The first batch of Steam OS powered machines were announced at CES 2014. These machines will serve two purposes – they will redefine the gaming industry by bringing new players, better hardware to break the trinity of Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo which locks everyone else out of the game console market.
In this context Steam OS will do the same to the game console market that Android did to the mobile industry.
The second purpose is to take over the living room as these machines double up as a desktop computer which allows you to do almost everything that an average user would like to do on a PC.
Looking at these machines and Valve’s strategy, it seems like GNU/Linux will eventually dominate that space which has always been its weakness – desktop PCs.
The reason why Steam OS would be a success where Ubuntu hasn’t been so far is simple. Ubuntu pitches against Windows or Mac and falls short of the competition because it, unfortunately, lacks professional applications and services which an average PC user may need.
There is no Netflix or Google Drive for Ubuntu, there is no Photoshop or Adobe Premiere. So there is no incentive for users like my wife who want a mix or work and entertainment on their systems (she has become a full time Chromebook user as she can access Netflix and use GDrive) or my film-maker buddy who needs to do a lot of professional grade work on his system. Ubuntu fails to solve the problem of everyone who is sitting between these two kind of users.
Steam OS doesn’t have that problem because it’s not projecting itself as a PC. It’s a game OS and Valve already has that one killer app that any company needs to break into a new market – games. Valve is a very powerful game distributor with over 75 million registered users. So it already has a very huge ‘money-spending’ user base. Here we are talking about concrete numbers and not some estimation. The company has roped in leading hardware players who are building game consoles using Steam OS; the dedicated Steam OS hardware is already in the market.
So what gives Steam OS an edge over others and how is it positioned better than Ubuntu?
Simple. Steam exceeds expectations. When one buys an Ubuntu PC he/she can’t do a lot that a Mac or Windows user can do, but when someone buys a Steam OS game console, he/she can do much more than what a PlayStation, Xbox or Nintendo user can do. Steam Machine user won’t have to open their laptops to get the work done – which they have to do when they are on other game consoles.
Steam Machine user can browse the web, use Skype, Google Hangout, chat, play movies, listen to songs works on documents and much more. It will be much easier for Valve to bring Netflix to Steam OS as they can very easily implement the evil DRM that Hollywood needs. Google may be more interested in reaching out to Steam users and launch its drive for them.
So when you buy a Steam box, you get a lot more that was not expected from a game console.
Valve has very cleverly bridged that gap and looking at its ‘living room’ ambitions I have no doubts it will be tying up with content providers to bring more content to Steam machines.
Ubuntu misses all of that. On top of that it doesn’t have that killer app which it needed to beat Mac or Windows; it doesn’t have hardware partners; it doesn’t have deals with content providers; it doesn’t have any concrete data on users who are willing to pay. On top of everything else, despite being a small company they have too much food on their plate. Instead of working with the community they are trying to do a lot on their own.
Chimpakers including Nvidia, Intel and AMD are lining up behind Steam OS. AMD just updated their drivers which improves performance for Steam machines. I wish Canonical was able to build same kind of relationship with Nvidia to get some support for Optimus chip; or that it had a friendlier relationship with Intel and instead of creating a conflict over display servers, they worked together. This simply shows which company (between Canonical and Valve) has better relationships with hardware vendors, chip makers and the community.
Today PC gaming giant Alienware has showcased their Steam Machine which will be made available by this September.
We have already seen the design efforts hardware partners are putting into Steam OS hardware. Critics of the first Steam Machine hardware tend to forget that this is the first batch of devices and they are going to get better. Since it’s an open ecosystem hardware vendors have more flexibility to innovate faster and bring better hardware to the market.
So unlike Ubuntu, Steam OS has many industry heavy weights as stake holders and these companies will drive the flow of popular apps and services towards the platform as Steam’s success will be their success.
So I think Steam will succeed where Ubuntu is still struggling. I think soon Linux will be dominating the desktop market thanks to Steam OS, Android and Chrome OS.
Future is bright!