Is Valve’s SteamBox a contender for the next developer workstation?

Valve might be positioned to do to Macintosh hardware what the Mac did to the PC market over a decade ago.

A scenario started playing through my head the other day. In the late 1990s, Apple looked dead. Then they released OS X, plus very cool shiny hardware. That put Apple back in the game and gave them the life they needed to bring about the iPod, etc. Apple’s revival didn’t come from iPods and iPhones; it came because they made a deep connection to the software developers. In 2000, if you went to a developer conference, everyone was carrying some kind of PC laptop, probably running some version of Windows, possibly Linux. But almost overnight that changed, and it changed completely. By 2003, any self-respecting developer was carrying a MacBook, preferably the one the size of a small aircraft carrier. Apple did an undeniably brilliant job of growing this beachhead among the developer community into a dominant brand. Everyone wanted what the cool kids had. Apple had a winning product: they had the most beautiful version of Unix ever, with a user interface that beat anything that had ever appeared on Linux or Windows.

But now, Apple is looking more and more hostile to the developer community that enabled their revival. OS X is evolving into a slightly more capable version of iOS, and we’re all dreading the day when the only way we can compile and install our own software is by using Apple’s proprietary tools and going through the App Store. If you look closely at Apple’s work, it’s clear where they’re putting the effort: there’s a race condition in basic text editing (TextEdit, Mail, etc.) that’s been around since at least OS X 10.6, and I suspect goes all the way back to 10.1. It’s not something arcane that only crops up in strange circumstances; I run into it every day (and on several different machines). And that’s only the start.

I know loads of developers who are saying, “yeah, I’m assuming I’ll be off Apple in a few years.” But that’s a problem: it’s one thing to talk about leaving Apple; it’s something completely different to know where you’re going. Developers aren’t going to run back to Microsoft; they might get somewhere with Google’s ChromeOS cloud vision (it’s a powerful vision, but I’m not yet ready to sign up for it), though that begs the question of how to do bread-and-butter enterprise backend work. The Linux community seems to have settled into unproductive infighting between Canonical and the rest of the world. Dell and HP got nothin’. But looking back at what Apple did over a decade ago: is there anyone who can put together both very cool hardware and a cool operating system for software developers?

Just before Christmas, an answer occurred to me — and it came completely out of left field. A few months ago, Valve started looking for beta testers for their new SteamBox gaming computer. (I don’t have one.) According to several teardowns, the SteamBox is flexible and expandable, a quality that’s been notably absent from recent Apple hardware. Valve has also been making noise about SteamOS, a Linux distribution tailored to running games. And then it hit me: Valve has both the vision and the technical chops needed to build really cool, high-performance hardware and package it with a winning operating system.

Could Valve do to Macintosh hardware what the Mac did to the PC market over a decade ago? I think they could. Do they want to? I have no idea. The SteamBox is currently a desktop machine, and a developer-oriented product line must include a laptop. There’s no sign that Valve is thinking about laptops, nor do they make sense in the high-performance gaming world. For that matter, a hot desktop box stuffed full of GPUs may not make much sense either, unless you’re doing a lot of data analysis. SteamOS has a cool user interface, but it’s tuned to gaming, not to software development. If you want a developer desktop, SteamOS ships with Gnome 3 Shell and Gnome Classic, neither of which represents a great leap forward in user experience. And I don’t see any sign that Valve is interested in rethinking the developer desktop.

So, yes, if you want to call this fantasy, pie-in-the-sky thinking, I’m guilty as charged. If you think the near-term future of software development will be based on some platform other than the laptop/desktop, I wish I could agree. All these “ifs” aside: if I were Apple, I would be looking over my shoulder. At Valve.

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  • Steve McNally

    One initial issue: it would be too easy to get distracted by the proximity of quality gameplay to get solid work done.

    Another: If you’re not in it to dev for Steam products, what’s in it for Valve to provide you a workstation? I don’t think an extra few thousand box sales and the added exposure make it worth their attention.

    0th: do you really foresee a scenario where Apple actively prevent me from using GNU tools, other compilers, TextWrangler, git/svn, and other dev tools?

    • Nuno Ferreira

      Yes. By stop producing computers (I mean laptops and desktops) and concentrate on other on PC devices like phones, tablets, media boxes, etc.

  • nbevans

    MacBooks were not popular with self-respecting developers in 2003. They weren’t even Intel chips back then! No virtualisation/Parallels either, so couldn’t even run Visual Studio!

    • rbanffy

      Why would a self-respecting developer want to run Visual Studio in 2003? To write .NET code to run on Windows servers?

      • nbevans

        Correct. Or VC++… Windows was huge back then.

  • guest_anon

    Misconceptions the author appears to be under:

    1.)

    Valve are releasing hardware. They are not, and do not plan to.

    2.)

    Laptop steam boxes will come in the future. This makes absolutely no sense, the entire purpose of SteamOS is big picture mode for TV gaming. It’s not even meant for desktop gaming, yet alone on-the-move gaming.

    3.)
    Ironic that in his discussion of where Mac users might flee to he says
    “Dell and HP got nothin’.” when one of those companies is creating one
    of the first steam boxes which Valve announced on Monday (Dell)

    4.)
    Also ironic that in that same paragraph he dismisses Linux, without
    realizing that if you close the gaming part of a steam box all that’s
    left is linux. Not even a new OS based on a linux kernel, just linux.

    Just a really poor article which didn’t need to be written.

  • guest_anon

    Misconceptions the author appears to be under:

    1.) Valve are releasing hardware. They are not, and do not plan to.

    2.) Laptop steam boxes will come in the future. This makes absolutely no sense, the entire purpose of SteamOS is big picture mode for TV gaming. It’s not even meant for desktop gaming, yet alone on-the-move gaming.

    3.)
    Ironic that in his discussion of where Mac users might flee to he says
    “Dell and HP got nothin’.” when one of those companies is creating one
    of the first steam boxes which Valve announced on Monday (Dell)

    4.)
    Also ironic that in that same paragraph he dismisses Linux, without
    realising that if you close the gaming part of a steam box all that’s
    left is linux. Not even a new OS based on a linux kernel, just linux.

    Just a really poor article which didn’t need to be written.

  • George L

    One word: Macbook

    Another linux distribution is not going to change the existing dynamic, and new, well-built desktops or laptops will not either.

    There are two primary reasons many developers use Macs:
    1. Macbook Pros- still the best laptops that run Unix (and better than most windows laptops)
    2. iOS Development- still very important any way you slice it, and it will only ever happen on a mac.

    Dell already makes developer oriented laptops with a well supported linux distribution: Ubuntu. It still has not changed the dynamic of reasons 1 and 2 for using a macbook.

    • Nuno Ferreira

      Except Ubuntu will not ever play triple A games like a PS4, and a SteamOS machine will certainly will.
      The only reason I’m sticking to Windows so far was PC – gaming, everything else I can do better on non-Windows OS.
      If a OS/Hardware package come along that allows me to to both (game and dev) brilliantly, that’s really a no-brainer.

      • George L

        I completely agree. Especially if SteamOS is able to add more stability and polish to the desktop linux experience (i.e. predictable upgrading).

        Again, such a machine might not replace a macbook, for the reasons I stated before, but it would easily replace a windows desktop.

  • PaulTopping

    Don’t know about SteamBox but Apple needs to allow programming in languages other than ObjectiveC.

    • Obbie Z

      They do.

      C, C++ and Java are all supported.

      • PaulTopping

        Not very well. For C++ one has use Objective C++ to create a layer between the C++ and the OS APIs. Apple should create this layer for us. This is the approach Microsoft is now taking. They have code-generation technology that projects the OS APIs into several languages. New languages can be added by simply creating a new language-specific code generator. These things will be done by Microsoft or language specialists, not the rank-and-file app developers.

        I am not trying to push Microsoft over Apple here. IMHO, Microsoft should have introduced this technology 15 years ago instead of going the .NET route (or in addition). I’m just saying that Apple should do something similar.

        • Idon’t Know

          Let’s pretend like you know what you are talking about..and you don’t…Apple has zero reason to get off Objective C. It’s not a difficult transition for experienced developers and they are flocking to it to write iOS apps.
          Using .Net as an example is laughable btw. One of these things is not like, or used for, the same thing as the other.

          • PaulTopping

            Sorry, you got it all wrong. My company has been developing for Macs since 1986. I didn’t equate .NET to Objective C but said that Microsoft should not have spent so much time working on it. My mention of .NET had nothing to do with my point. Sorry for misleading you. I didn’t suggest that Apple “get off Objective C” but that they provide better support for other languages. I didn’t suggest people weren’t “flocking to write iOS apps”. My suggestion has a lot to do with not wanting to rewrite my existing code in Objective C or deal with Apple’s lousy C++ support. I have nothing against new iOS developers learning Objective C. More power to them.

          • guest_anon

            @PaulTopping is quite right here. Apple support of other languages is…terrible…to say the least, especially for Java. First, they don’t even use the Oracle version of Java..they release their own version with outdated security because they do not keep it updated at all (last I checked they hadn’t even released a stable version of Java 7). I took an extremely vanilla Java application and it was an absolute pain to get anything remotely working on Mac.

            Obj-C isn’t difficult to learn, yes, but that’s not even remotely the point he was making. Having to completely re-write applications to a foreign language to work on another platform is a huge time/money investment for any company, and Apple could make devs lives much easier in this case but they choose not to. So keep your outburst of ignorance to yourself.

      • George L

        Don’t forget compiling apps written in C# using MonoTouch etc.

    • Idon’t Know

      Not only do you not know about SteamBox you don’t know about Apple development either.

  • ultra_violet

    This is a minor nitpick, but Apple didn’t start offering the MacBook line until 2006. In 2003 most people would have been using a PowerPC based iBook.

  • KathyLean00

    */…If you make less than $5000 a month you need to read this ­D­ℴ­w­1­2­­.­­ℂ­­o­ℳ
    This is a minor nitpick, but Apple didn’t start offering the MacBook
    line until 2006. In 2003 most people would have been using a PowerPC
    based iBook.

  • Idon’t Know

    Well that was a ridiculous article. I’ve been using Macs since 1984 and am a very experienced IT Architect. i also know Linux quite well and am interested in getting a Steam Box.
    Your assertion that OS X is evolving into iOS is silly. A few iOS like features that you can use or not use don’t equal that.
    What developers are assuming they will be “off Apple” in a few years? Weird.
    The rest of this about hardware is so nonsensical it’s not worth commenting further.

  • Idon’t Know

    I had to laugh out loud reading the last sentence. Right…

    • rick

      no

  • jcamachott

    “By 2003, any self-respecting developer was carrying a MacBook”…..oh really? really? You know even today a lot of developers still prefer to use Windows. The best OS for a particular developer has always been a subjective choice.

    • Alex Kinnee

      Don’t forget Linux

  • newz2000

    Don’t forget that about a year ago Valve started including productivity software in its store as well. By the way, the MacBook Pro was launched in 2006. :-)