Why SteamOS will challenge Windows for PC gaming supremacy

Why SteamOS will challenge Windows for PC gaming supremacy

Brad Chacos  @BradChacos

You have to give it to PC gamers. Throughout all the trials and tribulations of the past few years—plummeting PC sales, the mainstream shift to mobile, Windows RT, et cetera—gamers were one of the few bedrocks Microsoft could rely upon. Virtually all major PC games run on Windows, and many run only on Windows.

That’s a big deal. In August, Jon Peddie Research predicted that Bohemia’s ARMA III would drive more than $800 million in PC hardware sales all by itself, and JPR estimates the total market for PC gaming hardware to hit nearly $18 billion in 2013. That’s a lot of quarters, and it’s all funneled toward Windows machines.

But suddenly that domination seems imperiled.

On Monday, Valve launched an assault on one of Windows’ strongest bastions with the announcement of SteamOS, a free, Linux-based operating system built around Steam, the most popular PC-game service in the land. And if any company has the brawn to shift PC gaming to Linux, it’s Valve.

A slow rebellion

The good news for Microsoft: Windows is going to be the featured destination for PC gamers for a while yet.

The Xi3 Piston shown at CES was thought to be an early Steam Box machine, but Valve and Xi3 distanced themselves soon thereafter. The Piston's small form factor nevertheless holds to the Steam Box ethos.

SteamOS was built to power so-called Steam Boxes—small, living-room-friendly PCs designed to challenge the gaming consoles’ death grip on the big screen. They're not fire-breathing enthusiast gaming computers. SteamOS was built around gamepads and Steam’s Big Picture mode rather than keyboards and mice, and perhaps more importantly, it removes the cost of a Windows license—a big expense in the price-competitive living room.

“I think it is important to understand that the vast majority of gamers consider ‘PC gaming’ to be a situation where the display is a few feet away from the gamer,” says Ted Pollak, the senior game industry analyst at Jon Peddie Research. “...Couch-based gaming is ‘console gaming’ and that is what Valve is making a play toward with Steam Box.”

What’s more, native Linux gaming is still in its infancy and mostly involves using WINE to run Windows games on your machine. Steam for Linux itself only supports around 200 games currently. Most are Valve titles or indie games, and even fewer offer the full gamepad support SteamOS begs for. In fact, SteamOS will rely on a proprietary Wi-Fi technology to stream the nearly 3,000 games available for Steam for Windows to your Steam Box.

Steam for Linux is relatively new, but it still offers nearly 200 games.

“I think Valve’s challenge will be to get the games ported to its OS,” says Jon Peddie himself. “They can start of course with their own games, and as interesting as they are, that’s a small library.” (Beyond Steam, Valve has created legendary PC-game series such as Portal, Half-Life, Team Fortress, Counter-Strike, and Left 4 Dead.)

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.


Microsoft makes Windows 8.1 more DIY-friendly with full versions

Microsoft makes Windows 8.1 more DIY-friendly with full versions

Mark Hachman  @markhachman

Microsoft continued apologizing for its past behavior by announcing that retail copies of Windows 8.1 will be available in standalone, full versions of the software, rather than as upgrades from previous versions of Windows.

Unfortunately, pricing for the new Windows 8.1 editions will match that of Windows 8: $120 for Windows 8.1 by itself, and $200 for the Pro edition. If you already have Windows 8 or Windows 8.1 and wish to upgrade to the Pro version, you can still do so for $100. There’s also a $10 upgrade for Pro users who want to add Media Center functionality.

But with Windows 8.1, Microsoft will make two important changes. First, users have the option of buying either an upgrade code for digital download or a retail DVD. That allows traditionalists the option of a physical disc in case of a hard disk crash. But the standalone option also should offer customers the alternative of building a new, low-cost PC upon which they can run Windows 8.1.

Read our Windows 8.1 RTM review

“This shift allows more flexibility for customers in specific technical scenarios and is in response to feedback we’ve received,” Windows blogger Brandon LeBlanc wrote in a Tuesday blog post. “It will be easier for those consumers who want to build PCs from scratch, run Windows 8.1 in Virtual Machine (VM) environments, or run Windows 8.1 on a second hard drive partition.”

Users who already own Windows 8 will receive Windows 8.1 as a free upgrade from the Windows Store. Users who install “fresh” copies of the Windows 8.1 OS shouldn’t have to worry about reinstalling any apps or settings. Users who have already downloaded the Windows 8.1 preview onto their Windows 8 machines will have to reinstall their applications, however.

LeBlanc also promised “new retail offers” as October 18 approaches. That’s the date when Microsoft will launch Windows 8.1 in retail.

windows 8 tablet

After introducing the Metro motif into Windows 8, Microsoft has spent the succeeding months walking back certain design elements: allowing users to boot directly into the familiar Windows desktop, redesigning how applications are listed under the Start page, and numerous other changes that make Windows 8.1 a sort of “do over” for the company. As LeBlanc had noted, users had complained that Microsoft hadn’t offered a standalone version of Windows 8.

Microsoft said that the new standalone version of Windows 8.1 will work with Windows 7 PCs, although users will have to reinstall their desktop apps. Users can try and install Windows 8.1 over an existing Windows XP or Vista installation, but Microsoft recommended that they use the installation disc and be prepared to reinstall files, settings, and apps from one system to another.

Microsoft’s change in policy will also be welcomed by the DIY or homebrew community, which has, at least anecdotally, shrunk somewhat as PC prices have come down and users have turned to self-contained notebooks rather than easily upgradable desktops. In May, research firm IDC said that it expects tablets to outsell desktops and tablets combined by 2015. IDC said that it expects desktop PC sales to decline from 134 million to 123 million PCs from now through 2015, as well.

"If you count all use models, net out 'professional DIY' (mom-and-pop and local PC stores building computers), and include the home DIY 'upgrade' market, I would estimate the global market for DIY is approximately $9 billion," Ted Pollak, an analyst with Jon Peddie Research, wrote in an email. "Add another billion if you want to include the “professional DIY” market."

(With Windows 8, Microsoft sold somewhat ambiguous “System Builder” versions that essentially allowed users to build their own PCs around Windows 8. On the surface, however, the software was geared more toward small businesses.)

Windows 8.1 Enterprise now available

Microsoft also said separately that it would grant access to Windows 8.1 Enterprise to TechNet and MSDN subscribers, beginning Tuesday.

“[T]he primary objective in making Windows 8.1 RTM bits available on TechNet and MSDN is so developers and businesses can continue testing the latest version of the operating system as our engineering teams refine and update the product and tools in preparation for Windows 8.1 general availability,” wrote Erwin Visser, general manager of Windows Commercial. “And once GA bits are available, you will be ready to conduct final testing and begin your deployment of Windows 8.1. Testing your operating system for compatibility with existing applications and better understanding what needs to be done to migrate your business—especially for those organizations still on Windows XP—is paramount.”

The key date for businesses is April 18. 2014 when Microsoft ceases supporting Windows XP. While Microsoft hopes that enterprises will transition off of Windows XP onto Windows 8, some are proposing alternative strategies: the city of Munich, Germany, is handing out copies of Ubuntu Linux, for example.

Microsoft Windows 8.1 for businesses is now available for testing

Microsoft Windows 8.1 for businesses is now available for testing

Availability is intended to make testing the Microsoft operating system possible to plan migrations from earlier Windows versions

By Tim Greene, Network World September 17, 2013 07:52 PM ET

Network World - Businesses with certain Microsoft memberships and service agreements can now download the near-final version of Windows 8.1 to test with an eye toward enterprise deployment, the company says.

Starting today TechNet and Microsoft Developer Network members as well as businesses with volume licensing and Software Assurance agreements can download the software.

BACKGROUND: Windows 8 upgrade to showcase features for enterprise

TIPS: 12 essential Windows 8 keyboard shortcuts

The purpose of the release is for business customers to plan whether and how they will deploy the new operating system once the final version becomes generally available Oct. 18.

“Testing your operating system for compatibility with existing applications and better understanding what needs to be done to migrate your business – especially for those organizations still on Windows XP – is paramount,” says Erwin Visser, the general manager of Windows commercial marketing in the Windows for Your Business blog. He also encourages businesses with Windows 7 deployments to start testing, even though support for Windows 7 is not being ended as it is for XP.

Microsoft has issued deployment tools to help corporate customers upgrading from earlier versions of Windows - Microsoft Deployment Toolkit 2013 – free - or System Center 2012 R2 Configuration manager. Both tools remove the old operating system, install the new one, reinstall applications and restore data and settings captured from the old operating system, Microsoft says.

Microsoft has pushed upgrades in Windows 8.1 as business-friendly features meant to improve mobile performance, management, virtualization and security demands of businesses.

These include broadened VPN support, embedded wireless support, mobile hot-spot technology, and Windows to Go, which enables carrying a Windows 8 machine around on a USB flash drive to run a corporate Windows 8 image on a separate machine. Remote wipe of business data is enabled as are device encryption, fingerprint authentication and antivirus software.

Windows 8.1 supports granting limited access to corporate resources for devices that are not domain joined while at the same time exerting some governance over them.

To help decide which edition of Windows 8.1 is appropriate, Microsoft has posted a chart comparing them.



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G.O.P. Expresses Hope as Obama Praises Syria Deal

G.O.P. Expresses Hope as Obama Praises Syria Deal

By MICHAEL D. SHEAR Published: September 15, 2013

WASHINGTON - President Obama's Congressional critics expressed guarded optimism about an agreement reached with Russia over the weekend to seize and destroy Syria's chemical weapons, even as Mr. Obama hailed the diplomatic effort as a "foundation" that could lead to a political settlement in that country's civil war.

Mr. Obama said in an interview that was broadcast on Sunday that the United States was in a "better position" to prevent President Bashar al-Assad of Syria from using poison gas again because of the deal produced by Secretary of State John Kerry and Sergey V. Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister.

"Look, we're not there yet," Mr. Obama said in the interview, taped Friday, with George Stephanopoulos for the ABC News program "This Week." "We don't have an actual, verifiable deal that will begin that process. But the distance that we've traveled over these couple of weeks is remarkable."

In interviews on Sunday, lawmakers in Washington described the agreement as a risky one, with potential benefits for stability in the Middle East if it succeeds and huge risks for Mr. Obama - both abroad and at home - if it fails. Several senators said Mr. Obama would deserve credit for avoiding a military strike if the chemical weapons could be eliminated in the midst of a civil war.

Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, who just days earlier had described Mr. Obama as seeming "uncomfortable" in the role of commander in chief, said the president may have turned a "muddled" and "clunky" foreign policy response into a tentative diplomatic win.

"It's hard for anybody to pooh-pooh the idea that we may be on the way to a diplomatic solution," said Mr. Corker, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Another Republican, Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, said the United States now had the opportunity to "parlay" the negotiations over chemical weapons into broader talks to find a political end to Syria's civil war and the removal of Mr. Assad from power.

"If the framework can actually be implemented, obviously it will be a big step in the right direction," Mr. Johnson said. Of Mr. Obama and his strategy, he said: "I hope it works out. I truly do. If he succeeds with this framework, people have to give him credit."

But senators from both parties also expressed deep concern about the possibility that the diplomacy could fail, perhaps spectacularly, and that Mr. Obama's actions over the past two weeks had strengthened the credibility of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia at the expense of America's reputation around the world.

"I have to be honest with you, it's also fraught with danger," said Senator Robert Menendez, Democrat of New Jersey. "The president will reap whatever achievements can be gleaned from this agreement - if it is successful."

In the ABC interview, Mr. Obama said his critics had been judging him on the style but not the substance of his policies during the past several weeks. He said he was not concerned with earning "style points" in the conduct of foreign policy, and he pointed to President George W. Bush's decision to go to war in Iraq as an example of making the wrong call.

"Had we rolled out something that was very smooth and disciplined and linear, they would have graded it well, even if it was a disastrous policy," Mr. Obama said, adding, "We know that, because that's exactly how they graded the Iraq war."

After watching the interview, Mr. Johnson said Mr. Obama's international credibility would be repaired somewhat if the chemical weapons were neutralized through the diplomatic process. But he said that did not excuse some of the choices the president had made.

"This process has not been particularly stylish. It hasn't been pretty," Mr. Johnson said. "Unfortunately, President Obama's credibility hasn't been strengthened."

Lawmakers expressed concern and appreciation of Mr. Putin's role. Some, like Senator Tim Kaine, Democrat of Virginia, said Russia's willingness to be at the center of negotiations over the chemical weapons may foreshadow a willingness to be part of talks aimed at ending the Syrian civil war.

"If the parties are at the table negotiating over this chemical weapons issue," Mr. Kaine said in an interview, such talks might eventually "roll right over to a negotiated resolution to the overall civil war."

But others said they were dismayed that Mr. Putin, as Mr. Corker put it, now had his "hands firmly on the steering wheel of this policy." And Representative Mike Rogers, a Michigan Republican and the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said Mr. Obama had been badly outmaneuvered by a cannier opponent who, he said, had gotten everything he wanted.

"Right now, we are being led by the nose by Putin through this horrible morass that is the United Nations," Mr. Rogers said on the CNN program "State of the Union." "He wanted Assad there. He gets to keep his warm-water port, he gets to keep his military contracts, and he gives breathing space to both Hezbollah, which is fighting on behalf of Assad, and Assad."

Mr. Obama, in the television interview, responded to criticism that by seizing control of the diplomatic efforts, Mr. Putin has been "playing" his American counterpart. He said the Russian president did not have the same "values" as the United States, but still played an important role in the Syrian conflict.

"I welcome him being involved," Mr. Obama said. "I welcome him saying, 'I will take responsibility for pushing my client, the Assad regime, to deal with these chemical weapons.' "

Mr. Obama added that despite the recent disagreements between the United States and Russia over a variety of issues - including the granting of temporary asylum to Edward J. Snowden, who is wanted by the United States government for leaking classified documents - the two presidents were still able to work together on issues like the chemical weapons in Syria.

"I know that sometimes this gets framed or looked at through the lens of the U.S. versus Russia, but that's not what this is about," he said.