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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The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.