macOS alternatives: What about SteamOS?

Where to go next

Center of the Milky Way is licensed under the Creative Commons Zero Licence

Judging from the types of articles that are popping up on Hacker News, and the comments in the related threads, it looks like Apple’s October 27 Mac event was a watershed moment for the platform — or perhaps “Waterloo moment” would be a better characterization.

The devs and creative types who rely on the Mac for their livelihoods heaved a collective sigh of disappointed resignation in the aftermath of that event, as the sad truth that they’ve been in denial about was finally dragged out into the open by Tim Cook himself: when you buy a Mac, you’re buying into a small and dwindling side project from the world’s biggest smartphone and tablet maker.

I’m not interested in debating the above. If you disagree, that’s fine. But for me and many others, “the Mac” as both an everyday work machine and a lofty ideal, is now publicly on life support. The illustrious machine will now live out its days in hospice until it finally expires and iOS takes its place. What I care about at this point is, what’s next?

There Is Another

Where will Mac users go, once macOS is killed off like a legacy port? Apple seems to assume we’ll all just move to iOS, and no doubt many of us will. But many of us won’t. I read a lot of people who claim that Windows is the Next Big Thing for the Starbucks set. This is entirely possible given that it runs Linux and seems to be growing progressively less terrible under Satya Nadella’s stewardship. (And have you seen that Surface Studio video? Wow. I imagine the poltergeist of Dead Steve Jobs has just completely lost it and is throwing things around Apple HQ.)

But I, for one, am not so eager to go back to a platform that I haven’t loved since the Windows NT days. So I’ve been thinking, what if there were a Linux flavor out there that already has the stuff that Linux distros typically lack — that’s strong where most Linux offerings are weak. I’m thinking of an OS with the following:

  1. A functioning app store that's already populated with paid apps from both indie devs and big companies
  2. Excellent driver support
  3. A cutting-edge, high-performance graphics stack
  4. A vast library of games, many from top-tier studios

That Linux OS actually does exist in the form of Valve’s SteamOS, and thus I’ve been pondering its potential as an OS X successor.

Now, I realize that SteamOS has a long way to go before it’s even ready to take over the living room, much less the desktop. So far, the project has been far from a commercial success. However, when I look out across the terrain of open-source *NIX OS projects, and I think about the kinds of things that a Mac successor would need and want, I keep coming back to SteamOS. Right now it’s the most promising basis on which to build a consumer- and developer-friendly OS with the performance that creative professionals need.

SteamBook? Shut Up and Take My Bitcoin

To borrow a page from Cringely’s playbook and throw out my own harebrained business scheme, there are plenty of hardware makers, especially in Asia, who are dedicated to the PC and would love to move into the gap that Apple is leaving, but unfortunately they’re stuck with either Windows or Linux as OS offerings. Valve is a private company, and could be snapped up by any one of a number of existing players who want to “own the whole widget.”

Or, Valve itself could take a stab at moving in on the Mac by partnering with an OEM and building out its hardware division.

Obviously, I’m just spitballing here, and the odds are that reality will play out something like the following: 1) many folks will grudgingly move over to iOS, 2) creative pros who need real PCs will migrate to Windows, and some of them will even find it pleasant to use, and 3) SteamOS will flop because it doesn’t offer anything you can’t already get on Windows, and Microsoft will finally unsuck Windows to the point that gamers no longer really care enough to actively avoid the platform.

But still, if it had a nice UI and a nascent but growing indie dev community composed of Mac app developer refugees, I’d sure as heck love to try out a SteamBook.

Photo of Jon Stokes

Jon is a founder of Ars Technica, and a former Wired editor. When he’s not developing code for Collective Idea clients, he still keeps his foot in the content world via freelancing and the occasional op-ed.

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  1. matt@sturgeon.me.uk
    Matt
    November 03, 2016 at 14:34 PM

    If you want the Linux equivalent of a Mac, I’d suggest looking into companies like System 76 who make hardware designed for a given Linux distro (usually Ubuntu).

    If you install Steam on laptop sold with Ubuntu, all your boxed would be ticked IMO

  2. June 11, 2017 at 14:50 PM

    Hey Jon - Apple seems to have infused the Mac with some mojo, and the tech press, for once, seems to be excited about the platform again. On balance, what’s your take on the Mac platform (macOS and hardware) post 06.05.17?