That Depends on Whether They Need One
Ars Technica UK published an editorial called, Hey Valve: What's the point of Steam OS? The article does not actually pose the question in it's text -- it mostly rants about technical problems with a Zotac review unit -- but the headline is interesting none-the-less.
Here's my view of the situation.
The Death of Media Center May Have Been...
There's two parts to this story, and both center around Windows 8. The first was addressed in an editorial that I wrote last May, titled The Death of Media Center & What Might Have Been. Microsoft wanted to expand the PC platform into the living room. Beyond the obvious support for movies, TV, and DVR, they also pushed PC gaming in a few subtle ways. The Games for Windows certification required games to be launchable by Media Center and support Xbox 360 peripherals, which pressures game developers to make PC games comfortable to play on a couch. They also created Tray and Play, which is an optional feature that allows PC games to be played from the disk while they installed in the background. Back in 2007, before Steam and other digital distribution services really took off, this eliminated install time, which was a major user experience problem with PC gaming (and a major hurdle for TV-connected PCs).
It also had a few nasty implications. Games for Windows Live tried to eliminate modding by requiring all content to be certified (or severely limiting the tools as seen in Halo 2 Vista). Microsoft was scared about the content that users could put into their games, especially since Hot Coffee (despite being locked, first-party content) occurred less than two years earlier. You could also argue that they were attempting to condition PC users to accept paid DLC.
Regardless of whether it would have been positive or negative for the PC industry, the Media Center initiative launched with Windows Vista, which is another way of saying “exploded on the launch pad, leaving no survivors.” Windows 7 cleared the wreckage with a new team, who aimed for the stars with Windows 8. They ignored the potential of the living room PC, preferring devices and services (ie: Xbox) over an ecosystem provided by various OEMs.
If you look at the goals of Steam OS, they align pretty well with the original, Vista-era ambitions. Valve hopes to create a platform that hardware vendors could compete on. Devices, big or small, expensive or cheap, could fill all of the various needs that users have in the living room. Unfortunately, unlike Microsoft, they cannot be (natively) compatible with the catalog of Windows software.
This may seem like Valve is running toward a cliff, but keep reading.
What If Steam OS Competed with Windows Store?
Windows 8 did more than just abandon the vision of Windows Media Center. Driven by the popularity of the iOS App Store, Microsoft saw a way to end the public perception that Windows is hopelessly insecure. With the Windows Store, all software needs to be reviewed and certified by Microsoft. Software based on the Win32 API, which is all software for Windows 7 and earlier, was only allowed within the “Desktop App,” which was a second-class citizen and could be removed at any point.
This potential made the PC software industry collectively crap themselves. Mozilla was particularly freaked out, because Windows Store demanded (at the time) that all web browsers become reskins of Internet Explorer. This means that Firefox would not be able to implement any new Web standards on Windows, because it can only present what Internet Explorer (Trident) draws. Mozilla's mission is to develop a strong, standards-based web browser that forces all others to interoperate or die.
Remember: “This website is best viewed with Internet Explorer”?
Executives from several PC gaming companies, including Valve, Blizzard, and Mojang, spoke out against Windows 8 at the time (along with browser vendors and so forth). Steam OS could be viewed as a fire escape for Valve if Microsoft decided to try its luck and kill, or further deprecate, Win32 support. In the mean time, Windows PCs could stream to it until Linux gained a sufficient catalog of software.
Image Credit: Wikipedia
This is where Steam OS gets interesting. Its software library cannot compete against Windows with its full catalog of Win32 applications, at least not for a long time. On the other hand, if Microsoft continues to support Win32 as a first-class citizen, and they returned to the level of openness with software vendors that they had in the Windows XP era, then Valve doesn't really have a reason to care about Steam OS as anything more than a hobby anyway. Likewise, if doomsday happens and something like Windows RT ends up being the future of Windows, as many feared, then Steam OS wouldn't need to compete against Windows. Its only competition from Microsoft would be Windows Store apps and first-party software.
I would say that Valve might even have a better chance than Microsoft in that case.
Subject: General Tech | March 25, 2015 - 10:23 PM | Scott Michaud
Tagged: microsoft, windows, windows 10, winRT, windows rt
Even though I am really liking the Windows 10 operating system from a technical standpoint, I did not mind Windows 8.x, as software, either. My concern was its promotion of the Windows Store for the exact same reasons that I dislike the iOS App Store. Simply put, for your application to even exist, Microsoft (or Apple) needs to certify you as a developer, which they can revoke at any time, and they need to green light your creations.
This has a few benefits, especially for Microsoft. First and foremost, it gives them a killswitch for malicious software and their developers. Second, it gives them as much control over the platform as they want. If devices start flowing away from x86 to other instruction sets, like we almost saw a few years ago, then Windows can pick up and go with much less friction than the corner they painted themselves into with Win32.
This also means that developers need to play ball, even for terms that Microsoft is forced to apply because of pressure for specific governments. LGBT groups should be particularly concerned as other platforms are already banning apps that are designed for their members. Others could be concerned about encryption and adult art, even in Western nations. If Microsoft, or someone with authority over them, doesn't want your content to exist: it's gone (unless it can run in a web browser).
On the plus side, I don't see the rule where third-party browser engines are banned anymore. When Windows 8 launched, all browsers needed to be little more than a reskin of Internet Explorer.
Beyond censorship, if Microsoft does not offer a side-loading mechanism for consumers, you also might need to give Microsoft a cut of your sales. You don't even seem to be able to give your app to specific people. If you want to propose to your significant other via a clever app, there does not seem to be a method to share it outside of the Windows Store unless you set up their device as a Window developer ahead of time.
Why do I say all this today? Because Microsoft has branded Universal Apps as Windows apps, and their strategy seems to be completely unchanged in these key areas. What kept me from updating to Windows 8 was not its user interface. It was the same thing that brought me to develop in Web technologies and volunteer for Mozilla.
It was the developer certification and lack of side-loading for modern apps.
I get it. Microsoft is tired of being bullied with crap about how it is insecure and a pain for the general public. At the very least, they need a way for users to opt out, though. What they are doing with Windows 10 is very nice, and I would like to see it as my main operating system, but I need to prioritize alternative platforms if this one is heading in a very dark direction.
Win32 might be a legacy API, but the ability to write what I want should not be.
Subject: General Tech, Systems, Mobile | November 1, 2013 - 08:49 PM | Scott Michaud
Tagged: windows rt, Surface 2
The Surface 2 is what happened to the Surface RT. Microsoft decided that "RT" has no place on this product except, of course, its software ("Windows RT") because they painted themselves into a corner on that one. The message is something like, "It's Windows RT 8.1 but not Windows 8.1; in fact, you cannot run that software on it". I expect, and you probably know I have voiced, that this all is a moot point in the semi-near future (and that sucks).
Microsoft's "Official" Surface 2 overviews.
Paul Thurrott down at his Supersite for Windows reviewed Surface 2 in terms of the original Surface RT. The inclusion of Tegra 4 was a major plus for him yielding "night and day" improvement over the previous Tegra 3. In fact, he thinks that everything is at least as good as the original. There is not a single point on his rubric where the Surface RT beats its successor.
Of course there is a single section where the Surface 2 lacks (it is shared with the Surface RT and I think you can guess what it is). The ecosystem, apps for Windows RT, is the platform's "Achilles Heel". It is better than it once was, with the inclusion of apps like Facebook, but glaring omissions will drive people away. He makes this point almost in passing but I, of course, believe this is a key issue.
It is absolutely lacking in key apps, and you will most likely never see such crucial solutions as full Photoshop, iTunes, or Google Chrome on this platform. But if we're being honest with ourselves here, as we must, these apps are, for better or worse, important. (The addition of Chrome alone would be a huge win for both Windows RT and Surface 2.)
You are paying Microsoft to not let you install third party browsers. Literally.
Not only does this limit its usefulness but it also reduces the pressure to continue innovation. Why add developer features to Internet Explorer when you can control their use with Windows Store? Sure, Internet Explorer has been on a great trajectory since IE9. I would say that versions 10 and especially 11 could be considered "top 3" contenders as app platforms.
The other alternative is the web, and this is where Internet Explorer 11 plays such a crucial role. While many tier-one online services—Spotify, Pandora, Amazon Cloud Player and Prime Video, and so on—are lacking native Windows RT aps, the web interfaces (should) work fine, and IE 11 is evolving into a full-featured web app platform that should present a reasonable compromise for those users.
Only if Microsoft continues their effort. No-one else is allowed to.
Now that I expanded that point, be sure to check out the rest of Paul Thurrott's review. He broke his review down into sections, big and small, and stuck his opinion wherever he could. Also check out his preview of the Nokia Lumia 2520 to see whether that (if either device) is worth waiting for.
Subject: General Tech, Cases and Cooling | August 15, 2013 - 12:46 AM | Scott Michaud
Tagged: windows rt, mouse, microsoft, keyboard
I would normally begin a product announcement with some introduction but, this time, a quote from Mary Jo Foley seems a better fit:
These new peripherals work with Windows 7, Windows 8 and Windows RT, though only "basic functionality" is provided when used with Windows RT.
Problems with Windows RT, it is now obvious, go beyond Ethernet dongles and I would be shocked if Microsoft Hardware are the only ones suffering. We have already heard Plugable, an adapter and peripherals company, complain about Microsoft and their demand for Plugable to pull Surface RT drivers from their website. I cannot see this being a few localized issues.
These are the problems you will experience with a platform where the owner has complete control. Imagine how bad Windows RT will be if Microsoft slips behind, again, in Internet Explorer development; the only browsers allowed must be Internet Explorer reskins. But I digress.
The Microsoft Sculpt Ergonomic Desktop is a mouse, keyboard, and number pad with a unique appearance. Non-uniform keys pushing upward to a split should conform to the hand of a typical home row typist. WASD gamers might as well stop reading by this point. Microsoft is not known for mechanical switches so I would expect this keyboard to be typical membrane-based activation.
Side-on shows off the depth better.
That said, most Microsoft peripherals I have used tends to keep up with mechanical in terms of durability and performance... except wired Xbox headsets. Those little turds snap within a matter of hours.
The mouse, on the other hand (literally), does not seem to include extra mouse buttons except for a dedicated Windows button. If you have not figured it out by now: gamers are not the target audience. It seems fairly standard otherwise, from a feature standpoint, although comfort and durability are the big deciding factors for many users which we are not in a position to give an honest opinion on.
Together, the devices are available within the week and retail for $129.95. The keyboard, separately, will be available in September for $80.95; the mouse, separately, will be available for $59.95. High price, but it might just be worth it for dedicated typists.
Subject: General Tech, Networking, Mobile | July 6, 2013 - 07:31 AM | Scott Michaud
Tagged: windows rt, Surface RT, reverse-consolitis
It is a good thing that Windows RT is not always online, because you would be pretty screwed if you did not have access to a wireless network. To compensate for a lack of ethernet, users can typically plug in a USB to wired internet dongle; this is even possible with consoles such as the Wii. Microsoft makes one such accessory for their line of Surface tablets.
Wow, if only my PC was as open as my console...
Paul Thurrott even tried a handful of third-party adapters to similar, depressing, results on both Windows RT RTM. While the ability to attach your device to a wired high-speed internet jack is niche nowadays, mostly for users of HD video conferencing and certain hotels, it highlights the gigantic problem with Windows RT and other consumer tablet OSes: there will be some things you wish that your device did that it simply will not be able to do.
Subject: Editorial, General Tech, Processors, Shows and Expos | March 20, 2013 - 10:26 PM | Scott Michaud
Tagged: windows rt, nvidia, GTC 2013
NVIDIA develops processors, but without an x86 license they are only able to power ARM-based operating systems. When it comes to Windows, that means Windows Phone or Windows RT. The latter segment of the market has disappointing sales according to multiple OEMs, which Microsoft blames them for, but the jolly green GPU company is not crying doomsday.
NVIDIA just skimming the Surface RT, they hope.
As reported by The Verge, NVIDIA CEO Jen-Hsun Huang was optimistic that Microsoft would eventually let Windows RT blossom. He noted how Microsoft very often "gets it right" at some point when they push an initiative. And it is true, Microsoft has a history of turning around perceived disasters across a variety of devices.
They also have a history of, as they call it, "knifing the baby."
I think there is a very real fear for some that Microsoft could consider Intel's latest offerings as good enough to stop pursuing ARM. Of course, the more the pursue ARM, the more their business model will rely upon the-interface-formerly-known-as-Metro and likely all of its certification politics. As such, I think it is safe to say that I am watching the industry teeter on a fence with a bear on one side and a pack of rabid dogs on the other. On the one hand, Microsoft jumping back to Intel would allow them to perpetuate the desktop and all of the openness it provides. On the other hand, even if they stick with Intel they likely will just kill the desktop anyway, for the sake of user confusion and the security benefits of cert. We might just have less processor manufacturers when they do that.
So it could be that NVIDIA is confident that Microsoft will push Windows RT, or it could be that NVIDIA is pushing Microsoft to continue to develop Windows RT. Frankly, I do not know which would be better... or more accurately, worse.
Subject: General Tech | January 15, 2013 - 02:55 PM | Tim Verry
Tagged: windows rt, microsoft, arm
One of the downsides to Microsoft’s ARM-powered Windows RT operating system is the lack of desktop applications. While Windows RT devices to retain the traditional Windows desktop, only Microsoft applications that come pre-packaged with Windows are allowed to run. Instead, Microsoft wants users to stick to Modern UI applications and the Windows Store to get new apps. (Granted, the ARM hardware powering these devices necessitates porting x86 desktop applications in order to run in the first place, but Windows RT locks out even recompiled apps).
Enthusiasts are working on changing that, however. A XDA Developers forum member known as Netham45 recently released a tool that allows users to run unsigned desktop applications on Windows RT. The new RT Jailbreak tool is a batch file that automates a hack discovered by another hacker known as clrokr.
The hack is currently only temporary, and needs to be redone after every computer restart. It does, however, allow Windows RT to run unsigned code on the desktop. After downloading the batch file, you run the runExploit.bat and follow the prompts. After it completes, you users can run recompiled desktop apps such as PuTTY, 7-zip, TightVNC, DOSBox, Quake 2, and more.
While it is not a permaent solution, it is a step in the right direction, and makes ARM-powered Windows RT devices a lot more interesting and useful to power users. For more information on the RT Jailbreak hack, and to grab the batch file to unlock your WinRT tablet, check out this forum thread on the XDA Developers website.
Subject: General Tech, Graphics Cards, Mobile, Shows and Expos | January 7, 2013 - 05:42 PM | Scott Michaud
Tagged: CES, ces 2013, nvidia, windows rt
It is the day after the NVIDIA keynote and the Tegra 4 floodgates are open. Sure, the rumors were fairly accurate, but I guess speculation waits for a solid basis to be believable.
The Tegra 4 marries 72 of the expected GPU cores with four… “plus one” as the bonus core is present although 4+1 branding does not seem to be… ARM Cortex-A15 cores. This push to an A15-based design provides a significant performance increase over Tegra 3. Another interesting feature is the ability to transmit 4K video should you have a suitable source or the rendered application can support 4K at a suitable framerate. You can then add in Icera’s LTE modem which is interesting in its own right to see a compelling product.
Jen-Hsun spent about as much time justifying the need for speed as he did hyping its performance. Photographers, particularly those who wish to dabble with HDR, are able to use the Tegra 4 to vastly increase the speed of image processing at the time of taking the shot. Tonal mapping for an HDR image will take just 200ms of processing which allows HDR to be used along with burst mode and a flash.
Paul Thurrott over at the Supersite for Windows ponders whether this was Microsoft’s vision for Windows RT. He wonders whether Microsoft will try to take a mulligan on the first generation similar to Windows Phone 7-based devices led us to Windows Phone 8. At the same point, the weight which the Surface was designed to bare is pretty immense if it was just designed to buckle to Tegra 4. I would not put it past Microsoft although the Surface does not strike me as a product designed to have a doughy half-baked middle -- despite what actually shipped.
PC World also notes how Qualcomm continues to improve their products and have just recently transitioned to a 28nm process for the Snapdragon S4. Qualcomm is a giant and even then there is also Samsung to contend with in the ARM space -- then you consider x86 brings at least Intel to the game with its massive advantage in legacy software that are usually not abstracted by a platform-independent runtime layer.
PC Perspective's CES 2013 coverage is sponsored by AMD.
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Subject: Editorial, General Tech, Systems, Mobile | November 13, 2012 - 03:02 AM | Scott Michaud
Tagged: windows rt, windows 8, microsoft
Our regular viewers know that I am not too fond of Microsoft’s recent vision; I will get that out of the way right at the start. I am a major proponent of open platforms for uncensored art with perpetual support and Windows 8 shows all the signs of Microsoft turning its back on that ideology.
And Steven Sinofsky, the one who allegedly came up with that vision, is no longer with Microsoft: effective immediately.
Not much in the line of reasoning is known about why Steven Sinofsky parted ways with his long-term career as head of Windows division. He had a clear and concise vision for his products and it was evident both in Windows 7 and in Windows RT.
Rumors exist that his fellow executives were not on pleasant terms with him. All Things D claims to have sources which suggest that his colleagues were unhappy with his conduct in terms of collaboration.
But that is all hearsay.
What it means for Microsoft is that the face that set sail is no longer at the helm. Microsoft could revert back to their twitchy attempts to appease everyone and abandon their vision. On the other hand it is entirely possible that the company could continue off on the last bearing set by Sinofsky.
No-one knows, but I stand behind my previous assertions that the PC industry will get messy in the next few years as things boil over at Microsoft.
Subject: Mobile | October 28, 2012 - 07:59 AM | Tim Verry
Tagged: windows rt, tablet, nec lavie y, nec, ideapad yoga
NEC, a Japanese IT services and products company, is launching a convertible laptop similar to the Yoga 11 from Lenovo that we covered previously. The NEC LaVie Y is an 11” laptop that incorporates Lenovo’s 360” hinge to allow it to transform into slat mode when folded down or operate as a traditional laptop. The device measures 298 x 204 x 15.6 mm when it the screen is folded down over the keyboard. Further, it weighs in at 1.24 kg, or approximately 2.7 pounds.
Similarly to the Lenovo Yoga 11, the LaVie Y will run Microsoft’s Windows RT operating system. The convertible notebook will be powered by an Nvidia Tegra 3 system on a chip (SoC) along with 2GB of RAM, and a 64GB SSD. NEC has reportedly packed a decent-sized batttery as well, as the company is claiming up to 8 hours of use.
Wireless connectivity options include 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.0. External I/O ports include USB 2.0, a 5-in-1 card reader, and HDMI output. Other specifications include an 11.6” touchscreen display with a resolution of 1366x768, a full QWERTY keyboard, and a touchpad. A 1.3 megapixel webcam is nestled above the display as well. The device comes in a two-tone color scheme: black for the keyboard and display bezel, and a silver color for the hinge and bottom of the tablet.
According to Engadget, the LaVie Y will be available for purchase on November 22nd, and the US pricing would be close to $1,136 should you import it. Needless to say, many Americans will want to wait it out for the Lenovo Yoga 11 which should be cheaper in the United States. For readers in Japan however, this might be worth checking out if you are into the Yoga-like form factor!
Read more about Windows RT tablets at PC Perspective