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SteamOS is…what, exactly?

Valve has always been a major player in the games market, given that their invaluable Steam client represents a gigantic chunk of the PC domain. So people paid attention when Valve teased three reveals last week--and now, the first cat is out of the bag. SteamOS has just been announced: a new operating system that strives to expand Steam's borders to the living room. This isn't the much-ballyhooed "Steam Box" hardware that would compete with the next generation of consoles--not yet, anyway, because there's no telling what the remaining two announcements will hold. So just what is SteamOS? What, exactly, is Valve trying to accomplish?

"SteamOS combines the rock-solid architecture of Linux with a gaming experience built for the big screen. It will be available soon as a free stand-alone operating system for living room machines." So sayeth Valve's official announcement--now let's see what we can do to decrypt the market speak into something more digestible. First, we need an understanding of Linux. This operating system has always been a distant third behind Microsoft's Windows and Apple's OS X, but some view Linux as the smartest choice for savvy users. That's because Linux is entirely open source, free to anyone that wants it (or anyone who abhors the thought of a paid-for OS license fee). If you're comfortable navigating through complex software, Linux is the equivalent of an open book. 

Gabe Newell, Valve's co-founder, managing director, and de facto mascot, is in love with Linux. During his keynote at last week's LinuxCon, Newell stated that "Linux is the future of gaming," despite the fact that Linux gaming is currently all but nonexistent. Newell and his company see it as the only means to growth in a time when PC unit sales are down, an effect of the restrictive nature of the closed platforms currently dominating the market. Newell's convinced that Linux offers the best performance, and has a DIY freedom not possible in any other major platform. That freedom allows for more innovation, by developers and users alike, he said--and right now, it certainly seems like innovation is what will keep core gamers interested.

All that explains why Linux was chosen as the foundation for SteamOS. But what will it run on? What the heck are we supposed to picture when we think of a "living room machine," anyway? SteamOS isn't the first time that Valve set foot into living room territory. Steam's Big Picture mode currently lets you play most of your Steam library on your TV, provided you've got a cable long enough to hook up your rig to your flat screen, or a beefy wireless connection that can accommodate streaming a display to your TV as a second monitor. But all that is a bit too complicated for your average consumer. Joe Schmo wants to go to GameStop, buy an Xbox, hook it up to the TV, and play games. Joe Schmo doesn't want to take the time to build his own gaming PC, prop it up in the living room, and play a limited selection of games with controller support. A Steam Box could streamline that process, so much so that anyone could figure it out.

Will SteamOS have any effect without a companion console? Quite frankly, we have no way of knowing just yet. Depending on the support it gets from publishers and developers, it could very well contend with Windows and OS X as the gamer's choice of operating system. By offering a more welcoming, familiar, and free environment for those uninitiated in the ways of Linux proper, SteamOS could give Linux greenhorns all the performance benefits of the platform. As for getting publishers on board with making their games SteamOS friendly, Newell stated that Valve is working on a Linux debugger to help developers streamline the process. Steamworks, Valve's in-house publishing platform, could also play a part in welcoming outsiders to the fold.

So what we've concluded is this: By unveiling SteamOS, Valve essentially just confirmed that the Steam Box will debut later this week. Valve is ready to compete with Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo for dominion over the living room gaming experience, and SteamOS is their weapon of choice. Big Picture was a prelude; this is the real McCoy. By establishing their own platform and the open-ended system it runs on, Valve is now making their bid for your hours spent gaming in front of your couch instead of your computer.

It makes sense; Valve already dominates the PC market with Steam distribution, including a store packed with unprecedented deals and free-to-play games like Team Fortress 2 and Dota 2. The family sharing feature that comes with SteamOS sounds like the equivalent to multiple user accounts on an Xbox 360 or PS3; one-time game purchase, multiple people who can enjoy it at their own pace. And not even Sony will be able to hold a candle to the indie presence that comes inherent with the Steam library.

Even if you've never cared about playing PC games on your couch, SteamOS is worth paying attention to because it marks the first genuine attempt by a major company to meaningfully bridge the gap between PC and console gamers, potentially uniting them under the one roof currently known as the Steam Box. In other words, SteamOS is the first step towards a diversified home console market the likes of which we've never before seen.

10 comments

  • Krazee - September 24, 2013 1:09 a.m.

    I find it kind of depressing that the biggest deterrent to PC gaming on the TV has been the difficulty of plugging one side of an HDMI cable into each of those devices. Also, I have found that every game I play on steam that has also been released on consoles, has gamepad support. There's nothing limited about the selection.
  • db1331 - September 24, 2013 5:15 a.m.

    Seriously. It's not hard. My PC is hooked up to my TV and HTS, and a 24" monitor and wireless 7.1 headphones, all at the same time. My computer desktop is extended over the two screens. If I want to watch HBO Go, I just open it on my monitor, drag the window over to my TV, and change the input on my HTS to the PC. If I want to play CoD with my headphones on, I can just go back to my monitor and M+KB. Over this past weekend I played some Borderlands 2 and Pinball FX 2 on the TV. It really is the ultimate setup.
  • tux234 - September 24, 2013 1:08 a.m.

    Even those guys who don't really want to use SteamOS itself will profit by the existence of the OS. I actually stick to using Windows because of mediocre support by AMD for my graphics card and the absence of many games I own to Steam@Linux. SteamOS and the Box will now push developers to port their games over to Linux and I heard that Valve conviced NVidia and AMD to put some more love into their drivers. So SteamOS will basically push Linux gaming in general. This I call a win-win! :D *_*
  • slimjim441 - September 23, 2013 7:48 p.m.

    This article was exactly what I needed to read. The SteamOS announcement left me excited but confused and not really knowing what to think. Sweet info, bro. Fingers crossed for info on Half-Life this week. Or we'll just get Trade Hattress 2.2... >_>
  • shawksta - September 23, 2013 6:41 p.m.

    Whatever it is Im probably gonna skip it and stick to using my computer screen
  • Doctalen - September 23, 2013 4:29 p.m.

    So any plans for big name games? The main reason I use my PC is mod my games. I think Skyrim can only run on windows at the moment. Even if it could run on Linux, how would the mods work? They rely on windows. Plus on top of that programs such as Nexus Mod Manager, BOSS and Wryebash that make sorting through mods easier probably can't run on Linux. It seems like a waste of resources to create a purely gaming OS only to have popular games like Skyrim or GTA to be run through an emulator to get the plethora of excellent mods. I'd imagine there are people who are happy with running vanilla Skyrim or GTA or any other open world game on Linux simply for better processing power and graphics. At least to me though a lot of that magicalness would vanish if I weren't able to modify any of those games.
  • rainn'sgaydar - September 23, 2013 3:53 p.m.

    I thought the same thing when I read the announcement article (that SteamBox is confirmed), but assumed I was wrong because, well, let's face it I'm good at being wrong. But you agree! So again I'll say: SteamBox announced Wednesday, Half-Life 3 as a launch title on Friday! Not a chance, you say? You're right. Back to being wrong...
  • Krazee - September 24, 2013 12:58 a.m.

    Half-Life 3? Keep dreamin buddy.
  • rainn'sgaydar - September 24, 2013 3:19 a.m.

    I said as much myself.
  • EAC73 - September 23, 2013 3:52 p.m.

    Really seems interesting, the price point and release date are the only things that are an issue if it really is competing in the next console generation.

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