Will Steam Power Make the Mac a Gamer-Friendly Option?

Valve is bringing its popular Steam platform to the Mac. If you’re not familiar with Steam, it’s the super popular digital store front for Valve and its big hits like the Half Life franchise and Portal (the game where we all learned a very valuable lesson about cake.)

This in itself is very cool if you’re a Mac owner. It’s even cooler if you’re a “switcher” who has missed playing games on the PC for years and even though it’s awesome and everything, that Xbox 360 sitting next to your TV just isn’t the same. I mean, the Mac hasn’t really ever had a universe of gaming options to choose from… I mean, there’s always been Photoshop.

So there are going to be more games on the Mac, I’m sure if you’re not jumping up and down excitedly then you’re saying, “ok, so what?” What this really symbolizes isn’t just more games on the Mac, but it’s the eventual realization of the direction Apple set in 2007 at their World Wide Developer Conference (WWDC)  when they paraded Electronic Arts, the largest game publishing company ever and John Carmack of iD, a legend in the world of game design, on stage talking about bringing gaming to the then-new Intel Macs.

The message wasn’t just about gaming though. The message was simple, “Apple products are the same as your PC technology-wise, we just design them for a better user experience. We’re going to take some market share now.” And they have…sort of. In 2006, before they released the first Intel Macs (the iMac and the Macbook Pro), Apple accounted for about 5.8% of desktop and notebook sales. Now they’re at 10.41%, no small feat in only 4 years.

Steam coming to OS X is the first sign that companies that only a few years ago were saying things like “we’d love to make our product for all those mac users out there, but there just aren’t enough of them to justify the cost” have changed their tune. And as the Mac becomes a more complete platform it will continue to grow it’s percentage of computers sold worldwide, because there are a few things that absolutely drive personal computer sales, and gaming is very close to the top.

So what does this mean for the world of Windows dominated computers? Before I give you my answer to that question let me a little disclosure; I’m a mac user. I have been for about six years. Before that I was a windows user. I built my first six computers, the first two were cobbled together from working parts out of broken ones my dad brought home from work.

I appreciate the vast universe of hardware options available to the Windows computer. The choice is almost overwhelming sometimes, but it lets you get a truly unique rig if you’re willing to spend the time and money to build one. But, for me, the days of a monster tower are gone. I’m a laptop user now. I have been for about 8 years, ever since I bought by 12″ G4 Powerbook in 2004 and I appreciate the constancy of the Apple product.

Frankly, Apple makes a superior notebook computer. Before the Powerbook G4 I had a Dell Inspiron, which was at the time Dell’s high end notebook line (I don’t remember which Inspiron it was, but it was a Pentium 3 of some kind.) The Powerbook (and my current Macbook Pro) are simple, not a lot of options but they’re powerful machines. And while Windows 7 is a step in the right directions, OS X had the best UI/UX that I’ve run into in an operating system (and I work as an interactive and UX designer, so I kinda pay attention to that stuff.)

All it was missing was the support from 3rd party software. Apple tried to fill the gap with things like iLife, iWork and they had a few big software companies on board: Adobe, Wolfram Research, Blizzard, even Microsoft (hey, we eventually got a version of office that wasn’t total crap) but at the end of the day people want to be able to download demos from the web. They want to play Tiger Woods 2014, and the new Star Trek MMO. They don’t want to wait 6-8 months for someone to port the “new” software over.

So what does this mean for the world of Windows dominated computers? The good and the bad? First the bad (let’s just get it out of the way.) If you think the current back in forth between the guys in Redmond and the guys in Cupertino is in anyway bad (and it really is tame buy Pepsi vs Coke standards), just wait. The downside of a growing OS X user base is that the “war” between windows and OS X will really start to heat up.

Sadly for most of us, this won’t just be a marketing war fought in advertisements, snarky remarks made by CEOs in keynotes at conferences and things like that. Prepare to hear the already obnoxious mac fan boys to get louder in their love of all things Apple and get ready for them to lecture you about how Steve Jobs can do no wrong.

At the same time get ready for a whole new breed of “I’m a PC” people to come out of the woodwork and decry everything Apple and all their users elitist, too expensive and “all form and no function.” In short, get ready for a flame-war, because for some reason that is beyond me these two sides can’t just let the other one buy the computer they want to buy.

The good, it means more competition and a reward for those of us who made up the 5.8% market share back in 2006. Can you imagine if OS X gets to even 20% market share? 20% of all computers sold worldwide is an Apple machine running OS X? That’s 1 of every 5 machines sold. Do you think anyone in their right mind is going to be able to say something like “We’d love to make our software for the mac, but we just can’t justify the cost to develop for multiple platforms?”

The promise from WWDC 2007 of “Intel Macs are just as powerful as your Windows machine, because it’s all the same hardware” will finally come true, because we’ll finally get more software options. We’ll be a real user base that’s worth spending millions of dollars to develop for. Also we’ll probably get some more great “Mac and PC” ads with even more crazy funny because it’s true things for John Hodgman to say.

Of course this is just my opinion, and I’m sure some of you will laugh at the idea of this kind of change coming from something as simple as a game company releasing their stuff for OS X. But just keep this in mind, I don’t think even the guys at iBuyPower.com have a set up that has 2 quad-core CPUs, 32GB of RAM, 4TB of hard drive space, and four 3d accelerator cards in it, and Apple does. Sure it costs $11,000 but if you have even a little bit of PC gamer in you, then you just drooled a little thinking about playing something you downloaded from Steam on that machine. And that’s the power one major gaming platform has to shape the future of the personal computer market.

By tonysantos

Tony Santos is a interactive graphic and user experience designer in Seattle, WA. He's been so busy building other people's websites and interactive internet stuff that he hasn't had time to update his own but you can find him ranting about this, that or the other thing on Twitter as @tsmuse (www.twitter.com/tsmuse)

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