Valve’s Steam Box…are Steam Boxes
Earlier today a small computing company got a lot of attention for a product called “Piston,” a small computer that was widely reported as the first iteration of Valve's Steam Box. (Not the machine above! I'll get to that in a second.) While it looks like a perfectly decent little machine, that the Piston was the official Steam Box–emphasis on the the–didn't smell right: Xi3, the Piston's manufacturer, has been hawking tiny computers with the same form factor for over a year. (And frankly, while it's remarkably small, the form-factor doesn't have the polished look you'd expect from Valve.)
Sure enough, when someone went over the the Valve booth there was another tiny computer on display running Linux and a version of the company's popular Team Fortress 2 video game. The takeaway is what anyone who has been listening to Valve's Gabe Newell has suspected all along: the Steam Box is going to be a platform first–a set of hardware-specifications to which manufacturers can adhere to provide “Steam Box Compatible” (or some such branding) to what could end up being a wide array of PC-based hardware that is designed to live next to your television. Or just as likely your desktop monitor; I have a sneaking suspicion Steam Boxes will be just as popular as “traditional” mouse-and-keyboard gaming machines as they will be as set-top console replacements.
It's all both more and less interesting than a specific piece of hardware coming out of Valve. (Which they may yet do. Who knows?)
The real challenge remains getting game content onto Linux with performance that meets or exceeds what's available in Windows today. Linux drivers for graphics hardware remain iffy, and many game engines do not natively support Linux. But Valve's already ported their Source 3D-engine to Linux; it might not take much to convince fellow PC-culture develop Epic to provide more support for their popular Unreal engine.
A final, weird hypothetical: What if the PlayStation 4 is a Steam Box? It could easily run Linux if Sony allowed it. And Newell and Sony have seemingly repaired their relationship. I can't imagine Sony would walk away from their own online distribution platform, but a PlayStation console that is also a red-hot “PC” gaming machine? Could be huge. (And deeply ironic, considering Microsoft's 20-year dominance in PC gaming.)