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Linux Pros Predict the Future of SteamOS and the Steam Machine

SteamOS and Steam Machine Less than a year after announcing the beta release of Steam for Linux, Valve unveiled plans for Linux-based SteamOS and Steam Machine beta hardware. So far, we’ve seen plenty of buzz, but we can’t actually install the new operating system or get our hands on the hardware. Will the Steam releases live up to the hype?

Gartner Research has its own methodology for predicting the maturity and adoption of technologies, called the Hype Cycle. With SteamOS and the Steam Machine, we saw the “technology trigger” in September, when Valve announced the upcoming releases and the tech media ran with the story. During the technology trigger part of the cycle, “Often no usable products exist and commercial viability is unproven.” Next, in Gartner-speak, comes a peak of inflated expectations, trough of disillusionment, slope of enlightenment, and plateau of productivity.

Without a usable product, we’re still stuck in the technology trigger part of the cycle, but we can make predictions. Then, later, we can gloat that we made a good call or cringe because we were so far off the mark. Four brave experts weigh in with early predictions for SteamOS and the Steam Machine – and they certainly do not agree with one another.

SteamOS users will live in Linux rooms.

“I think SteamOS has a real chance to put Linux in hundreds of millions of living rooms,” says veteran tech journalist Steven Vaughan-Nichols. But then he points out that Linux is already in the living room, in TiVos, DVRs, and Internet-enabled DVD players and smart TVs. “Like these devices, SteamOS devices such as the Steam Box will keep bringing Linux to the masses even as they continue under the delusion that they can’t use Linux,” Vaughan-Nichols says.

With Valve’s SteamOS, consumers will realize that they are using Linux, he asserts. “Valve is making a point of letting people know that it’s Linux under the hood,” Vaughan-Nichols explains, “And perhaps that will help people realize that they’re already living in a Linux room.”

No, SteamOS users won’t know they are using Linux.

“Obviously this is entirely speculative since we haven’t seen screenshots yet, but I’m imagining an interface closer to a gaming console or Roku-type box than a GNOME or KDE desktop that a Linux user would point at and call ‘Linux,’” predicts Ruth Suehle, Community Marketing Manager at Red Hat. “And in that scenario, it’s just another invisible Linux, like so many others that we interact with. It won’t be Linux; it’ll be SteamOS.”

Suehle says that if her design prediction is right, she doesn’t predict a lot of SteamOS users who aren’t already running Linux to ditch their MacBooks, either. “I’ve long argued that there was a good market for gaming on Linux, as evidenced by things like what happened when World of Goo was released for Linux and the fact that in the release of every Humble Indie Bundle, the Linux users pay more every single time,” Suehle says, “But now that we’ve had the Linux Steam client for eight months, it still accounts for only about one percent of Steam users.”

This doesn’t fill her with hope that a flood of Steam lovers will run to SteamOS. Still, she’s excited about the new Linux-based operating system. “I’m always happy for anything that will put FOSS in more hands,” Suehle says.

Steam Machines won’t be a game console changer.

“I believe that Steam Machine can become a second choice entertainment center for some console owners,” says Trevor Longino, head of PR and marketing at GOG.com, a website that sells DRM-free copies of older games. “However, I highly doubt it will make many PC users leave the devices they already own, forget about their computer screens only to switch to a couch in front of the TV.”

Longino says that the success of SteamOS and the Steam Machines depends on console converts and their willingness to switch. The Linux community is too small to make a worldwide shift, but Valve could fine-tune SteamOS to provide an alternative to available consoles. Still, Longino says, it makes sense for Steam to challenge consoles. “They brought huge changes to the PC market since they launched, and they’re almost certainly looking to try and do the same in consoles.”

Ruth Suehle plans to get a Steam Machine, but she also has a Roku, Boxee Box, PS3, Wii, SmartStick, and an Apple TV. And she recently set up XBMC on a Raspberry Pi. “One aspect I am less certain on, as I’m pretty much a console-only kind of gal when it comes to gaming, largely due to that whole lack of Linux support thing, is the way in which consoles ‘outlast’ PC gaming,” Suehle says. “PC games are designed at a point in time for people whose hardware may be a day old or a year old or more, which I believe leads to some of the pain in PC gaming. In contrast, console games are designed for that specific piece of hardware. I’m not sure where SteamOS and the Steam Box are going to fall on that spectrum, which could also make a difference.”

Security will be a problem.

“When we look at SteamOS, one thing that’s not getting a lot of attention is that this can be an attractive target for hackers and attackers,” says Christopher Budd, Threat Communications Manager at Trend Micro, a cloud security provider. Budd says that there hasn’t been much discussion about how secure SteamOS will be, but the 2011 attack on the Sony PlayStation Network shows that gaming platforms are a viable target.

SteamOS is built on Linux, but Budd notes that this is only a small part of the security puzzle. Security holes found in the Linux components (for example, Linux kernel vulnerabilities) in SteamOS will need to be addressed, but Budd says that a bigger question is how Valve plans to secure its gaming applications and its network. “How are they going to handle security updates — including for Linux vulnerabilities — to the consoles?” Budd asks. “Assuming their gaming network is going to be a closed system for security reasons, how are they going to ensure that people can’t alter the consoles in a way that gives them access to the gaming network in a way that gives access to account information?”

Budd points out that Xbox 360 and Xbox Live network have dedicated security teams to ensure the integrity of the gaming network. “Sony does the same, especially after rebuilding their PlayStation Network after the breach two years ago,” he says, adding, “Building a new gaming console platform and a new gaming network creates a new target for attackers.”

What are your predictions about SteamOS and the Steam Machine? Let us know in the comments.

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  • Error27

    Microsoft and Sony subsidize the hardware and Valve won’t. That means it’s competing with expensive gaming PCs instead of the larger console market. So it probably won’t take off.

    Eventually Google is going to come out with something like this with Android For TV or something. It will compete with the Wii and Tivo and cost $200. At that point Chinese manufacturers will be able to make money and they will take over the market.

  • http://guideme.blogspot.com/ Mike Frett

    Error27, Android is Linux. No it’s not going to be expensive, Valve has plans for Low-End boxes. And Trevor Longino isn’t a Linux Pro, just a user like me. So my words are just as good as his and makes this comment a Pro comment. =p

    The people WILL know they are using Linux when they decide to boot to the desktop to surf the web and such; Valve isn’t working with RedHat, they are working with Canonical ask the right people next time. Security will NOT be a problem, this isn’t Windows, SteamOS is Open Source. If you can code, you can fix or change it yourself.

    Unless Valve pulls an Android and doesn’t pull in patches, I don’t see a problem. Virus and malware have a difficult time living in Linux due to it’s ever changing nature. Linux isn’t Windows, New versions of Windows are always built on top of the previous version with little change underneath; it’s old, bloated, slow and vulnerable code. You can’t do anything with Windows except upgrade to whatever Microsoft forces upon you, it’s Closed-Source and off limits to you.

    The times are changing, fear is in the air. Windows users and others are afraid of what’s happening now with Indies pushing AAA companies off buildings and Open Source Operating Systems challenging big dogs like Apple and Microsoft. There is nothing to fear, for the changes coming to us will be our savior and will set us free from the slave chains and give us our true Freedom.

    • LinuxProgrammer

      Have you taken your meds today? The only hope for linux is purpose-built machines. Anyone who does any research into the X windows system knows the linux desktop is a 40 year old tower of cards. I am an embedded system programmer, and can safely say there is no “freedom” in an operating system that does not work without tweaks. OpenELEC is an excellent example of what linux can be. Gnome/KDE/Unity are sad examples of what Linux is, the definition of legacy bloatware.

  • Christopher Budd

    “Assuming their gaming network is going to be a closed system for security reasons, how are they going to ensure that people can’t alter the consoles in a way that gives them access to the gaming network in a way that gives access to account information?”

    The same way any accounts system that is open to the internet does… Why is this even a question? Valve has 10 years of experience keeping Steam secure. Increased market share WILL increase the number of people trying to break Linux, but it will probably also increase the number of people finding and fixing vulnerabilities. Either way it will result in Linux becoming more secure over time, just as it works now. Linux has the majority market share for webservers by a significant margin…

    Every platform that Steam is on (I guess unless you count PS3) has fully open development… Steam OS is just Linux with a fancy shell on it, and Steam is already available for Linux.

    As for how valve is going to handle security updates, I’m guessing they will do it the same way that every other Linux distribution does, but probably in a less painful way, and possibly even through Steam itself.

    I agree with Mike’s comment that there is fear in the air. A comment such as this from a guy (that is my name damn it) who formerly worked at Microsoft, and now works for a security company suggests to me that they are terrified because as more competition threatens Microsoft’s market share, the future of antivirus software begins to look very grim.

    Also, Valve has said that their consoles are open, and that you are free to completely modify every component of them… even boot Windows 8 if you have the urge to prime your load caches and boost your desktop wallpapers.

    Steam is far from being a new gaming network.

  • Greg

    The fact that Linux has only a 1% total of steam users in an unfair statement. There are thousands of games for Windows and only a few hundred for Linux. I would like to see how the total percent of users that play games that are both available on Windows and Linux match up. That would show a better representation of us Linux gamers

    • rikkiendsley

      “The fact that Linux has only a 1% total of steam users in an unfair statement.” This statement actually comes from Valve (Gabe Newell). I do see a crazy amount of potential for Linux to be a huge player in gaming, and 1% seems like a low number still.

      I wrote about Steam for Linux in the last issue of Ubuntu User magazine I edited, but I’m still having a hard time picturing what Steam will look like a year or so from now. I would love to see the Steam machine be “the” device in my living room. I’m ready to pack up all the other gadgets and cords and move to one box that does it all.

  • Charlie Whitman

    The comment in the article by Christopher Budd seems a bit silly. This new system is not going to be any more open or tougher to secure than Steam on Linux, or even really than Steam on Windows for that matter. What he is warning about is already being addressed by Valve, and they are more prepared to deal with it than the console developers ever were.

  • sgtrock

    Ruth Suehle said:

    “Obviously this is entirely speculative since we haven’t seen
    screenshots yet, but I’m imagining an interface closer to a gaming
    console or Roku-type box than a GNOME or KDE desktop that a Linux user
    would point at and call ‘Linux.’”

    She’s clearly not familiar with Steam or she would know that Valve has been prototyping the UI for SteamOS for about 2 years at this point. And yes, it’ll look like a standard console interface. One open question many of us have is, how much, if any, access will be available to the rest of the OS? I’m not even 50% certain that SJVN is correct in assuming that it will be obvious how to do so. In fact, I’m inclined to think that Valve will adhere pretty closely to a console metaphor.

    Ruth’s comments about the relative stability of console gaming vs. PC gaming also shows that she is clearly not familiar with Valve’s commitment to supporting older games. If something is released on Steam, it tends to hang around for a long, long time. In fact, it’s not unusual lately to see old games show up on Steam some time after they were delivered on Good Old Games.

    For example, 27 of the 56 games that I’ve bought over the past nine years through Steam are available as Linux games. A little over half are games that are at least 5 years old. Several are even older than Steam itself. From what I’ve read, that seems to be pretty typical ratios among other gamers who have been playing around with the Linux version of Steam for the past year. The relatively low number of Linux players has more to do with the fact that it takes time to build up a market. The real question of the year is, will Valve be able to do so?

    Christopher Budd has already done a good job of addressing the Trend Micro FUD so I won’t add anything to that discussion.