Given Gabe Newell's description of Windows 8 as both a "catastrophe" and a "giant sadness," it come as no surprise that his company, Valve, which distributes computer games to millions of players through its online distribution network, Steam, has gradually shifted emphasis to the open source operating system Linux. But the company has gone one further with the announcement of SteamOS, its own Linux-based operating system catered to living room PCs.
It was about a year ago that Valve released Steam's Big Picture Mode, designed to optimize the Steam games distribution software for users with a PC connected to a TV more likely to be using an Xbox controller than a mouse and keyboard. SteamOS appears to be a logical progression, then.
"As we've been working on bringing Steam to the living room, we've come to the conclusion that the environment best suited to delivering value to customers is an operating system built around Steam itself," the company writes on its website. "SteamOS combines 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."
Valve has announced several new features of SteamOS which will also appear in a forthcoming update of the existing Steam software. Perhaps of most interest to gamers will be Family Sharing, which Valve says will allow people to "take turns playing one another's games" while allowing users to earn they own achievements and access their own cloud save files. Alongside this feature are the new Family Options which appear to be straightforward permissions controls to prevent the wee ones starting up Borderlands 2, for example.
Perhaps most intriguing are the media streaming services Valve has announced for Steam and SteamOS. The company says it is "working with many of the media services you know and love" in order to stream film and music (the likes of Spotify and Netflix spring irresistibly to mind). This will come as welcome news to anyone with a living room PC that currently has to reach for a mouse to launch a web browser to connect to such services.
Finally there's In-home Streaming, which Valve says can be used to stream games from a Mac or Windows machine (in your office, say) to a SteamOS box connected to your living room TV. Doubtless this feature has been put in place in recognition that many TV-connected PCs will be relatively modest machines not necessarily capable of throwing around the latest triple-A titles in HD resolutions. Hopefully it's not a sign that Valve anticipates a continuing lack of Linux ports, which will presumably be required for games to run natively in SteamOS. Though Valve has been diligent in porting its own titles to Linux, and though indie titles are readily available, the big-budget third-party releases have been notably absent. This will surely have to change if gamers are to switch to SteamOS as operating system of choice on their main gaming rigs.
There are signs that Valve isn't pitching SteamOS solely at the casual game. The company claims to have achieved "significant" graphics performance gains using the OS, and is working on audio and latency advances to match.
SteamOS will likely be the operating system of Valve's own gaming hardware, informally dubbed Steam Box by expectant gamers, confirmed to be in development last December.