With its Linux-based operating system SteamOS and its matching controller, gaming company Valve has tried to set itself up as the savior of the PC gamer -- the company that can bring openness to a platform it sees as stymied by Microsoft's control over the ecosystem and lead PCs out into the living room. The company had planned to debut the final versions of its OS and controller this year, but recently delayed release until 2015 -- and now Valve's most prominent hardware partner is pushing ahead on its own.
The Dell gaming division Alienware--which announced it was building a SteamOS-based system in January--said this week at the annual Electronic Entertainment Expo, or E3, that it's on track to launch its "Steam Machine" by this holiday season, priced at $549. But here's the hitch for Valve: Alienware's product, called "The Alpha," will come with a Xbox 360 controller and Microsoft's Windows 8.1 operating system--not SteamOS.
While not a complete disaster for Valve--the new machine will include instructions on how to install the beta version of SteamOS--it certainly seems like a setback: Alienware is the highest profile partner Valve was able to recruit for its open platform project -- and even though by all accounts Alienware is still on board running SteamOS on its machines down the line, Alienware's willingness to take on the living room market with an operating system Valve CEO Gabe Newell once called a "catastrophe" is pretty bad optics.
Overall, this is probably the right business move for Alienware. It's been developing the Alpha for a long time, and now it's put in the rather awkward situation of having invested a lot of time and money in a product that's waiting on an operating system and a controller that aren't ready yet.
Alienware executive director Frank Azor has been very diplomatic about the issue, telling Venturebeat it debated a delay, but it didn't make sense for the company -- and praising for Valve for holding the project until it is ready, saying "I appreciate their fortitude in delaying the product until it is perfect." And he still seems to believe the combination of SteamOS and the Steam controller will be the best fit for Alienware's console alternative in the long term.
By staying the course for a holiday season delivery, Alienware has a chance to get at least part of a return on its investments in the Steam Machine concept this year. It's also going to be getting a potential head-start over the other companies building systems designed to run SteamOS -- and a possible secret weapon to help it take over the living room: An operating system that people already know how to use.
With Alpha, Alienware will be delivering a small form factor media PC that can handle gaming -- and for gamers that are already Windows users that might be a better fit than a machine that runs SteamOS. While Alienware is developing its own controller based interface, users will also be able to load up the standard Windows desktop client. That means that with Alpha, the addition of a wireless keyboard and mouse means that your television can deliver the full PC experience -- allowing users to play games, watch movies, and even manipulate spread sheets from the comfort of their couches.
Of course, this is already an experience consumers can have right now by connecting up their full-sized gaming rig. And SteamOS has some of the same options available, although in a Linux ecosystem that will take require a learning curve for many users. But by squeezing the full Windows experience down into a box about the size of a Wii and a price point that competes with modern consoles, Alienware might be able to convince users that a fully featured PC is a real alternative to the influx of more narrowly-focused devices currently taking up the space.