Murphy's Law: Steam, Meet Facebook... and its New Best Friend, Open Source


Life, it seems, is never fair for any developer. Just ask the gurus behind Valve's Steam service. For the past many years, Steam has existed as the dominant digital-download platform of choice for gamers worldwide. While a few improvements have been built into the actual application one uses to access the Steam service, the program in question has remained relatively unchanged in its design for a good chunk of its recent existence. Which, in itself, is a polite way to say that it's been ages since an actual upgrade brought a new look, feel, and functionality to the Steam client.

Ask, and one receives: Valve's finally uploaded a beta of the latest user interface upgrades to Steam. And while that's all well and good from a "progress is awesome" perspective, it's still left some of the more thoughtful critics in the gaming community scratching their heads. And these heads are connected to their mouths, which seem to have a straight-shot down to their fingers: "It's ugly!" cry some. "I wish it could do [feature!]" scream others. "Loud Noises!"

As I think of the many different "platforms" on the Internet, I'm reminded of just how closed-off the Steam application is for conventional tweaking. Some of this is mandatory--there's only so much Valve wants you to be able to access for fear of somehow disrupting Steam's security techniques and gaining access to the vault of unlocked, free-to-download titles. Take a moment to wipe the drool off your keyboard; I'll wait.

What's stopping Valve from incorporating other open architectures into its service, however?  What about Web-wide login protocols?  Authentication for third-party services that could offer spin-offs of Steam's built-in stats-tracking?  Heck, what about some customized user interface support?

Some might say Steam is too big to be able to successfully navigate open-source and open frameworks. To that, I say hogwash: If Facebook can do it, so can Valve!

As CNET's Caroline McCarthy writes , Facebook has been taking a decent amount of flak for its lack of a desire to participate in the open Web--a platform where information is freely exchanged through the use of common protocols for access; where no wall separates one platform from another and generalization, not specificity, is the driver of future innovation and success. And although Facebook has balked its way into the process, the company has nevertheless made significant strides to participate more in the universal Web, not just the Facebook Network.

While much of its development has been centered on real-time strategies, brought forth by projects like the open-source Tornado Web server and the open PubSubHubBub standard for real-time information authoring, Facebook's increased devotion to open-source has also been a matter of necessity. Simply put, open-source solutions allow the site to scale better (and more rapidly) than commercial solutions. That's kind of a big deal when the company's serving in upwards of 400 billion page views on a monthly basis.

So, obviously, there's a case to be made that Steam--a lesser service in scale--could very easily tap into the power of the open Web to further the development of its platform. Just imagine the possibilities: add-ons and tweaks that build additional functionality into the client, transforming it from a hub for launching video games into a high-priority source of information of all kinds. Or, better yet, open authentication protocols that you can use to accentuate your Steam statistics through normal browsing or online game playing. At the very least, this could be a way to interact with your Steam friends and groups via third-party services.

In short, it's not about the service--it's about the expandability. The more Facebook weaves its tendrils throughout the Web, the more users far and wide become tied into its platforms and protocols. For a platform that's one-half downloads, one-half community... Steam doesn't really have that kind of an effect on the greater Web. Open-source is the key to its expansion but, more importantly, a great ticket for users to finally be able to customize the service to their liking.

Don't force changes on the community; let them dictate how and when they use your service--including its "ugly" interface.

David Murphy (@ Acererak) is a technology journalist and former Maximum PC editor. He writes weekly columns about the wide world of open-source as well as weekly roundups of awesome, freebie software.

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