SteamOS: The Linux for games is coming

SteamOS: The Linux for games is coming

Summary: In its next move in making Linux the top gaming operating system, Valve is releasing its own Linux distribution, SteamOS.


Gabe Newell, CEO of Valve and its Steam game platform, wasn't kidding when he said at LinuxCon in New Orleans that "Linux is the future of gaming." Valve is releasing, in advance of the expected announcement of its SteamBox Linux-powered gaming console, its own Linux for gamers: SteamOS.

Say hi to the SteamOS Linux-power world of gaming (Credit: Valve)

Details on SteamOS, which has only been released to a few developers at this point, are scarce. At least one Linux expert who has seen it, Linux Foundation executive director Jim Zemlin, said, "With all due respect to the others, which I love, this could be the best Linux distribution yet." Zemlin added, "The gaming industry has often been a driver of innovation around computing performance and this is a huge win for Linux." 

Here's what we know. Valve describes SteamOS as combining "the rock-solid architecture of Linux with a gaming experience built for the big screen. It will be available soon as a free stand-alone operating system for living room machines."

What's a living room machine? I presume it's a network-connected computer with a High-Definition Multimedia Interface (HDMI). Yes, that means you'll be playing your "PC" games on your HDTV.

Can Linux do this? Sure. What do you think ispowering your DVR today? Windows CE!? 

At LinuxCon, Newell had said Valve had been working with graphic OEMs to improve Linux graphics performance. In the announcement, Valve stated, "In SteamOS, we have achieved significant performance increases in graphics processing, and we’re now targeting audio performance and reductions in input latency at the operating system level. Game developers are already taking advantage of these gains as they target SteamOS for their new releases."

SteamOS won't be a closed system the way other gaming consoles such as Microsoft's Xbox One or Sony's PS4 are. Instead, "Steam is not a one-way content broadcast channel, it’s a collaborative many-to-many entertainment platform in which each participant is a multiplier of the experience for everyone else. With SteamOS, 'openness' means that the hardware industry can iterate in the living room at a much faster pace than they’ve been able to. 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 is serious about that open part. A major reason Valve gave up on Windows as a primary gaming platform is that Microsoft has been turning Windows 8 devices into a closed hardware devices. At LinuxCon, Newell said, "Open systems were advancing much faster. The old console guys are not competitive, and there's huge tension in proprietary systems. … Closed systems are at odds with the evolution of gaming."

That said, Valve isn't turning its back on its Windows and Mac OS customers. They'll be able to play their old games by streaming them, via their SteamOS-powered PC, to their HDTVs. 

PCs powered with SteamOS won't just be gaming systems. Valve is also working "many of the media services you know and love. Soon we will begin bringing them online, allowing you to access your favorite music and video with Steam and SteamOS."

Last, but not least, the cost for this new gaming/entertainment Linux will be zero. Zip. "SteamOS will be available soon as a free download for users and as a freely licensable operating system for manufacturers."

I'd like to know a lot more about SteamOS than I do now, but I do know one thing already: I'm really looking forward to playing one of the almost 200 Steam games available on Linux.

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Topics: Linux, Consumerization, PCs

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  • Haven't we've seen how this ends?

    Other companies have tried to sell Linux games in the past, only to discover that, unlike the 1% that Occupy Wall Street railed about, the 1% of Linux users occupy the other end of the spectrum. They expect and want everything for free.

    I think Valve is going to be rather disappointed to discover their coveted new customer base is cursed with tight fists or empty pockets.
    • You are wrong as to why previous Linux games ventures have struggled.

      It's not because of the MS fan's made-up myth about cheap Linux users. That's just something you guys tell yourselves every time you are ponying up for yet another lacklustre version of some MS software.

      Games compiled for generic Linux are have to be compiled against the lowest common denominator Linux libraries to run on the widest variety of Linux distros. This is fine for office software and browsers, but games require all the performance they can get. This had made previous Linux games attempts difficult to provide consistent results across the board.

      Which is exactly the issue SteamOS remedies: "Valve had been working with graphic OEMs to improve Linux graphics performance."
      So the game producers can optimize for SteamOS, just like they do for PS3, Xbox and Wii. This is also the reason the consoles took so much of the gaming market away from PCs years ago.

      Time to eject the myths, anonymous.
      • re: Myth of "cheap Linux users"

        The folks over at, a site that regularly offers pay-what-you-want game bundles, have tracked how much Windows, Mac, and Linux gamers are paying for each bundle.

        For as long as they've offered Linux versions, the Linux users have consistently been willing to paid more than their Windows and Mac counterparts. Looking at the averages for their current promotion (Humble Indie Bundle 9):
        - Average Windows: $4.59
        - Average Mac: $6.02
        - Average Linux: $7.46

        Yes, we're dealing in smaller dollar amounts, but Linux gamers are happily paying 62% more than the (relatively) cheapskate Windows gamers. The amount of Linux purchases is also significantly smaller (by an order of magnitude), but they are making their voices heard by paying well above the average for the same software. (In some bundles, the Linux users are actually paying more for less, because some items in the bundle don't have a Linux version!)
        • Steam will be a knife in Microsoft's back

          I can see Mr Ballmer getting all streamed up about Steam.

          Everybody said Linux will get nowhere. Android is on the Linux kernel, and it has become the most popular OS on Earth.

          Steam will do the same for desktop gaming. An OS built for gamers. It will be huge.
    • I think you forgot that....

      SteamOS and Steam Box aren't targeting Linux users, they are targeting anyone who wants to truly bring Steam to their living room, and we know this is a hell lot of people....
      And the companies that bring their games to Linux via Steam won't be bringing just for GNU/Linux now, they will be bringing to SteamOS and this hell lot of people....
      Did you get the trick now?
      • way to much faith again

        "Hell lot people". Doubt it. Like all Linux in the home it is niche at best. You assume all these game companies are going to just put resources into this, not going to happen they have their hands full dealing with the new console generation, the previous console generation, the Windows based PC. Converting to OpenGl from DirectX, even using Steams packaging libs, is not that easy.

        It's funny how people thought Windows 8 is a walled garden with it app store, when Steam is really the walled garden.
        • Ballmer Said The Same Of The iPad and iPhone

          And look how right he was.

          As for Direct X, I think you will find that is already under threat from OpenGL and OpenGL ES.

          Alan Smithie
        • Not Enough Faith...

          I think you are forgetting that what dictates whether a company puts it's resources into something depends on the market. A few months ago Nvidia released a study stating that PC had a larger market share than consoles. Also that in north america gamers increased from 205 to 209 million, but most of these were on the mobile gaming, free-to-play market and new PC Gamers, no significant console gaming increase. In other words "if the money is there" they will develope for it, as simple as that. The fact that "is not that easy" shouldn't be a show stopper, they already develope cross-platform. Besides if they already make games for PS, OS X which are basically FreeBSD code I'm sure they can jump to Linux no biggie...of course that's if there's money to be made!
          Victor Torres
        • Re: Converting to OpenGl from DirectX

          Funny how this is much like converting from Windows to OS X or Linux. It is hard to even contemplate doing, because of all the FUD. But once you try, it turns out to not only be easy, but also very pleasurable... and it is usually one-way street -- whoever converted never wants to look back!

          Don't know if spreading FUD can save your favorite platform, but nothing prevents you from trying. People have done stupider things.
        • Win8 Metro is a restricted garden, Steam OS is open

          Steam the gaming service may have restrictions, but everybody will still be free to develop and sell games for the Steam OS, and use all of it's features.

          Oh, and porting to OpenGL isn't actually as hard as you might think, just ask Valve about L4D.
      • So you are saying...

        ...that until just now Linux has been a steaming pile of suck and now it will change because, for at least the 15th consecutive year by my reckoning, it's "The Year of Linux?"

        I already have Steam in my living room. It's a trivial matter to connect an HDMI cable to my laptop and blast the contents onto my big-ass TV.
    • Times are changing

      I don't think Linux users use Linux so much because its free. As much as the fact that its open source software. Thanks to Microsofts catastrophe called Windows 8 Im guessing more people are interested in Linux today more than at any time in the past. And with Valve paving the way for a flurry of triple A titles to run on their SteamOS I see much potential in the success of this move. Another point....Windows users are just as tight-fisted as Linux users. I know I have been a die-hard Windows user up until the release of Windows 8. Do you think I enjoy paying $60 for a video game? No, I wait for the sales on Steam. Same thing people will do on Linux. So to sum up my response to your post...Please stop being a drama queen...Valve software is a billion dollar empire. I think they have a clue about how to make money.
      • The cathastrophe

        windows 8 (according to you) is in use by over 15% of steam users as we speak. (Source steam's hardware survey August 2013h

        That is of course the intended target market. steam's Linux client has been out for about half a year and the market share for the various Linux distros is around 1% and dropping for several months now, not a good sign at all.

        Now apparently steam OS would stream some Windows game to overcome the lack of gaming titles and at the same time tries to take on Micrsosoft and Sony on the console market, companies that not only make as much as steam in a week or so, but have years and years of relationship with all the major console gaming developers.

        I wouldn't bet any money on this, as the chance it will be relevant are slim to none.
        • Nice job at spinning those statistics, I am impressed

          Windows 8 is in use by over 15% of steam users? Wowie!!! So if my math is correct that means 85% of Steam users aren't running Windows 8 after it has been released just over a year now. Windows XP has an ungodly amount of OS market share after it was released eons ago and Windows 7 still holds, what 40%+ market share? That 15% of Steam users you speak of probably upgraded to Windows 8 when they had no other choices at the Wal-Mart store they shop at.
          While some Linux distros may be dropping, I am sure others are rising so you pointed out something for no reason. Oh I guess for that statistic to be anywhere near truthful you are eliminating all the linux installations across the universe that are I right?
          I'll bet you had put money down on Surface RT Tablets didn't you? Oops, guess that had about a slim chance to none of success also. Shuckie darns.
          • Pot and kettle

            First off, Windows 8 wasn't released over a year ago, it was released less than 11 months ago, and when considering the latest hardware survey is from August 2013, it is counting Windows 8 for 10 months. Of course the steam hardware survey doesn't include Linux on cellphones, since the steam client doesn't run on them !

            Now, in that steam hardware survey ( we see exactly what I claimed, Windows 8 (all versions) has exceeded 15% which is much more than what we see in statistics from Netmarket share, just as XP's share is much less.

            The wal-mart argument is of course also being used, regardless of the fact that many gamers would rather be caught dead than shop for a pc (at any shop), most of them run self built, and is also conveniently leaving out the multiple options that do exist to get something other than Windows 8 on a shiny new computer.

            If Linux really has this bright future, the question I raised is justifiable. The Linux steam client has seen a drop in market share only after being 6 months out of beta, and that certainly isn't a good sign.

            Whether I have put money donw on Surface RT (which I didn't by the way) is not in any way related to this, the gaming market is a different market, but I guess with all the spinning you are doing here, that detail is being overlooked.
    • hillarious

      this paid microsoft propagandists is spitting on linux community, making a class distinction that completely rude, insane, evil and basically everything else microsoft-stinking.
    • Then how do you explain the Humble Bundle results?

      Linux always have the highest average sum paid per user. How could that happen if they aren't willing to pay?
      • Easy - Linux users have enough $$ left over to be generous

        Tongue in cheek - but more seriously, I've always thought that software companies have worked hard to maintain an artificial economy where their products cost much more than they need to - and that open source is slowly popping that bubble.

        And there's an opportunity cost to the outrageous software licensing fees ...

        Of course, it's not a simple linear equation - e.g., software's artificially high costs have produced numerous millionaires, who in turn give generously (some of them).
    • Check out the Humble Bundle website.

      Donations from the 3 are generally Linux users donating around twice, on average, of what Windows users donate. Mac users also out-donate Windows users, again on average.

      It was even this way for the Origin Bundle, which had ZERO Linux titles included.
  • How much does end-user support cost?

    Do you think Valve will just contract a 500-person call center for support issues for free?

    Either end-users will have to pay for support (which is always the 'Linux is free' scam), or else I smell ad-ware (which is a bubble business proposition).

    Valve already tried supporting alternate OS's: OS X. Look where that went... How many games are on OS X again?

    Valve doesn't want to pay Microsoft for Windows Store apps. So how much do they charge EA and Ubisoft for putting their games on SteamOS??? Pot, what colour is kettle again?