You can tell that the PC industry is in trouble by the way companies are enthusiastically embracing outlandish, oddball ideas that are essentially solutions to problems that people don't have.
A device that falls squarely into this category is the Steam Machine. Here we have gaming PCs made to look like consoles that run Valve's new Linux-based SteamOS platform. Despite there being no proven market for such a device, Valve announced at CES 2014 that it already has 13 hardware partners on board -- Alienware, Falcon Northwest, Digital Storm, iBuyPower, CyberPowerPC, Origin PC, Gigabyte, Materiel.net, Webhallen, Alternate, Next, Zotac, and Scan Computers.
Surely Valve, with its 65 million Steam subscribers, along with 13 big hardware makers can't be wrong? Steam Machines are a guaranteed success, right?
Let's take a look at five reasons why Steam Machines might trip over their own shoelaces while walking along the precarious tightrope towards potential success.
As I ran my eye down the prices of steam Machines unveiled at CES 2014, I was dismayed by how high they were. Sure, there was a couple listed as "$499 and up," and a few are still to be announced, but most were in the thousands of dollars price bracket. In fact, Falcon Northwest admitted that its most expensive Steam Machine would set you back an eye watering $6,000.
Anything over $1,000 prices these systems way beyond what a new Xbox One or PlayStation 4 will cost you, and puts these systems in a very small niche category.
Remember how only a few weeks ago people balked at the price of Apple's new Mac Pro? That's a work system. This is a gaming platform.
Valve might have 65 million Steam users, but these are made up of PC users who are free to pick and choose what hardware and download service they want to use. In fact, most PC gamers I know subscribe to multiple download services and buy games from whichever one is cheapest.
How is a price-conscious user base going to take to these prices?
All of which begs the obvious question – what was Valve's intended audience for these devices in the first place?
With prices ranging from $500 to $6,000, it's no surprise to find that the hardware spec of these Steam machines varies considerably. And that, in turn, is going to result in a very varied experience for both game developer and end users.
One of the big advantages that consoles such as the Xbox and PlayStation bring to the market is long-term uniformity. The Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 were both around for best part of a decade, but over that time the base hardware spec didn't change. The first batches of Xbox 360s or PlayStation 3s to roll off the production line are functionally identical to the latest batch in terms of the games they can play or the quality of the graphics. Game developers like this because the hardware base has a long lifespan, and end users love it because it removes all the guesswork from choosing games.
How are Steam Boxes going to be sold? It seems that we are back to the way that PCs were being sold back in the first few year of the millennium, with consumers having to decipher a sea of numbers on a spec sheet with no clear idea what this means in the real world.
Remind me again how that worked for the PC industry?
Do you think that Microsoft and Sony are going to roll over and allow Valve's Steam Machines to take over living rooms around the world without a fight?
In a word – No.
Microsoft and Sony have deep pockets and a massive user base tied to their platforms. Expect them to make use of that money to aggressively push their new consoles into living rooms. Also, if Steam machines do start to gain traction, I'd expect to see console prices fall fast than for previous generation hardware in order to keep the buzz alive.
I admire Valve's courage in going up against the big boys, but I don't think if fully appreciates what it is going up against.
What advantages does a Steam Machine have over, say, a PC/console, which I could also afford?
This is a pretty important question, and so far Valve hasn't addressed it.
From what I can tell, a Steam Machine is essentially a Linux-powered gaming PC, and this to me seems like the platform will be susceptible to two types of problem.
The first type is the problems that plague PC gaming in general – drivers, performance, compatibility, and so on. These are the sorts of problems that made games consoles popular in the first place.
Then we have Linux problems, ranging from driver issues to any obscure, impenetrable or unfathomable error that Linux can throw up. I know that PC gamers are a cleaver bunch, but so far they've not had much contact with Linux.
If Steam Machines were closed-box system that the end user could upgrade, then this would mitigate some of these issues, but they're not. Users will be able to upgrade them, and this means that everyone involved – from the system makers and Valve, to graphics card makers – need to be prepared. Given how ill-prepared the hardware maker is for dealing with Windows at times, throwing a Linux variant into the mix sounds to me like a terrible idea.