The Linux-based Steam Machine was the hot topic of discussion in 2014. Valve was going to revolutionise the living room by plopping one of these high-powered and streamlined gaming systems in front of your TV. Fast forward two years and it's a rarity to actually see many OEMs pushing Steam Machines. The reason? According to Alienware co-founder and current general manager Frank Azor, blame Microsoft.
In an excellent interview with PC Gamer, Azor argued that Alienware jumped in as a face of the Steam Machine as users were frustrated with Windows 8:
"I think the landscape two years ago was very different to what it is today. The catalyst for the Steam Machine initiative was really around what Microsoft’s decisions were with Windows 8, and if you remember that operating system, it really stepped away from gamers in a big way. We were concerned as an industry that we were going to lose PC gamers on the Windows platform to any other platform that was out there, whether it was console, Mac OS X, Android.
"So that’s where the partnership between Valve and Alienware really initiated around the Steam Machine concept. We said: ‘Hey, we can’t lose Windows as a gaming platform.’ We had to take matters into our own hands because we couldn’t rely on Microsoft. So we did that, and we started pursuing the path that we did."
He then went on to say that Valve took too long in development of the controller – a big selling point of the Steam Machine – and that things radically changed with Windows 10 and that put the project on ice:
"Valve ran into some delays with the controller, and while that was occurring, Windows 10 was being released. I think Microsoft learned a very valuable lesson – a lot of valuable lessons – with Windows 8 and tried to correct those with Windows 10. It’s more gamer focused, I would say. Every subsequent release has focused on gamers. Although their execution isn’t perfect, it’s definitely improved compared to Windows 8."
"I think the need right now, for Steam Machines and for SteamOS, isn’t as great as it was two years ago, and that’s contributed to the reason why the momentum has faded. We still offer SteamOS and the Steam Machine platform with the new version of the Alpha – the new Steam Machine R2 – and we still sell hundreds of units, thousands of units every month. But it’s not a major initiative for us like it was two years ago because it’s not necessary right now. We’re in a good place with Windows."
The biggest direct point of contrast between the two operating systems comes in the form of the Alienware Alpha – a machine that comes in both Steam and Windows varieties – with one far outweighing the other in terms of sales:
"We’re seeing the Windows version of Alpha significantly outsell the Steam Machine version because there is a lot of interest in taking PC games and putting them into the living room. We’ve made that a reality with these platforms, but I think the Windows platform continues to outperform the Steam[OS] one simply because it has a bigger library and a little more flexibility regarding what controller you can use."
If the Steam Machine experiment (which at this point can probably be considered as something of a failure) is evidence of anything it is that, according to Azor, Microsoft cannot afford to get sloppy again:
"I think what’s more important is that Microsoft continues to pay attention [to the fact] that they are at risk of losing Windows as a gaming platform if they don’t continue to invest in gamers. I think Steam Machines and what we did with Valve is a reminder to Microsoft, a kick in the butt, so that they realized what they could stand to lose."
It sounds like Alienware has no intention of ditching the Steam Machine concept anytime soon, but the likelihood of it ever being more than a niche is, at this point, slim to none.