Thursday, 1 April 2010

Why Steam on the Mac is a big deal, and not only for gamers

On March 8th, 2010, Valve announced that it will port its Steam content delivery framework on the Mac, along with its flagship games. The gaming community erupted with joy, this would surely open the floodgates for the native game-deprived Mac users.

Most of the comments I saw were only focusing on how Valve's great games are coming to the Mac and how Steam will drive other major game developers to properly port their games for the Mac. Apart from the obvious gaming benefits, Steam on the Mac is a Big Fucking Deal for another reason.

Right now Steam commands approximately 70% of the general digital distribution market. It's safe to say that Steam is one of the biggest digital software distribution channels on the PC, regardless of the type of software (games VS non-games). It currently only serves games but there's no technical reason why it could not deliver applications as well. (I'm willing to bet that in the future Steam will start distributing "regular" software as well.)

While Steam is one of the biggest application stores, there's no doubt which is THE biggest. Apple's App Store for the iPhone, the iPod Touch and the iPad of course.

The iPhone is a revolutionary device and part of its success must be attributed to the App Store that provides it with software. The close synergy of the App Store with the iPhone makes it extremely easy to acquire new software and also keep your current software up to date. This has led to some astronomical download figures for the App Store.

I don't think Apple would mind moving the Mac to a similar mode for general software distribution. Judging by the success of the App Store, I don't think the public would mind either. Generally speaking I wouldn't mind either given the benefits it has.

The App Store is a curated source of software. Getting an app from the App Store guarantees that it will not harm your data nor the functionality of your device. It might feel a little big-brotherish at times, but overall it's much easier and simpler to deal with applications on the iPhone than it is on a regular PC or a Mac. It also handles software updates with the same ease. Forcing updates down users' throats is not the way to do it, but relying on them to update their apps is futile too. The App Store handles that automatically.

There are issues with the App Store. The main one is the double edged sword of the central channel approach. It can guard you against mishaps, but it is limiting in that if you can't get something through the App Store, then you cannot get it at all via normal means.

The reason why this hasn't pushed users away from the App Store is two-fold. While there have been numerous cries from tech journalists and developers about this or that case of Apple's mistreatment of an app, the general public was not affected in any serious manner. On the other hand, if you don't like the App Store, the only way to not deal with it is to not deal with the iPhone at all. And exactly because the overall iPhone experience is very pleasant, people do not mind the minor negative issues that the App Store represents. They don't mind because the alternative is to not have the iPhone at all.

From Apple's point of view the App Store has been a tremendous success. This is why they are using it with the iPad, their next step in computer evolution. I'm sure Apple would like to switch the Mac to the App Store model too. Given the overall positive experience of the App Store for the public, I think it is something possible to achieve. Possible, but difficult for a number of reasons.

The App Store's success is partly because this is how things always were on the iPhone. The App Store, with all its downsides, is how things always worked on the iPhone from day one. There's nothing else to compare it to. Things are very different on the Mac. The Mac is still going by the old, Wild West model: It's you that has to do the app hunting, it's you that has to do the app installing, and it's you that does the maintaining and updating. This is how things always were and it's going to be very tough to change that.

There are bits and pieces already in place that when properly combined could lead to something similar to a Mac App Store. There's an entry called "Mac OS X Software..." in the Apple menu in Mac OS X that leads to a section in Apple's site with Apple-approved software. There's the Software Update application that keeps the OS's components updated. It's easy to see these two combined into an App Store interface.

The advantages of an App Store for Apple would be numerous. It would provide a revenue stream. It would simplify system management through centralized distribution of updates. Overall it would enhance the user experience by removing the chores of installing third party applications. An App Store would also benefit the developers since it blocks piracy.

Apple could achieve that if it acted smoothly and carefully at first. Not with an all-at-once switch, just by starting to suggest this new alternative method as the preferred way of handling applications. This new method which is also unique, this is a crucial part of the approach. By offering a new method that is also unique, makes it easy for users to accept this as the only way in the future. "The ease of the iPhone and your iPad, on your Mac!"

The above scenario will be easier if Apple's App Store was the only new method to handle apps. This is where Valve's Steam channel comes into play. Steam is ready now. It's been tried and proved on the Windows platform and it is coming on the Mac really soon. Judging by the success on Windows, I believe that it will succeed on the Mac too. I also believe that Valve with expand Steam into non-gaming applications. Either way, I think Steam is poised to become a big (if not the biggest) digital distribution channel for applications on the Mac.

I'm not saying that Apple is definitely going to down that road. It's not impossible though, given the advantages. What the introduction of Steam does is to create a safety net, a regulating force if you want.

In addition to this, Valve is different from Apple on a more fundamental level. Valve is a third party entity regarding the OS (any OS, either OS X or Windows). This means that Steam is by definition an alternative option that works in parallel to how you usually install software on your machine. The way Steam works right now on Windows, you can either install a game via a DVD or you can download it through Steam. It does not necessarily change the way you were doing things. It complements it by providing an alternative way. Because Apple develops its own OS, it has the ability if it wants to fundamentally change how applications are installed. Having Steam as a precedent on the system, makes it more difficult for Apple to change anything it wishes however it pleases.

I think that centralized application management is the way to the future. The pitfall to this is having only one way of getting applications on your system. I see Valve's move with Steam as one way to avoid getting locked in a situation where the only way to get applications on your Mac is through Apple.