SteamOS: The Linux for games is coming

In its next move in making Linux the top gaming operating system, Valve is releasing its own Linux distribution, SteamOS.
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor

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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