For now, Windows is still firmly entrenched. And yet...
A simmering threat
Though Steam Boxes aren't an immediate danger to Microsoft's supremacy, the love PC gamers hold for Steam is fierce, and if SteamOS picks up popularity, Valve's love for Linux could encroach upon Windows' gaming stronghold.
"Possibly more important than the PC vs. console' question is that Valve's move toward Linux cuts Microsoft Windows out of the picture," Pollak says. "This then circles back to PC gaming in its traditional form. Will developers make—and people play—Linux-optimized games on the desktop?"
That prospect just got a big boost. On Wednesday, AMD announced 'Mantle,' a low-level, cross-platform programming interface driver (read: DirectX replacement) designed to eek superb hardware-optimized performance out of GPUs based on AMD's GCN architecture across multiple platforms—including both next-gen consoles as well as Windows and SteamOS-based PCs using Radeon graphics.
That could reap immediate benefits for SteamOS if it becomes popular with developers, especially as Steam machines are a natural fit for console ports. EA is already on board with its Frostbite engine; Battlefield 4 will be the first major title to use Mantle.
Valve says to "Watch for announcements in the coming weeks about all the AAA titles coming natively to SteamOS in 2014."
Other cornerstones are being laid. Both AMD and Nvidia ramped up their Linux driver support as soon as SteamOS was announced, and Intel has also been working with Valve to improve its Linux driver performance. Valve also says that multiple SteamOS-powered Steam Boxes from multiple manufacturers will be released in 2014, though none were explicitly named and pricing was not announced.
But beyond ecosystem support, SteamOS and Steam for Linux could also beckon to PC enthusiasts who feel the urge to eke as much performance as possible out of their games.
When it announced SteamOS, Valve said it has "achieved significant performance increases in graphics processing" and is working on improving audio. That makes sense; in August, Valve said that the native Linux version of Left 4 Dead 2 ran far faster than the Windows version, because of "the underlying efficiency of the kernel and OpenGL." Less OS and API bloat means more frames—a compelling pitch for speed freaks.
"Many people think that the Windows environment holds back the performance capabilities of the hardware in the PCs," says Pollak. "PC gamers have historically enjoyed more performance than consoles. If processing efficiencies can be proven, this Linux effort may win the support of PC gamers who will continue to play from the desktop."
Crazy like a headcrab
Yes, it sounds crazy to go toe-to-toe with the Xbox and PlayStation in the living room, and yes, challenging Windows' dominance on the PC will be an intense uphill battle. But don't forget that it was just as nutty for Valve to require you to sign up for Steam to play Half-Life 2 all those years ago, and look how well that turned out.
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