by adam mathes
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Rising Steam

The announcement of SteamOS (and the seemingly more inevitable Steam Machines) is exciting.

My hope is that it becomes the “go to” platform for innovative hardware and software for dedicated PC gamers and early adopter tech hobbyists.

And keeping that market happy may be the key to its success.

The Dawn of 3D

When I was a teenager in the 90’s, the biggest breakthrough in entertainment technology (to me) was 3D hardware acceleration.

The difference between Quake and GLQuake (the first hardware accelerated game most people experienced) was huge. That switch from software rendering to having 3D acceleration brought PC gaming to a whole other level of realism.

And if you wanted to experience that you had to really be on the PC side. New hardware was released regularly, you could tinker with your PC and upgrade things, and all the best software was for DOS or Windows. Apple users didn’t really get the same experience. Nor did console users.

On the console side, 3D acceleration was also drastically changing things (the N64 was released about when PC 3D acceleration became affordable in the last 90’s) but the cycle of hardware releases and innovation was much slower. If you wanted to be in the cutting edge, the PC was the place to see it.

The key insight there is that gaming drove purchases in the space – people wanted to experience better frame-rates, better resolution, better performance on the games they loved and were willing to pay for it.

Modern Day

Today, the console development cycles are even longer. And unlike in the past where console hardware differed significantly from general purpose computers and offered specialized capabilities (you couldn’t get 2D graphics on most PC’s in 1986 equivalent to a NES) they are basically computers in a box you connect to a TV with specialized software. There’s not the kind of magical gaming performance enhancements there were a few generations ago.

The PC ecosystem – which depended on both Microsoft and OEMs to cycle quickly to bring performance and innovation to market – is in trouble as the broader consumer market shifts their personal use to mobile devices. Businesses seem less excited about Microsoft upgrades that don’t seem to provide more value to companies or justify new hardware. Is your business really going to run better on Windows 8 than Windows 7? If anything, you’re probably more worried about productivity loss during upgrades now.

Meanwhile, the hobbyists and gamers who really love this stuff are helping Valve and Steam become a multi-billion dollar company.

It makes sense that Valve would try to decouple itself from a troubled ecosystem and bootstrap a new one for its best customers. It’s a smart move.

SteamOS’s success depends on creating an ecosystem that gets innovative hardware and software to consumers faster.

A big question is as new hardware like the Oculus Rift become generally available, what will be the best and most consumer friendly way to use it? If it’s “buy a SteamBox and plug it in and download supported games” then that’s a pretty compelling story. Especially compared to, buy one, struggle to get it working with a PC, cry, upgrade drivers, cry some more or wait a few years until XBox supports it.

Valve has the best and probably most profitable customers in the gaming space heavily using their system today. If they provide a new hardware platform for them to adopt that provides better experiences, faster hardware updates, and new capabilities beyond what consoles or PC’s do, those customers will probably be happy to adopt it over time as PC’s lose that technical advantage.

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