Linux Pros Predict the Future of SteamOS and the Steam Machine

Less than a year after announcing the beta release of Steam for Linux, Valve unveiled plans for Linux-based SteamOS and Steam Machine beta hardware. So far, we've seen plenty of buzz, but we can't actually install the new operating system or get our hands on the hardware. Will the Steam releases live up to the hype?

Gartner Research has its own methodology for predicting the maturity and adoption of technologies, called the Hype Cycle. With SteamOS and the Steam Machine, we saw the “technology trigger” in September, when Valve announced the upcoming releases and the tech media ran with the story. During the technology trigger part of the cycle, “Often no usable products exist and commercial viability is unproven.” Next, in Gartner-speak, comes a peak of inflated expectations, trough of disillusionment, slope of enlightenment, and plateau of productivity.

Without a usable product, we're still stuck in the technology trigger part of the cycle, but we can make predictions. Then, later, we can gloat that we made a good call or cringe because we were so far off the mark. Four brave experts weigh in with early predictions for SteamOS and the Steam Machine – and they certainly do not agree with one another.

SteamOS users will live in Linux rooms.

“I think SteamOS has a real chance to put Linux in hundreds of millions of living rooms,” says veteran tech journalist Steven Vaughan-Nichols. But then he points out that Linux is already in the living room, in TiVos, DVRs, and Internet-enabled DVD players and smart TVs. “Like these devices, SteamOS devices such as the Steam Box will keep bringing Linux to the masses even as they continue under the delusion that they can't use Linux,” Vaughan-Nichols says.

With Valve's SteamOS, consumers will realize that they are using Linux, he asserts. “Valve is making a point of letting people know that it's Linux under the hood,” Vaughan-Nichols explains, “And perhaps that will help people realize that they're already living in a Linux room.”

No, SteamOS users won't know they are using Linux.

“Obviously this is entirely speculative since we haven't seen screenshots yet, but I'm imagining an interface closer to a gaming console or Roku-type box than a GNOME or KDE desktop that a Linux user would point at and call 'Linux,'” predicts Ruth Suehle, Community Marketing Manager at Red Hat. “And in that scenario, it's just another invisible Linux, like so many others that we interact with. It won't be Linux; it'll be SteamOS.”

Suehle says that if her design prediction is right, she doesn't predict a lot of SteamOS users who aren't already running Linux to ditch their MacBooks, either. “I've long argued that there was a good market for gaming on Linux, as evidenced by things like what happened when World of Goo was released for Linux and the fact that in the release of every Humble Indie Bundle, the Linux users pay more every single time,” Suehle says, “But now that we've had the Linux Steam client for eight months, it still accounts for only about one percent of Steam users.”

This doesn't fill her with hope that a flood of Steam lovers will run to SteamOS. Still, she's excited about the new Linux-based operating system. “I'm always happy for anything that will put FOSS in more hands,” Suehle says.

Steam Machines won't be a game console changer.

“I believe that Steam Machine can become a second choice entertainment center for some console owners,” says Trevor Longino, head of PR and marketing at GOG.com, a website that sells DRM-free copies of older games. “However, I highly doubt it will make many PC users leave the devices they already own, forget about their computer screens only to switch to a couch in front of the TV.”

Longino says that the success of SteamOS and the Steam Machines depends on console converts and their willingness to switch. The Linux community is too small to make a worldwide shift, but Valve could fine-tune SteamOS to provide an alternative to available consoles. Still, Longino says, it makes sense for Steam to challenge consoles. “They brought huge changes to the PC market since they launched, and they're almost certainly looking to try and do the same in consoles.”

Ruth Suehle plans to get a Steam Machine, but she also has a Roku, Boxee Box, PS3, Wii, SmartStick, and an Apple TV. And she recently set up XBMC on a Raspberry Pi. “One aspect I am less certain on, as I'm pretty much a console-only kind of gal when it comes to gaming, largely due to that whole lack of Linux support thing, is the way in which consoles 'outlast' PC gaming,” Suehle says. “PC games are designed at a point in time for people whose hardware may be a day old or a year old or more, which I believe leads to some of the pain in PC gaming. In contrast, console games are designed for that specific piece of hardware. I'm not sure where SteamOS and the Steam Box are going to fall on that spectrum, which could also make a difference.”

Security will be a problem.

“When we look at SteamOS, one thing that's not getting a lot of attention is that this can be an attractive target for hackers and attackers,” says Christopher Budd, Threat Communications Manager at Trend Micro, a cloud security provider. Budd says that there hasn't been much discussion about how secure SteamOS will be, but the 2011 attack on the Sony PlayStation Network shows that gaming platforms are a viable target.

SteamOS is built on Linux, but Budd notes that this is only a small part of the security puzzle. Security holes found in the Linux components (for example, Linux kernel vulnerabilities) in SteamOS will need to be addressed, but Budd says that a bigger question is how Valve plans to secure its gaming applications and its network. “How are they going to handle security updates — including for Linux vulnerabilities — to the consoles?” Budd asks. “Assuming their gaming network is going to be a closed system for security reasons, how are they going to ensure that people can't alter the consoles in a way that gives them access to the gaming network in a way that gives access to account information?”

Budd points out that Xbox 360 and Xbox Live network have dedicated security teams to ensure the integrity of the gaming network. “Sony does the same, especially after rebuilding their PlayStation Network after the breach two years ago,” he says, adding, “Building a new gaming console platform and a new gaming network creates a new target for attackers.”

What are your predictions about SteamOS and the Steam Machine? Let us know in the comments.

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