Introducing the SteamOS


Today was a day of understated excitement in the video game industry.  If you have been following things Valve scheduled an announcement today that many expected to be the SteamBox a legendary new console based on a Linux architecture that would compete head on with Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft.

Here is the tricky thing.  Valve didn’t just schedule a single announcement, but three during the course of this week.  If this was just the single announcement I would have also put my money on the SteamBox, a prediction that Forbes is aggressively and oddly downbeat about.  Instead we have three and today’s announcement was Steam releasing their own Linux distribution.

I can understand why this announcement would border on disappointing for most people, it is difficult to parse and there wasn’t a lot of specifics about when, where or what this would be.  My expectations are that details will be filled in as the week progresses.  Regardless of the specifics, this is a significant in the world of video games and computing. This is why:

SteamOS is free and Linux based
Getting into the hardware space is ugly and complicated.  There are normally license fees to consider either for Microsoft’s bloated Windows OS or the consumer has to shell out disposable income for Apple’s OSX.  Using Linux allows Valve or a hardware partner to jump past that messy world directly into manufacturing.  Free and distributed means that I can build a machine myself and install the SteamOS directly to it, opening up a huge market for hobbyists and small businesses.

It is built specifically for the living room
If you have had your eye on the big three you will see that they are desperately clamoring to get into the living room space with hardware that wasn’t specifically designed for that purpose.  Sure the last generation of consoles were designed to be hooked up to your TV, but they did not initially predict that people would be regularly watching Netflix, Hulu and a myriad of other services yet to be named from their couches on boxes that were traditionally just designed for video games. There is still something missing from allowing these boxes to be seamless experience that consumers expect.  The big three have also been slow to move with new features taking months to get from announcement to your console.  With a tight in house development team and the freedom to modify the OS as they wish Steam could rapidly innovate and move at the pace of the industry and consumer preference rather than the speed of bureaucracy.

SteamOS will pull in existing media sources
One of the larger surprises coming from Valve today was this bit of text:

“You can play all your Windows and Mac games on your SteamOS machine, too. Just turn on your existing computer and run Steam as you always have – then your SteamOS machine can stream those games over your home network straight to your TV!”

If this works as advertised, it will be a powerful and possibly essential component of your home entertainment setup.  If an eventual SteamBox is inexpensive then it just makes sense to extend your already powerful computing capabilities throughout your home to every television.

We don’t know yet how all this will play out.  We have two more announcements coming.  I expect the next will be the hardware reference specification and the final one to be prototypes and hardware partners.  I think it is too much to ask for a 2013 holiday release but if Valve can somehow pull that I off I know several people who are holding wads of cash right now willing to embrace this brave new world.