Valve panics as Windows 8 prepares to drink Steam's milkshake

Platform owners gear up to leverage their power.

Gabe Newell, the auteur head of Valve, has threatened to move his company's digital distribution platform, Steam, to Linux in response to the locked-down nature of Windows 8. Newell called the new release "a catastrophe for everyone in the PC space", which would lead to several hardware manufacturers leaving the market.

Ars Technica's Peter Bright reports:

He attributed Valve's success to the PC's open nature, saying that the company "wouldn't exist" without either the PC or "the openness of the platform." That openness is under threat, though. Newell argues that there is a "strong temptation" to close the platform, because the platform's developers "look at what they can accomplish when they limit the competitors’ access to the platform, and they say 'That's really exciting.'"

But it's not just the "locked down" nature of the platform that scares Newell. His real concern is what Microsoft is doing with Xbox Live integration. If you download a game from the Windows 8 app store – and only from the Windows 8 app store – you get achievements, access to your friend list, and other perks that come with Microsoft's online gaming service. Steam, Valve's own app store and a tidy little earner, may find it difficult to compete. A similar squeeze is happening on the Mac, where Apple's App Store has, from yesterday, integration with their Game Centre service.

The threat to move to Linux also has a side-benefit for Valve. Their Linux client, like much on the platform, is community-developed. Dangling the carrot of more games being made available is likely to motivate that community to put extra effort into the project, and that effort will both improve the Linux client and, far more importantly, improve the Mac OS X client, which runs on the same architecture.

The problem facing Valve is similar to that facing Netflix: they are a middleman in a world which is fast doing away with them. Matt Yglesias details the problems faced by the movie streaming service:

My wife are streaming-only Netflix customers and we love it and use it all the time. But the reason we use it is that it has a lot of content that we like. But it's really not clear why this should be the case. Apple makes the box we use to facilitate streaming video, Comcast owns the pipes along which the video streams, and various production companies own the copyrights to the content we stream. Netflix has basically no leverage point in this battle. Right now it has the rights to a fair amount of content that I want to watch, but I see no reason for confidence that they'll be able to continue securing those rights in the long term.

Valve isn't in quite such a pickle. They are still an extremely popular developer, and while Steam is required for Team Fortress 2 and CounterStrike: Source, it will remain installed on a large number of gaming PCs. But the idea that, in the long term, it will carry on selling games from competing publishers seems unlikely. The two end games seem to be publisher-level fragmentation, or platform-level monopolisation.

The front page of Steam.

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.