Where's Valve going with Linux?

It's becoming increasingly apparent that video game development and online distribution company Valve is serious about Linux. But desktop Linux has a 1 percent usage share. Surely there's more to this development effort than meets the eye?
Written by Adrian Kingsley-Hughes, Senior Contributing Editor

There's no doubt that video game development and online distribution company Valve is looking to broaden its horizons and adding Linux to its list of supported operating systems. But Linux has a usage share of about 1 percent, so what's Valve's plan for Linux?

Credit: Valve

It's clear that Valve isn't happy with Microsoft.

Gabe Newell, Valve co-founder and managing director, labeled Windows 8 "a catastrophe for everyone in the PC space," fearing that 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. This, he fears, will have a serious knock-on effect of Valve's business.

Valve's also been busy optimizing its games for Linux, and claims to have Left 4 Dead 2 running faster on Ubuntu than on Windows 7 -- and not just a little faster either: over 16 percent faster. Considering how much time and effort Valve has spent developing for Windows, that's quite an achievement for Linux.

The word now is that Valve's official Linux push will kick off February 2013, and that this is when a beta of the Steam client for Linux will land. Hit titles such as Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, Team Fortress 2, and Half-Life 2 will be available alongside Left 4 Dead 2.

About the only person unhappy with Valve's move to cover Linux is free software stalwart Richard Stallman, who claims that "non-free programs" are "unethical."

However, I keep coming back to that 1 percent usage share. After all, I doubt that Valve offering games for Linux is going to push that usage share up even a fraction.

The reason why 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.

So, what's Valve up to?

Two things spring to mind. First, rumors and job postings suggest that Valve is working on gaming hardware. Given the harsh criticisms of Windows and Microsoft, it's unlikely that any Valve-branded hardware is going to run Windows. That leaves a Linux distro as the obvious alternative because Valve would be free to tweak and customize the operating system to their heart's content.

If Valve plans to use Linux as the base OS for a games console, it needs to get its games working on Linux. All this desktop Linux talk could just be a handy smoke screen.

Another possibility is that Valve is planning to offer a customized Linux distro that users could install on their PCs either standalone or as a dual-boot OS. The idea of a streamlined OS dedicated to playing games appeals to me because a day-to-day Windows installation is not the ideal platform for gaming because of all the unnecessary detritus -- unnecessary to gaming at any rate -- running in the background.

Success of failure seems to hinge on how many Linux-compatible games Valve can come up with. Valve has some popular titles, but I don't see the likes of Left 4 Dead 2 et al being enough to encourage people to buy a Valve console or use Linux as a gaming platform.

Whatever the plan, Valve needs the support of other game developers. If Valve can get that -- and if there's one company that can herd the gaming industry, it's Valve -- then maybe Microsoft needs to start worrying, because while the most important sector for Microsoft as far as Windows revenue is concerned, is the enterprise market, it's not the most influential.

The sector that drives the greatest innovation, and which offers the OEMs the best chance of selling hardware with a decent profit margin is the gaming sector. And Valve could be getting ready to disrupt that sector.

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