Valve is fomenting a revolution in the gaming industry with its Linux-based SteamOS game-oriented operating system. The battle cry: Give us a truly open PC-gaming architecture!
And at an event Monday night, the game developer announced that some of the biggest names in the boutique PC building industry — including Digital Storm, Falcon Northwest, Origin, and yes, Dell's Alienware division — will answer Valve's call to arms by building Steam Machines.
The impetus for SteamOS, according to Valve president Gabe Newell, stems from the rise of closed-architecture video-game consoles. While he didn't mention any products by name, he's obviously referring to Microsoft's Xbox One and Sony's PlayStation 4. Where anyone can develop and publish a game that will run on a PC — or a Steam Machine — Microsoft and Sony tightly control which games are allowed to run on their hardware. This stifles innovation and limits consumers' choices.
But Valve's motives aren't as altruistic as they might seem. Microsoft largely ignored PC gaming in the early days of DOS, but later developed its DirectX initiative to make it easier to develop games for Windows. Since it entered the video-game console business with the Xbox, Microsoft's interest in PC gaming seems to be one the wane. As Newell mentioned last night, Valve currently has 65 million customers using its Steam game-distribution service. You can bet the vast majority of those customers are using Windows, so the company has much to lose if PC gaming falls out of fashion.
The diversity of form factors on display at the Monday-night press conference mirrors that of the Windows PC market in general. As Newell put it: "Each [partner's Steam Machine] represents a different take on the right approach for their customers. What's the most useful thing for us to do?"
Variety is the spice of life
To that point, Origin's Chronos Steam Machine will be housed in a horizontal enclosure with very few lights, because it — like most Steam Machines — is designed to connect to a TV and blend into an entertainment center. But it will be powered by a discrete video card that the customer can remove and upgrade when it can no longer keep up with the most demanding games. (A higher-end version can support up to a pair of Nvidia Titans!)
Gigabyte's Brix Pro, meanwhile, resembles Intel's NUC (Next Unit of Computing) and will rely on the Iris Pro graphics processor integrated into the machine's Intel CPU. It obviously won't be as powerful as the Chronos, but it also won't be as large or as expensive. Where the Chronos will likely compete with gaming PCs that run Windows, the Brix Pro will compete with game consoles such as Microsoft's Xbox One and Sony's PlayStation 4.
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