This past year has been a little frustrating regarding the news of the Steam Machines/Steam Boxes. Wishful thinking has left a year to build up speculation that Valve are making a console!
Despite no real indication of hints from Valve that they were doing so, and information that suggested the opposite, journalists still fed into this idea that the Steam Boxes/Machines were going to be Valve's take on a console:
We’ll come out with our own and we’ll sell it to consumers by ourselves. That’ll be a Linux box, [and] if you want to install Windows you can. We’re not going to make it hard. This is not some locked box by any stretch of the imagination. - Gabe Newell to The Verge
Here was your first clue. You can install Windows on it? It's a PC then. Then we came to the official announcement, which began with SteamOS - which was described over and over again to be a PC OS that is freely available for anyone to download and use themselves, or for manufacturers to make pre-built PCs with it preloaded on in all sorts of shapes, sizes, price, cooling, noise levels, etc.
It will be available soon as a free stand-alone operating system for living room machines.
Users can alter or replace any part of the software or hardware they want.
We want you to be able to choose the hardware that makes sense for you, so we are working with multiple partners to bring a variety of Steam gaming machines to market during 2014, all of them running.
We're conducting a beta of the overall Steam living-room experience, so we needed to build prototype hardware on which to run tests. At Valve we always rely on real-world testing as part of our design process. The specific machine we're testing is designed for users who want the most control possible over their hardware. Other boxes will optimize for size, price, quietness, or other factors.
With SteamOS, “openness” means that the hardware industry can iterate in the living room at a much faster pace than they’ve been able to.
Pretty much all of this goes against what a console is, and this isn't even all of it. The philosphy was clear: Bring some of the advantages of consoles and marry them to the advantages of the PC. You get rapid advancement of hardware, no set specification, you get an open platform to do with as you place - and you get an OS that has been designed to function from top to bottom with a controller - you don't need to mess around with Windows UAC, you don't need to hook up a keyboard and mouse to install driver updates, etc.
You can't marry those PC advantages if you're taking them away (which you have to do if you're making a console). You can't set a hardware cap and you can't set a price cap. It goes against Valve's own philosphy when it comes to the health of the industry.
I'd like to say I understand why people believed Valve were making a console, but I don't - journalists who work for sites that put up interviews with Gabe essentially telling them they weren't making a console still trotted out this idea that yes, they were. These people should know better, especially when it is them providing us with this information yet coming to the wrong conclusion.
Even AFTER Valve put out an official announcement for it, it still continued right up until this CES where these journalists finally realised what I and many others have been trying to say for this past year:
IT'S A PC THAT ISN'T RUNNING WINDOWS.
SteamOS won't compete with Windows for what we currently know as 'PC gaming' for 5 years at best. But if Valve manage to convince the big publishers (indies are pretty much already on board) to release their PC games on Linux going forward, then it could make PC gaming more attractive to certain people and I believe that is part of the aim at the moment.
It's to offer something different by making this platform (PC) more accessible and less intimidating to people. The Steam Machines look like they're in a decent position to provide that, but for someone like me? SteamOS won't be for me, not yet, and not unless it provides a benefit over Windows - but that's alright. Steam isn't going anywhere, this is just another way to access Steam - like bringing Steam to OSX or Linux.
The Steam 'machines' aren't the story here. SteamOS is.