it in HD with surround sound, play Blu-Ray, play videos from your computer over the network, insert USB sticks and access the media on that, browse the web (sorta; the browser is atrocious) and you can purchase some games from their own PlayStation Store online and download them to the system from the comfort of your couch. The only thing you can’t really do with it is… well, just about anything else. You couldn’t install, say, Microsoft Word or Open Office, you can’t install Skype, you can’t install a LOT of things, primarily because the operating system that the PS3 runs is closed source and developers would have to spend money and time to create custom ports of their software for it. The same goes for the Wii. The next Xbox, however, is very likely going to have Windows 8 on it and will support Windows-based programs being installed on it (probably), but it’s yet to be seen if Windows 8 itself is going to catch on and whether or not people will enjoy using it in the first place; it’s interface borders on being “completely alien” to most users new and old and it has an uncomfortable learning curve. Then again, it’s yet to be seen what kind of interface might be seen on a Steambox (it certainly wouldn’t have to be the default Unity interface that Ubuntu uses by default, but there’s no reasons it couldn’t be if you wanted it to be and that’s just one of the great things about the idea of a Linux-powered console).
Best of all, Linux is an open-source platform, which doesn’t usually mean much to the average consumer but does mean quite a lot to software developers/programmers. At this point it feels similar to the speculation that was around with the Android Linux operating system was first released by Google for smartphones a few years back. Nobody was sure if it was really going to be able to catch up to the innovative iPhone back then. Yet here we are now, just a few short years later, and the iPhone is now actually being out-sold by Android phones and all the while perhaps 95% of Android users didn’t even know their phone is actually running Linux.