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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What Charles Windsor’s garden reveals about the future of the British monarchy

As an open-minded republican, two things struck me. 

First we are told that the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, has lost his battle for a “soft” Brexit. In a joint article, he and the International Trade Secretary, Liam Fox, the hardest of the ministerial Brexiteers, seem to agree that the UK will leave the European customs union in 2019. Then we get a reverse ferret. Hammond will go for a softish Brexit, after all. A government paper states that the UK will seek a “temporary customs union” in the “transition period” that, it hopes, will follow Brexit.

All this is a taste of things to come. We shall see many more instances of hard and soft Brexiteers celebrating victory or shrieking about betrayal. We shall also see UK and EU leaders storming out of talks, only to return to negotiations a few days later. My advice is to ignore it all until Friday 29 March 2019, when UK and EU leaders will emerge from all-night talks to announce a final, impenetrable fudge.

Lessons not learned

What you should not ignore is the scandal over Learndirect, the country’s largest adult training and apprenticeships provider. An Ofsted report states that a third of its apprentices receive none of the off-the-job training required. In a random sample, it found no evidence of learning plans.

Labour started Learndirect in 2000 as a charitable trust controlled by the Department for Education. It was sold to the private equity arm of Lloyds Bank in 2011 but remains largely reliant on public money (£158m in 2016-17). Since privatisation, 84 per cent of its cash has gone on management fees, interest payments and shareholder dividends. It spent £504,000 on sponsoring the Marussia Formula One team in an attempt to reach “our core customer group… in a new and exciting way”. The apprentices’ success rate fell from 67.5 per cent before privatisation to 57.8 per cent now.

This episode tells us that, however the Brexit process is going, Britain’s problems remain unchanged. Too many services are in the hands of greedy, incompetent private firms, and we are no closer to developing a skilled workforce. We only know about Learndirect’s failure because the company’s attempt to prevent Ofsted publishing its report was, after ten weeks of legal wrangling, overthrown in the courts.

A lot of hot air

Immediately after the Paris climate change accord in 2015, I expressed doubts about how each country’s emissions could be monitored and targets enforced. Now a BBC Radio 4 investigation finds that climate-warming gases emitted into the atmosphere far exceed those declared under the agreement. For example, declarations of methane emissions from livestock in India are subject to 50 per cent uncertainty, and those in Russia to 30-40 per cent uncertainty. One region in northern Italy, according to Swiss scientists, emits at least six times more climate-warming gases than are officially admitted. Remember this when you next hear politicians proclaiming that, after long and arduous negotiations, they have achieved a great victory.

Come rain or come shine

Climate change, scientists insist, is not the same thing as changes in the weather but writing about it brings me naturally to Britain’s wet August and newspaper articles headlined “Whatever happened to the sunny Augusts of our childhood?” and so on. The Daily Mail had one in which the writer recalled not a “single rainy day” from his family holidays in Folkestone. This, as he explained, is the result of what psychologists call “fading affect bias”, which causes our brains to hold positive memories longer than negative ones.

My brain is apparently atypical. I recall constant frustration as attempts to watch or play cricket were interrupted by rain. I remember sheltering indoors on family holidays with card games and books. My life, it seems, began, along with sunshine, when I left home for university at 18. Do psychologists have a name for my condition?

High and dry

Being an open-minded republican, I bought my wife, a keen gardener, an escorted tour of the gardens at Highgrove, the private residence of the man I call Charles Windsor, for her birthday. We went there this month during a break in the Cotswolds. The gardens are in parts too fussy, rather like its owner, but they are varied, colourful and hugely enjoyable. Two things struck me. First, the gardens of the elite were once designed to showcase the owner’s wealth and status, with the eye drawn to the grandeur of the mansion. Highgrove’s garden is designed for privacy, with many features intended to protect royalty from the prying public and particularly the press photographers’ long lenses. Second, our guide, pointing out what the owner had planted and designed, referred throughout to “His Royal Highness”, never “Charles”. I am pondering what these observations mean for the monarchy and its future.

Sympathy for the devil

Before leaving for the Cotswolds, we went to the Almeida Theatre in north London to see Ink, featuring Rupert Murdoch’s relaunch of the Sun in 1969. Many accounts of Murdoch  portray him as a power-crazed monster and his tabloid hacks as amoral reptiles. Ink is far more nuanced. It shows Murdoch as a mixture of diffidence, charm and menace, in love with newspapers and determined to blow apart a complacent,
paternalistic British establishment.

You may think that he and the Sun had a permanently coarsening effect on public life and culture, and I would largely agree. But he was also, in his own way, a 1960s figure and his Sun, with its demonic energy, was as typical a product of that decade as the Beatles’ songs. The play strengthened my hunch that its author, James Graham, who also wrote This House, set in the parliamentary whips’ offices during the 1970s, will eventually be ranked as the century’s first great playwright.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear