Is Valve's Linux gamble over Windows 8 a shot in the dark?

While there's a lot not to like about Windows 8, there's not much for gamers -- or gaming companies -- need to worry about.
Written by Adrian Kingsley-Hughes, Senior Contributing Editor

Gabe Newell, co-founder and managing director of the video game development and online distribution company Valve, thinks that Windows 8 will be "a catastrophe for everyone in the PC space," and is looking to Linux as a hedging strategy in case Windows 8 disrupts the success of the Valve gaming portal.

Newell believes that the roadblock keeping gamers away from adopting Linux as their operating system of choice is a lack of games for the platform, so his company plans to bring a selection of titles -- including the popular Left 4 Dead 2 -- in an attempt to lure gamers to the free and open source platform.

Newell's fear is that Windows 8, with the introduction of the Metro user interface and the new Windows Store -- which will be the only place users can buy Metro apps -- will make Windows even more of a closed platform, and that this will have a serious knock-on effect of Valve's business.

I'm no fan of Windows 8. I believe that the mish-mash of classis user interface and the newer touch-enabled Metro user interface results in a design disaster that could sink the new operating system, and I believe that Microsoft is running out of time to fix this mess.

That said, I'm not sure why Newell is so worried about Windows 8.

First, users will be free to install the Steam gaming platform -- or for that matter, any other compatible software -- on Intel x86 versions of Windows 8. Users will be able to install anything and everything they want with no restrictions or meddling from Microsoft. The lock-down only applies to the Metro apps, not regular applications. Outside of the app ecosystem, Windows remains on the most part as open as it ever used to be.

It's business -- pretty much -- as usual.

Another point worth considering about Windows 8 is that the platform is actually very good for gaming. I benchmarked both the Windows 8 Consumer Preview and the Windows 8 Release Preview and found that Windows 8 was a solid gaming platform with performance on the whole en par with Windows 7. As AMD and Nvidia graphics drivers become more mature, the gaming performance offered by Windows 8 is likely to improve.

Gamers don't really have much to worry about in terms of gaming performance by making the switch to Windows 8

Finally, even if Windows 8 is a "catastrophe," it shouldn't matter too much to the likes of Valve. Windows Vista was a flop, but that just meant that people -- including gamers -- stuck with Windows XP for longer. People didn't feel the need to move to Linux back then, and it's unlikely that they will be motivated to do so this time around.

However, some do believe that Windows 8 will give Linux a chance. ZDNet's Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols believes that the gamble Microsoft is taking with Windows 8, along with the way the company has upset hardware partners by wading into the hardware business, will encourage hardware vendors to take a look at Linux as it looks to boost razor thin margins.

"Heck," writes Vaughan-Nichols, "thanks to [Microsoft CEO] Ballmer's desktop and partner missteps maybe we finally will see a year of the Linux desktop after all."

As much as I'd like to see Linux rise from the depths of obscurity to give Microsoft and Windows a serious run for its money, it's just not going to happen -- at least not any time soon -- in my view. There are just too many factors working against Linux for it to gain any serious traction on desktop or notebook platforms. For that matter, given the tepid reception that Android has received on tablet devices, that platform may not be suited to Linux either.

The reason comes down to a single issue: compatibility.

When people buy a Windows license, they're not just buying the right to use operating system on a specific piece of hardware; they're also buying a warm and fuzzy feeling of security that most of the hardware and software they ran on the old operating system will continue to work on the new operating system.

Adding a few Linux-compatible games to the Steam download portal is unlikely to change that.

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