Keep an eye on Valve, even if you’re not into games

When I ask you to name the technology world’s most secretive company, you’d most likely respond with ‘Apple’. However, there’s one other technology company that, while substantially smaller than the Cupertino giant, is quite possibly even more secretive: Valve.

Valve is a strange company. So technically, they’re a game maker, having created some of the gaming world’s most beloved franchises: Half-Life, Team Fortress, Counter-Strike, Portal, and my personal favourite, Left 4 Dead. Their unprecedented support for the modding community as well as their traditional PC-first focus ensures an almost undying devotion from fans.

So, despite no Half-Life 3, the silly TF hats, and a by now 12-month delay in the Cold Stream DLC (for us Xbox peasants, at least), we never really take it out on the company. Heck, we give cutesy nicknames to Valve’s infamous delays: Valve Time.

However, despite being a game maker, Valve has made its biggest impact on the industry not with a game, but with a service: Steam. I would call Steam the iTunes for PC games, but that would be unfair to Valve’s service (because unlike iTunes, Steam doesn’t suck). Through Steam, you can buy loads of games, both new and old, and it provides features for multiplayer. Add to all this the regular special deals, and Steam turns into the poster child for digital content distribution. People love Steam.

As great as all of the above is, it’s not the reason for this item. No, I’m talking about Valve because the company is on the threshold of becoming a whole lot more than a ‘mere’ games and services company. In a long blog post, Micheal Abrash, Valve employee (and Microsoft, Intel, and id vet; he has worked on everything from firmware to drivers to processor design to more), revealed the company is working on wearable computing – more specifically, on augmented reality glasses. Yup, like Project Glass.

Before we get to that, though, Abrash offers an intriguing glimpse into Valve’s unique company structure – namely, there isn’t one. This has been known for some time now, but Abrash confirms it: there are no job titles at Valve, no managers, nobody telling you what you’re supposed to do. The desks have wheels, so you can run them around the building to join the project you wish to join. There is no formal management or hierarchy at Valve. At all.

“My observation is that it takes new hires about six months before they fully accept that no one is going to tell them what to do, that no manager is going to give them a review, that there is no such thing as a promotion or a job title or even a fixed role,” Abrash details, “That it is their responsibility, and theirs alone, to allocate the most valuable resource in the company – their time – by figuring out what it is that they can do that is most valuable for the company, and then to go do it. That if they decide that they should be doing something different, there’s no manager to convince to let them go; they just move their desk to the new group (the desks are on wheels, with computers attached) and start in on the new thing.”

The amount of trust the company places in its employees is quite extraordinary. Each and every employee has access to all the company’s source code, and can perform changes if he or she so desires. “Any employee can know almost anything about how the company works and what it’s doing; the company is transparent to its employees,” Abrash adds, “Unlike many organizations, Valve doesn’t build organizational barriers to its employees by default; it just trusts them and gets out of their way so they can create value.”

“Valve’s long string of successes, many of them genuinely groundbreaking, is strong evidence that the hypothesis that creative people are the key to success is in fact correct, and that the structuring of Valve around those people has been successful,” Brash concludes, “And, almost by definition, it’s a great place for the right sort of creative people to work.”

This is actually the entire purpose of the blog post: painting Valve in a very, very good light for prospecting employees. Why? Well, as it turns out, Valve is working on augmented reality glasses, and considering Google announced a similar project last week, the traditionally secretive Valve needed to open up to ensure that the kind of people interested in working on augmented reality glasses come to Valve instead of Google.

“By ‘wearable computing’ I mean mobile computing where both computer-generated graphics and the real world are seamlessly overlaid in your view; there is no separate display that you hold in your hands (think Terminator vision),” Abrash details. It’s mostly research and development now, but the team is growing.

How does this all tie into the rumour that Apple CEO Tim Cook visited Valve’s offices? It doesn’t. I think Tim Cook’s visit, if it took place at all, relates to a different project inside Valve: a PC console (by lack of a better term). Persistent rumours claim that Valve is working on a set of specifications a “console” has to adhere to to be labelled a Steambox (or whatever catchy term you can think of), complete with a bunch of controllers. Stick in a keyboard and mouse, and you have a PC gaming experience.

Anybody would be able to build one, and OEMs would be able to sell them pre-made for less technically inclined people. I’m fairly sure Cook was visiting to see if Macs, too, can implement these specifications. I wouldn’t be surprised if Linux support, too, is on Valve’s list. And all this – the specifications, Linux, Cook – for a very simple reason: Windows 8.

Windows 8 is the entire reason for this project to exist. With Windows 8, Microsoft is slowly but surely moving towards a completely closed-off iOS-like operating system, which has no place for Steam. Sure, Windows 8 has a desktop mode now, but it’s legacy, and will eventually go the way of the dodo. Valve doesn’t like the idea of being dependent on Microsoft’s rules, so they had to think of a way to circumvent the inevitable.

Abrash’ project fits into all this as well. Sure, such a PC console would extend Steam’s raison d’être for another, say, 4-7 years, but what’s going to happen after that? Valve’s already missed the smartphone gaming market, and I’m getting the idea Gabe Newell, Valve’s CEO and founder, isn’t too keen on missing the next big thing.

All this shows that Valve is a company to keep an eye on, even if you’re not a gamer. They’re the kind of company which rewards creativity and allows it to blossom, and those are, by definition, the kind of places where the next big thing comes from. It reminds me a lot of PARC – and we all know just how much we owe to PARC.

Still – in between those glasses and the Steambox, could you guys and girls at Valve please finish the Cold Stream DLC?



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