(Source: Polygon)
New "console" is expected to run Linux, play Windows-compatible games

For PC gamers who love Linux, but are loathe to give up their games that run on Microsoft Corp.'s (MSFT) Windows operating system, Valve Corp. thinks it has the solution.  That solution, the "Steam Box", is expected to be announced at a special event on Monday after months of rumors and anticipation.

Rare staffing changes at Valve may have delayed the console, but it appears to be finally ready, much to the joy of eager gamers.

I. Steam Box Strikes Another Blow to Limping Windows Hegemony

At a LinuxCon 2013 keynote, sometimes "CEO" Gabe Newell (Valve employees have no official job titles, although Mr. Newell -- a company cofounder, performs most of the typical functions of a company's CEO) told the audience than next week his company would reveal, "the hardware opportunities we see for bringing Linux into the living room."

And today a launch page with a countdown timer went live.  The countdown points to a Monday unveil and a 2014 ship date for the console with the title:

The Steam Universe is Expanding in 2014

Steam Coundown

The page states:

Last year, we shipped a software feature called Big Picture, a user-interface tailored for televisions and gamepads.
This year we’ve been working on even more ways to connect the dots for customers who want Steam in the living-room.
Soon, we’ll be adding you to our design process, so that you can help us shape the future of Steam.

Reportedly the Linux-based box will be fully compatible with most Windows OS games of the past and present without any complicated custom fiddling.  It is unclear what Linux distribution the console will run, but we should soon find out.  

II. Steam Box Runs Linux -- Could it be a Chrome Box?

Google Inc.'s (GOOG) hot Chrome OS is one potential possibility.  At the 2013 Intel Developer Forum multiple companies showed off Chrome OS laptops (Chromebooks) and desktop machines (Chrome Boxes).  The Steam Box may prove to be the ultimate Chrome Box, with gaming geared modifications to the operating system to provide smooth compatibility with x86 Windows games.

Google Chrome Logo
The Steam Box could be a ChromeBox. [Image Source: Google]

If not Chrome OS, it's likely that Valve will have adopted and modified another popular Linux distribution, such as Canonical's Ubuntu or Mint OS.

Valve's decision to use Linux for its upcoming console, rather than Microsoft's Windows 8/8.1, is a sign of the companies' weakening relationship.  While Valve remains loyal to its customers -- including Windows gamers -- Gabe Newell publicly attacked Microsoft's decision to limit third party app stores like Steam in Windows 8.

The decision is also somewhat a testament to the weakening position of Windows in general.  At the 2013 Intel Developer Forum, Androids -- the mascots of Google Inc.'s (GOOG) industry-leading mobile Linux distribution -- danced outside the convention center in Intel Corp. (INTC) garb.  Intel, long so closely aligned with Microsoft Windows than customers dubbed the pair "Wintel", took a number of subtle jabs at Microsoft during talks and keynotes, while emphasizing a growing number of Android and Chrome OS solutions.

Microsoft is still the world's most used desktop and laptop operating system, but its grip on the market appears to be weakening after Google's stellar Chrome OS and Android successes, along with the chilly reception of Windows 8.

II. Three Steam Boxes Planned?

As for the onboard hardware, Valve may look to use content streamed from Windows servers for its initial implementation, allowing the Steam Box itself to feature minimal hardware in its initial build.  Such a scheme would not be unheard of -- Microsoft's own upcoming Xbox One offers developers the ability to offload processing to the cloud.  Other companies like OnLive have offered streamed, virtualized Windows desktop environments for iOS devices.

In a January interview with The Verge, Gabe Newell described the plan for "good", "better", and "best" hardware solutions, stating:

The way we sort of think of it is sort of "Good, Better," or "Best." So, Good are like these very low-cost streaming solutions that you’re going to see that are using Miracast or Grid. I think we’re talking about in-home solutions where you've got low latency. "Better" is to have a dedicated CPU and GPU and that’s the one that’s going to be controlled. Not because our goal is to control it; it’s been surprisingly difficult when we say to people "don't put an optical media drive in there" and they put an optical media drive in there and you're like "that makes it hotter, that makes it more expensive, and it makes the box bigger." Go ahead. You can always sell the Best box, and those are just whatever those guys want to manufacture. [Valve's position is]: let's build a thing that’s quiet and focuses on high performance and appropriate form factors.

The countdown page features three dots, with only the first one active with the countdown timer to Monday.  The Verge has speculated these dots line up with the different configurations Mr. Newell discussed.

Polygon has shown off one alleged hardware configuration from Xi3 Corp., a maker of small, stylish modular computers:

Steam Box

SteamBox back
A reported Steam Box prototype [Image Source: Polygon]

It's unknown whether this will be one of the final Steam Boxes.

Aside from software and the box's general hardware, one last feature to point out is the inclusiion of the aforementioned Miracast wireless display technology.  Valve has partnered with Miracast to including this technology in the Steam Box -- which will allow it to connect to multiple televisions all around your house, or even to use select mobile devices as a second screen.

Sources: Valve, Gabe Newell on YouTube

"Paying an extra $500 for a computer in this environment -- same piece of hardware -- paying $500 more to get a logo on it? I think that's a more challenging proposition for the average person than it used to be." -- Steve Ballmer

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