Xi3 making Valve's Steam Box? Not exactly

January 9, 2013 // 11:25 a.m.

Tags: #ben-krasnow #ces-2013 #gabe-newell #linux #linux-gaming #modular-computer #piston #steam #steam-box #steam-for-linux #valve #xi3

The news that Valve had partnered with compact computing specialist Xi3 on its Steam Box games console project, producing a piece of black-box hardware known as the Piston, set the web aflame earlier this week - but the real story is somewhat more complex.

Yesterday, several news sites ran a story about Xi3, a company which has been producing its compact Modular Computer family for quite some time, claiming that the company had been chosen to create Valve's upcoming Steam Box games console - a hybrid PC and console which runs Linux and the Steam for Linux client in 'Big Picture' mode. Images of the machine - identical in appearance to Xi3's existing Modular Computer devices bar a decal reading 'Piston' - began to spread, and those lucky enough to be present at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas confirmed that the device was not only on display at the Xi3 stand but also at the Valve stand.

The information used for these stories came from a carefully-phrased press release, issued not by Valve but by Xi3. The sole contact for the story was Xi3's David Politis, but apparently very few sites got in touch with the company to verify what they believed they had read: that Valve had contracted Xi3 to create the hardware for its Steam Box.

Which is a shame, given that Valve has done no such thing.

The key points from Xi3's press release, missed by sites that ran with the story, pointed out that the device is a 'development-stage product' which is 'designed specifically to support both Steam and its Big Picture mode for residential and LAN party computer gaming on larger high-def screens.' In other words: it's an Xi3 Modular Computer, which you can buy right now, with a copy of Steam pre-installed. While it's true that Valve has invested in Xi3, the nature of that investment - time, money, the promise of help marketing the device should it come to fruition - has not been released, and nor will it be: 'No additional details about Xi3's new system or Valve's investment in Xi3 will be released at this time,' Xi3's press release declares.

But Valve could still be using Xi3 to build the Steam Box, right?

Not exactly. Valve engineer Ben Krasnow has gone on record with Engadget as stating that the Xi3 is not the Steam Box, but merely one potential Steam Box. Valve's stand at CES does indeed play host to an Xi3 Piston, but also to compact computers from a variety of other manufacturers - and neither the press nor the public are allowed into the inner sanctum. Valve is using CES, it seems, to meet with several different hardware companies - like Xi3 - in order to sell the idea that they could create a Steam Box of their own, creating a market in which buyers can choose from a Lenovo Steam Box, an Xi3 Steam Box, a Dell Steam Box, an Asus Steam Box and so forth.

Krasnow's comments are given further validity thanks to an interview between Valve founder Gabe Newell and The Verge. Asked directly about the Steam Box, Gabe described something akin to Intel's Ultrabook project: a set of guidelines - split into 'good,' 'better' and 'best' specifications - to which manufacturers must adhere in order to produce something they can call a Steam Box. While one of the manufacturers is likely to be Xi3, it will be far from the only company entering the market.

Those companies that do choose to license the name and build their own Steam Box will also be competing with Valve itself: confirming rumours, Newell told The Verge that as well as Valve-licensed devices from third party manufacturers, his company will be launching an own-brand device - a similar approach to Google's Android ecosystem or Microsoft's Surface family. 'We’ll come out with our own [Steam Box] and we’ll sell it to consumers by ourselves,' Newell told the site. 'That’ll be a Linux box, [but] if you want to install Windows you can. We’re not going to make it hard.'

So, is the Xi3 Piston the Steam Box? No, despite what you may have read elsewhere - but it could well be a Steam Box. Sadly, with Krasnow stating flatly that there'll be no launch before the year is out, we'll have a while to wait in order to see what the gaming giant is really up to.

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