Valve takes aim at your living room with SteamOS

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Games developer Valve has built a nice little business around Steam, a digital distribution platform for Mac/PC titles, basically an App Store for cross-platform desktop games. Now, for some time we’ve been hearing whispers of a Valve-branded gaming hardware, especially with its CEO seeing Apple more of a threat compared to the console guys.

According to Valve, hardware makers can now build devices based on SteamOS, Valve’s new and free Linux-based operating system for the living room gaming PCs (Android, much?). Of course, SteamOS comes with both the Steam distribution platform built-in and a whole new interface specifically designed with big screens in mind. Should Apple be worried?

SteamOS will be “available soon” as a free standalone operating system for living room machines, according to Valve, and already a number of big name games developers are on board. In addition, plans are in place to build its own SteamOS-powered Steam Box hardware and controllers rumored to include some sort of biometric technology.

The countdown timer on Steam’s Living Room web page along with the ‘The Steam Universe is Expanding in 2014’ tagline hints at an impending Steam Box launch.

The product could launch on Wednesday, September 25 at 10Aam PT / 1opm ET.

The page teases:

Last year, we shipped a software feature called Big Picture, a user-interface tailored for televisions and gamepads.

This year we’ve been working on even more ways to connect the dots for customers who want Steam in the living-room. Soon, we’ll be adding you to our design process, so that you can help us shape the future of Steam.

Not only will SteamOS boxes be able to run Steam-powered games, but Windows titles as well thanks to an in-home streaming feature. Just like OnLive streams games over the Internet, the Steam in-home streaming will deliver a game running on your existing computer to your TV.

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To this effect, Steam Box will take on the role of a media streaming device akin to Apple’s AirPlay on the Apple TV.

The Verge thinks three tiers of the Steam Box could be in the cards: ‘Good’, ‘Better’ and ‘Best’, with the former likely a $99 streaming box for games from your computer. A $300 ‘Better’ and ‘Best’ boxes would be both built by Valve and third-party vendors.

“At CES, the company told us it already had 15-20 hardware partners lined up,” wrote The Verge.

In addition to native Steam-powered games and streamable Windows titles, both Steam and SteamOS will soon bring streaming video and music services, another potential threat to Apple’s ecosystem.

Moreover, Valve envisioned SteamOS as “a collaborative many-to-many entertainment platform, in which each participant is a multiplier of the experience for everyone else”.

Which brings me to my question from the beginning of the article: should Apple be worried?

Not in the short-term, in my personal view, because the Apple TV doesn’t run games. But it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out where we’ll go from here.

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Recall, if you will, these very words from the mouth of Valve CEO Gabe Newell:

The biggest challenge, I don’t think is from the consoles. I think the biggest challenge is that Apple moves on the living room before the PC industry sort of gets its act together.

Gabe said that in January 2013, citing a huge amount of market share Apple had gained as the major threat. Apple, he said, “has a relatively obvious pathway towards entering the living room with their platform”.

Microsoft could be another enemy: Windows 8.1 comes with its own built-in application store which threatens to steal sales from the Steam store (Newell famously called Windows 8 launch a “catastrophe”) and there’s also the Xbox behemoth tied to Microsoft’s rich content stores for movies, TV shows and music.

Perhaps these are the reasons SteamOS is being pitched as an open console platform, one that’s aimed at solving the console industry’s biggest drawback: slow update cycle. With SteamOS, Valve’s hardware partners “can iterate in the living room at a much faster pace than they’ve been able to,” the company argues.

The Steam Mobile client for iPhone and iPad.


Content creators can connect directly to their customers. Users can alter or replace any part of the software or hardware they want. Gamers are empowered to join in the creation of the games they love. SteamOS will continue to evolve, but will remain an environment designed to foster these kinds of innovation.

Valve’s SteamOS web page lists other features and IGN singled out the following four SteamOS capabilities that are new to the Steam ecosystem:

• In-Home Streaming: A machine running SteamOS will be able to stream games running on your existing computer to your TV
• Family Sharing: As Valve previously teased, multiple people will be able to take turns playing games within a single Steam account while earning their own achievements and saving their own progress to the cloud
• Media Services: Valve says it’s working with “many of the media services you know and love,” to allow “access your favorite music and video with Steam and SteamOS.”
• Family Options: Families will “have more control over what titles get seen by whom,” likely implying some sort of parental control system.

But make no mistake about it – games and apps are coming to Apple’s set-top box (perhaps as soon as next month, when a new hardware is rumored to launch). For all we know, Apple could be a software update away from turning the $99 hockey-puck into a video game console.

It’s not a question of ‘if’, but ‘when’.

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The original iPhone could only run stock apps because at the time there wasn’t such a thing as the App Store. Fast forward to today and we now have gazillion of apps (900,000 by the last count) designed for both multiple Retina and non-Retina form factors ranging from the iPhone/iPod touch and iPads and all the way up to 27-inch Macs.

Who’s to say Apple will stop there and miss out on the opportunity to bring 1080p iOS games to your living room telly?

It’s going to be a natural extension of the iOS ecosystem for Apple and another great opportunity for developers to take advantage of a much bigger canvas – all in the service of enabling next-gen living room experiences (and charging for them).

What do you think, is this SteamOS thing doomed to fail?