(Source: Valve)
Steam OS -- finally an open-source OS that's capable of serious Windows-compatible gaming

Valve Corp. is set for a packed week as it's rumored to be rolling out three major announcements -- perhaps as part of the "good", "better", "best" program that quasi-CEO Gabe Newell referred to in a January interview.

I. (Finally) a Linux Distro Capable of Serious Windows-Compatible Gaming

The first announcement was made today as Valve unveiled Steam OS, a new custom Linux distribution, with a focus on gaming and Windows compatibility.  Valve says that much of the recent Windows software and game catalog will be supported writing:

You can play all your Windows and Mac games on your SteamOS machine, too. Just turn on your existing computer and run Steam as you always have - then your SteamOS machine can stream those games over your home network straight to your TV!
Access the full Steam catalog of over nearly 3000 games and desktop software titles via in-home streaming.

For the TV streaming Valve has partnered with Miracast, the WiFi coalition for wireless HDTV transmission.

Steam OS
Meet Steam OS, Valve's Windows 8 alternative.

Of course this is not the first Linux distribution to feature support for Windows apps.  The long-standing WINE project has been used by many and provides sufficient compatibilty layering for many older PC game titles.

Initially, this compatibility sounds like it will be delivered via pushing video off your Windows PC to your Steam box (and from the Steam Box to the TV).  But by next year Steam is promising "triple A" (premium) video game titles will be developed natively for Steam OS, removing the Windows crutches and allowing Steam OS to stand on its own.

In other words, Valve is betting this: most gamers have a Windows 7 PC capable of playing current high end titles, but they don't want a Windows 8 PC.  So it's giving them a wireless video-streaming media hub they can use with their existing machine.  And it's evolving that hub in a year or so into a full fledged Windows alternative, offering gamers a gradual path away from Windows 8 and its successors.

Presumably control of the game titles will be done via the mouse/keyboard connected to the Steam Box, although, it remains to be seen if this is indeed the case.

In the meantime gamers get modern 3D action titles for Windows running at reasonable framerates.  That is something no other Linux Windows compatibility project -- not even WINE -- can offer.

II. Tapping the Cloud

The new OS has a heavy cloud-based backbone for backing up your files, updating the operating system without manual management, and syncing gameplay among your various installations.  Valve writes:

Seamless content delivery, storage you don’t have to think about and automatic updates to everything. Switch machines and pick up your game where you left off, and don’t worry about saving your preferences. It’s all in the Steam Cloud.

Valve Half Life 2
Steam OS can run all your favorite Windows 3D Game Titles. [Image Source: Valve]

It remains to be seen how the distro performs in the wild, but Valve is boasting aggressive performance writing:

In SteamOS, we have achieved significant performance increases in graphics processing, and we’re now targeting audio performance and reductions in input latency at the operating system level. Game developers are already taking advantage of these gains as they target SteamOS for their new releases.

Steam hints at upcoming partner hardware -- the so-called "Steam Boxes" (likely to be announced later this week).  It writes:

SteamOS will be available soon as a free download for users and as a freely licensable operating system for manufacturers. Stay tuned in the coming days for more information.

Steam Box

SteamBox back
A reported Steam Box prototype [Image Source: Polygon]

A countdown page points to a Wednesday announcement of these systems.

III. What Can't Steam OS Do?

The big question at this point is what Linux can't do.  Recall that both Microsoft Corp.'s (MSFT) Office is now available in Linux via Office 365 and Adobe System Inc.'s (ADBE) Creative Suite is already available via WINE.  So it's invalid to say you can't switch to a Steam Box because you "can't do real work in Office/Photoshop."
Office 365
Microsoft Office is fully available in Steam OS via Office 365. [Image Source: Microsoft]

Until now, it was true that high-end Windows games were unusable in Linux, but it appears that Steam has blown away that barrier as well.

Microsoft has to be more than a little nervous at this point.  While it's moving some of its business into either platform agnostic services (e.g. Office 365) or non-Windows content (e.g. Xbox), its revenue basis still hinges on Windows sales.

Windows isn't going to disappear overnight, but the top selling personal computers are now inexpensive Linux laptops -- Chromebooks which use Google Inc.'s (GOOG) Chrome OS distribution more aptly.  That success illustrates that Steam OS has a lot of potential to achieve big sales if Valve and its hardware partners play their cards right, cashing in on user frustrations with Windows 8.

In that light, the big question -- once more -- is what can you do on a PC that you can't do on a Steam OS box?

Sources: SteamOS, Valve [countdown page]

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