Valve on Linux
Valve Corporation, a video game maker based in Bellevue Washington, has rejected Windows 8 and is now promoting Ubuntu Linux. It will come as no news to most of the League, but Valve Corporation created some of the most important first-person shooters games, including the venerable Half-Life. According to Valve co-founder and chief executive Gabe Newell:
“I think Windows 8 is a catastrophe for everyone in the PC space. I think we’ll lose some of the top-tier PC/OEMs, who will exit the market. I think margins will be destroyed for a bunch of people. If that’s true, then it will be good to have alternatives to hedge against that eventuality.”
Valve provides Steam, a software service for sales, distribution, rights management and an open applications programming interface for the gaming world, linking developers to gamers and gamers to each other. It provides a host of useful utilities. In December of last year, Steam revealed a beta port for Linux, targeting Ubuntu, but the Steam beta is able to run on other distros with a modicum of installation effort.
Valve is involved in several hardware projects including the much ballyhooed Piston Box, apparently running Linux.
Newell talked about supporting the development of “good/better/best” tiers of hardware, ranging from low-cost streaming solutions to “whatever those guys want to manufacture,” even when they don’t necessarily jibe with what Valve thinks is best. “It’s been surprisingly difficult when we say to people, ‘Don’t put an optical media drive in there,’ and they put an optical media drive in there and you’re like, ‘That makes it hotter, that makes it more expensive, and it makes the box bigger.’ Go ahead,” he said.
Valve, for its part, is focused on building a system “that’s quiet and focuses on high performance,” he continued. “We’ll come out with our own [system] and we’ll sell it to consumers by ourselves. That’ll be a Linux box, [and] if you want to install Windows you can. We’re not going to make it hard. This is not some locked box by any stretch of the imagination. We also think that a controller that has higher precision and lower latency is another interesting thing to have.”
I am no technology zealot. Linux has its problems, Lord knows. But it’s like a reliable old truck. It might not be as pretty as the Apple offerings or as widely-accepted as Microsoft’s offerings but it’s like a good woman (or man, whatever your predisposition in partners might be) – more than merely pretty. And like that reliable old truck or that good woman, sometimes Linux’s failures require some diagnosis and patience. But in its own humble way, Linux has come to dominate the world behind the curtains, where utility and reliability and security matter more than good looks, where a user can actually communicate with the operating system with text and not just button clicks. Once things are running in Linux, they stay running.
Linux arose from Unix, a profoundly democratic operating system capable of supporting many users through frugal use of system resources. Over time, through the efforts of many contributors both corporate and private, Linux has become what it is today. Linux has faded into the background, ubiquitous and amorphous. It never attempted to be the Corporate Standard. It just became a standard, mostly by staying out of sight. Its flexibility allow Linux to be tuned to many different tasks, from low-latency realtime applications to plain-jane LAMP stacks so often seen running websites, to embedded software — it’s everywhere.
Valve, like Linux itself, was never a Traditional Company. There are no bosses. It’s a software company run like – well – a software company. Linux has one boss, Linus Torvalds and a handful of committers. At Valve, well, again, Gabe Newell in his own words:
Why did you create a workplace with no managers?
I was at Microsoft (MSFT) for 13 years and one of the things I did was go out and talk to customers. I ended up being exposed to a bunch of different organizations that had very different process models. As a result, I ended up thinking about organizational choices more than I probably would otherwise. It became pretty obvious that different types of organizations were good at different kinds of things.
When we started Valve [in 1996], we thought about what the company needed to be good at. We realized that here, our job was to create things that hadn’t existed before. Managers are good at institutionalizing procedures, but in our line of work that’s not always good. Sometimes the skills in one generation of product are irrelevant to the skills in another generation. Our industry is in such technological, design, and artistic flux that we need somebody who can recognize that. It’s pretty rare for someone to be in a lead role on two consecutive projects.
Why is that?
The terminology we use internally is “individual” and “group” contribution skills. A group contributor’s job is to help other people be more productive, and in doing that you sacrifice some of your own productivity. It’s a higher-stress job and you get interrupted a lot more. People will do that for one project. They’ll say, “I really want to do this game,” and everyone will say, “Ha, ha, ha, you’re stuck with it now.” At the end of the project they’re like, “Gee, that was really interesting, but I want to go back and work individually on the next thing.” Some of the highest-compensated people at the company are relatively pure individual contributors.
Hurray for Valve. They’ve cut the Gordian Knot of effective digital rights management on Linux. By porting Steam to Linux, they’ve finally brought games to Linux, the last hurdle to consumer acceptance of the Linux platform. Sure, Steam is only in beta just now. Only a handful of games have been released. But it’s a giant step forward for Linux.
It may be premature to declare this move the last straw for Microsoft’s long hegemony but if Valve rejects Windows 8, the handwriting is on the wall: Mene Mene Tekel Upharsin, thou hast been weighed in the balances and found wanting.