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SteamOS: Steaming ahead? – The Open Source Column

Might SteamOS be a way forward for mainstream Linux?

Steam Ubuntu GabeCube

By the time you read these words, Sony and Microsoft will be on the verge of unleashing two news games machines into the world. Actually, it’s probably fairer to call them media machines, but what’s at least certain is that the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One will be boxes of proprietary, rights-controlled delights, from a pair of companies who intend to lock their customers down as much as they can get away with (not quite as much as they thought in Microsoft’s case) and try to get them to do everything short of sleeping through the products in question.

So dominant are the Xbox and PlayStation brands now that it’s hard for any other platform of their ilk to get a look in. Ask Nintendo, a company that’s suddenly looking like it’s run out of ideas, and in danger of being rendered ‘irrelevant’ (not my word), just years after it was in a dominant market position. And PC gaming? There are only so many obituaries for it that I can sit through.

But then somebody does something to shake the status quo up a bit. As upbeat and chipper as I try to be, I don’t think for a minute that it will shake up the status quo, but that’s no reason not to have a go. And ironically, it’s Steam that’s going to do it.

Steam is a service that does a lot of good things for those who like to play computer games on a PC. It handles updates, it keeps things ordered, and when it does one of its twice-yearly sales, it has a habit of getting wallets emptied at a speedy and impressive rate. It also, by nature of what it does, locks down your games, and imposes a heavy level of DRM on them. That’s the price it pays for dealing with big games publishers, and you do wonder if it’s something that Steam is always that comfortable with (not withstanding the fact that Valve, its parent company, is a games developer of some note).

With SteamOS, it’s become the latest in a line of companies looking to take a Linux- based operating system and make something mainstream out of it. I’m old enough to remember Corel having a go at that, only to hit financial problems and end up being bailed out in part by Microsoft. Corel Linux was not around for very long after that.

SteamOS, though, is an interesting project. For one, it’s designed for ‘any living room device’. That in itself is a fascinating challenge, not least because part of the idea is to bring PC gaming into the living room. We’re a long way away from seeing a Call Of Duty game running and playing on a television set, but Valve argues that “game developers are already taking advantage of these gains as they target SteamOS for their new releases”. Furthermore, streaming technology will, in theory, allow what’s playing on your PC to be streamed to SteamOS. There’s using some thin-client thinking there and as the service evolves, it does offer up some intriguing possibilities.

That being said, this does feel more about poking Microsoft and Sony in the eye as much as advocating and pushing Linux forward. However, if it implicitly manages to achieve the latter, then even though there are question marks over Valve’s approach to and use of Linux, there are big positives. If I was product- managing Windows 8 right about now, though, I might just have called an extra meeting or two…