Sign in with
Sign up | Sign in

Sony's PS3 Drops Linux; Why You Should Care

By - Source: Tom's Hardware US | B 82 comments

When the PlayStation 3 launched in 2006, Sony touted Linux support as a reflection of their commitment to making the PS3 a true supercomputer.  In fact, prior to launch, Ken Katuragi expressed his desire to pre-install Linux on all PS3's.  Though mostly marketing hyperbole, the vision of making the PlayStation something bigger than just a gaming machine was part of the company culture that permeated Sony's PlayStation division during the last decade.

The PlayStation Heritage

During the peak of the original PlayStation era, Sony launched "Net Yaroze," a consumer development kit that allowed interested gamers to work on developing their own applications for the console.  In the PlayStation 2 era, Sony offered "Linux (for PlayStation 2)" a fully-fledged Linux distribution which included an X-Server supporting the PS2's Graphics Synthesizer and even some support through Mesa 3D.   Unlike the Net Yaroze, which required customized hardware and software, Linux for PlayStation 2 worked on the majority of retail PlayStation 2's.  The real challenge was finding a monitor that supported the PS2's Sync-on-Green signal.

By the time the PS3 was launched, Sony seemed to be on a progressive path of increasing support for the community of homebrew enthusiasts.  Net Yaroze opened up the idea, but required customized hardware and software.  Linux for PlayStation 2 allowed consumers to use retail consoles with a custom kit.  With the PS3, Sony promised something amazing: full Linux support available on all shipping units -- just burn a DVD and install.

The homebrew market for the PS3 never caught on the way it was supposed to.  Due to concern for piracy, Sony disabled support for the RSX GPU via a HyperVisor.  When combined with the difficult-to-program Cell Broadband Engine, the role for Linux on PS3 was limited as a gaming platform.  On the other hand, the Cell itself was a remarkable processor.  In 2006, the Cell offered 150 GFlops of single-precision computational performance.  A modern Core i7 975 only offers 111 GFlops of single precision performance.  For applications requiring single precision arithmetic, the PS3 offered an exceptional bargain.  In fact, it was Sony in early 2006 who approached Stanford to discuss porting Folding@Home to the PlayStation 3.

While Kutaragi was the most prominent proponent of homebrew development, he was not the only cheerleader.  The other prominent figure during the PlayStation Decade was Phil Harrison.

I first met Phil Harrison while still a student at Stanford, when he gave us a talk about the "Next Generation PlayStation."  In his career at Sony, Phil Harrison would push for Linux and continue to open up the homebrew capabilities of the PS3.  He would later play an instrumental role in supporting and promoting the homebrew nature of games such as "Little Big Planet," and after moving to Atari, he continued to be vocal about supporting the independent developer through tools such as the Unity Game Engine.

From the launch of the PlayStation 3 in 2006 through 2010, Sony incrementally added new features to the PS3.  Compared to the initial PS3 launch, Sony has improved CD Audio performance with Super Bit Mapping, added Video Chat, Folding@Home support, added videophile-grade video scaling and deinterlacing, 1080p24 Blu-Ray playback, upscaled PSOne support, BD-Live, an improved photo gallery, and full screen Adobe Flash support.  On queue is 3D stereoscopic support. Unfortunately, Sony has since removed support for SACD playback as well as PS2 backwards compatibility with newer revisions of the console.

Today's Sony

In the post-Kutaragi, post-Harrison PlayStation world it seems as if there are fewer opportunities for the visionaries at Sony.  The worldwide economic crisis has led companies to trim costs wherever possible.  The PS3's overly ambitious design, built during an era of seemingly unlimited economic growth, has resulted in a console that is still sold at a loss.  To tighten the belt, Sony is pulling back from this community service endeavors.

On March 28, 2010, Sony announced that they would be pulling support from Linux on the PlayStation 3.  This was due in part to Sony's HyperVisor being compromised, allowing hackers direct-to-kernel and device driver "ring 0" access.  By dropping support for Linux, Sony increases the difficulty of pirating downloading movies purchased or rented through the PlayStation Network.  Additionally, dropping "Other OS" support ensures that Sony no longer needs to maintain the HyperVisor drivers for each firmware and hardware revision of the PS3, ultimately delivering a cheaper and more profitable hardware platform. [Though famed iPhone hacker Geohot did pledge to try to retain the Other OS feature through custom firmware. -Ed]

Today, the PS3 is a potent gaming machine.  Games such as Final Fantasy XIII are finally bringing to reality the movie-quality graphics once promised by Sony.  For hardware that is almost 4 years old, this is an impressive achievement.   Likewise, Kutaragi's dream to make the PS3 the media hub of the home is becoming a reality.  The open source PS3 Media Server allows the PS3 to be an exceptional media streamer particularly in the context of the PS3’s exceptional video scaling and noise reduction capabilities.  Sony already offers HD PVR support for digital TV in Europe and Japan, and if Sony offered ATSC/CableCard support for US owners, I wouldn't need a HTPC.

Does it Matter?

The loss of Linux for the PlayStation 3 is less about running Linux on 4-year old hardware.  As powerful as the Cell CPU once was, the future of homebrew vector programming and high-performance scientific computing is going to be found in the world of the GPU and technologies such as NVIDIA Fermi, AMD Cypress, and Intel Larrabee. 

Instead, the loss of Linux represents the end of an era for PlayStation. Through all of the hyperbole that characterized the PlayStation world of the last decade, there was a desire and passion to build something grander than just a simple game machine.

We asked a Sony representative if there were plans to restore the "Other OS" feature once the security risk had been analyzed and patched.  The official reply: "At this point in time, we have no plans to bring back the feature to the system."

While Sony is pulling away from Linux and the community, we can't help but to think about the other end of the spectrum and a company that has fully supported the enthusiast community: id Software.

Rather than increasing restrictions over time, id has a great history of decreasing restrictions over time.  One good example is how they release the source code to their game engines via GPL after a reasonable amount of time.  If Sony were following id's model they would be opening up RSX support in a future version of PS3 Linux as opposed to pulling it away.

I sent a few quick questions to John Carmack, co-founder of id software, lead engineer of Armadillo Aerospace, Linux supporter, and an all-around good guy to get his thoughts on the situation.

Alan: Have you ever regretted GPL'ing a game engine and feeling as if you released it too early?  Also, will we see still Doom 3's engine released once the patented code is removed?

John: No, I have never regretted any GPL release.  Yes, I still hope to release the Doom 3 code sometime after Rage ships.

Alan: What's your thought on PS3 Linux story?  Is there even a role for scientific computing in a world of modern GPGPU's?

John: I never liked the Cell architecture.  You can get high peak numbers out of it, but software development time matters a lot, and not having caches and virtual memory makes development take a lot longer, especially for the majority of applications that don't fit neatly into the DMA pipeline model.

It probably isn't Sony's call alone with the RSX -- Nvidia probably would not be supportive of the complete disclosure of RSX details.

Discuss
Ask a Category Expert

Create a new thread in the News comments forum about this subject

Example: Notebook, Android, SSD hard drive

This thread is closed for comments
Top Comments
  • 21 Hide
    Anonymous , April 1, 2010 8:26 AM
    Well, next time they find a glitch in the browser they'll turn that off. Then somebody will compromise the game loader, and they will remotely brick them all completely. All for security reasons.
  • 20 Hide
    curnel_D , April 1, 2010 11:37 AM
    Sony's overall attitude in this matter has become the industry's standard attitude.

    This is just the general cycle of things. Eventually this 'generation' (No, not just wii, 360, ps3) will die out, and in it's ashes, a new one will be born.

    Lets just remember what the oldest and most successful gaming console is: The PC.
  • 20 Hide
    Anonymous , April 1, 2010 9:22 AM
    Good article.

    The masses don't care.
    sigh - is that how they become masses?

    I bought my ps3 because it had Linux and backward compatibility and it should become a great media streamer
    and it was the only place I could play FFXIII

    Now we are fighting to get our broke backup utility working. So far no answer from Sony support.

    sigh
Other Comments
    Display all 82 comments.
  • 21 Hide
    Anonymous , April 1, 2010 8:26 AM
    Well, next time they find a glitch in the browser they'll turn that off. Then somebody will compromise the game loader, and they will remotely brick them all completely. All for security reasons.
  • 7 Hide
    Hupiscratch , April 1, 2010 9:20 AM
    Could Tom's Hardware put some numbers of GFlops of single-precision computational? And what's the i7 980 performance?
  • 20 Hide
    Anonymous , April 1, 2010 9:22 AM
    Good article.

    The masses don't care.
    sigh - is that how they become masses?

    I bought my ps3 because it had Linux and backward compatibility and it should become a great media streamer
    and it was the only place I could play FFXIII

    Now we are fighting to get our broke backup utility working. So far no answer from Sony support.

    sigh
  • 16 Hide
    Anonymous , April 1, 2010 10:28 AM
    i'm extremely unhappy that sony is stealing features from me that i paid for. would love to participate in litigation against them for it. i'm stunned that there aren't more people who care. it doesn't even matter whether or not you used linux, it only matters if you bought a model with that feature.
  • -3 Hide
    dimar , April 1, 2010 11:19 AM
    So can they give us PS2 games support with antialiasing and higher resolution, like 720p or 1080p? I'll be happy enough then...
  • 20 Hide
    curnel_D , April 1, 2010 11:37 AM
    Sony's overall attitude in this matter has become the industry's standard attitude.

    This is just the general cycle of things. Eventually this 'generation' (No, not just wii, 360, ps3) will die out, and in it's ashes, a new one will be born.

    Lets just remember what the oldest and most successful gaming console is: The PC.
  • 9 Hide
    Anonymous , April 1, 2010 11:55 AM
    I remember when Creative disabled recording from FM radio on its Creative Zen Vision M, only to enable it again, when wiser counsel prevailed. Sony could learn a thing or two from them.

    Linux on PS3 is a fantastic marketing feature. It endears the PS3 to the research community. As far as piracy is concerned, I don't remember sales of the PS2 plummeting because it was modded to play pirated games. That console is still selling, and selling quite well when i visited Sim Lim last in Singapore.
  • 4 Hide
    chomlee , April 1, 2010 12:57 PM
    If the originall purpose was to give homebrew enthusiasts a tool to play with, it is pretty crappy they take it away midstream. For people buying the PS3 for that reason, it really sucks. But if that is all they use if for, they could choose not to update (which still kinda sucks).

    Personally, I tried to install Linux (which I love) but I had no luck getting it to install. It really wasn't going to do me any good anyhow because I wanted to then install XBMC which you cant because of the lack of GPU support.

    Since the new PS3s dont support Linux, this decision probably wont hurt sales. If they were successful in creating a hack, and it copied games to the HDD it could have a huge impact on game sales. So, from that respect, I can understand why they did that if there really was a security issue.
  • -4 Hide
    Regulas , April 1, 2010 1:04 PM
    about to loose Gary on psnGood article.The masses don't care.sigh - is that how they become masses?I bought my ps3 because it had Linux and backward compatibility and it should become a great media streamer and it was the only place I could play FFXIIINow we are fighting to get our broke backup utility working. So far no answer from Sony support.sigh

    Same here but I was not impressed with Linux on it. I do run Ubuntu full time on my laptop. PS3 is best at games and playing Blue Ray movies. I will leave Linux for a real computer.
    As far as FF XIII goes, save your money, it sucks. Sure it's pretty but thats about it. Pick up Oblivion game of the year if you want a great RPG, it's cheap now too.
    FF XII was the best of the series.
  • 0 Hide
    JohnnyLucky , April 1, 2010 1:11 PM
    Did Sony think they reached a point of diminishing returns with Linux?
  • 1 Hide
    builderbobftw , April 1, 2010 1:34 PM
    Quote:
    Same here but I was not impressed with Linux on it. I do run Ubuntu full time on my laptop. PS3 is best at games and playing Blue Ray movies. I will leave Linux for a real computer.
    As far as FF XIII goes, save your money, it sucks. Sure it's pretty but thats about it. Pick up Oblivion game of the year if you want a great RPG, it's cheap now too.
    FF XII was the best of the series.


    How is PSS 3 best for playing games?

    That's the PC.
  • 5 Hide
    spoofedpacket , April 1, 2010 1:41 PM
    Curnel_DSony's overall attitude in this matter has become the industry's standard attitude.This is just the general cycle of things. Eventually this 'generation' (No, not just wii, 360, ps3) will die out, and in it's ashes, a new one will be born. Lets just remember what the oldest and most successful gaming console is: The PC.


    Nah, man. I remember when I was a little kid there was no such thing as a 'PC', but there were plenty of console games even in the early 70s, as shown below:

    http://www.thegameconsole.com/

    Technically, the groundwork for what we call a PC today arrived in 1981.
  • 0 Hide
    wavebossa , April 1, 2010 1:47 PM
    JohnnyLuckyDid Sony think they reached a point of diminishing returns with Linux?


    Seeing how Linux was never the PS3's main selling point, i would say yes.

    I know there are some (relatively not many at all) people who bought a ps3 just for this reason, and Sony knows this as well. They just figured pissing that portion off is acceptable.

    Dont forget, this is the same company that had spotty backwards compatability out the gate and people still bought their product. The truth is, not even remotely enough people really care at all about linux on ps3 to make this a huge issue.

    And one more thing, enough of this "take legal action against sony for stealing my features!" nonsense. You have no legal case whatsoever, you do not own the rights to the PS3 coding, features, deveolopement, etc. This is the same way you cannot sue microsoft for remmoving a feature in a Windows 7 Update. You may feel pissed off, but legally speaking, a big company pissing off their costumers is not a crime...

    The "you" was not directed to JohnnyLucky but rather to some post I have read on this article and articles similar to it.

  • -4 Hide
    wicko , April 1, 2010 2:15 PM
    Argh, this article is missing the biggest point: the people that actually care about linux on their PS3 are not playing games on them. This loss of feature does not apply to those using their PS3 for research or the like. It only applies to the average consumer, and if it is really that much of a deal, don't update PSN.

    While I don't think this move by Sony was a good one for the consumer, no matter how they try to spin it, the reaction to this is completely exaggerated and the majority of people complaining don't use the feature. Honestly, it has little real applications to the majority of ps3 owners, and those that want to game as well, buy a Slim. Chances are you'll burn out your fat PS3 by gaming on it so you've just extended its life by purchasing a slim and doing your gaming on there.
  • 2 Hide
    wavebossa , April 1, 2010 2:25 PM
    wickoArgh, this article is missing the biggest point: the people that actually care about linux on their PS3 are not playing games on them. This loss of feature does not apply to those using their PS3 for research or the like. It only applies to the average consumer, and if it is really that much of a deal, don't update PSN. While I don't think this move by Sony was a good one for the consumer, no matter how they try to spin it, the reaction to this is completely exaggerated and the majority of people complaining don't use the feature. Honestly, it has little real applications to the majority of ps3 owners, and those that want to game as well, buy a Slim. Chances are you'll burn out your fat PS3 by gaming on it so you've just extended its life by purchasing a slim and doing your gaming on there.


    Wicko it seems like you are kinda contradicting yourself. In the first paragraph you say that people really care about the loss of this feature and then you say the reaction to it is completely exaggerated because the majority of people dont care about this feature.

    I happen to agree with the bottom paragraph of your post becasue it is the truth. When I say "people dont care" I dont mean "No one cares" i mean "not nearly enough people care"

    Walk about to a group of frat buddies or roommates or neighborhood friends (depending on ur age range) who own a ps3 and ask them how mad they are that OtherOS is no longer supported.

    Yeah... most will say, "huh?" and get back to playing madden or guitar hero.
  • 4 Hide
    hemelskonijn , April 1, 2010 2:34 PM
    It really should not matter how useful or unusable the feature is ... you just cant take it back after you sold it period.
  • 0 Hide
    counselmancl , April 1, 2010 2:38 PM
    Lawsuit please!
  • 0 Hide
    megamanx00 , April 1, 2010 2:58 PM
    id's support of Open Source makes sense. Alot of projects make use of game engines from id. It's kind of the same thinking Microsoft has by giving away Visual Studio for cheap or free to students. Developers cut their game development teeth on an id engine, so when they get hired somewhere they recommend licensing a newer id engine.
  • 6 Hide
    pittath , April 1, 2010 3:00 PM
    wow $ony goes from installing rootkits on our PC's through music sales to the classic;
    bait and switch.

    Seems a proxy may enable users to stay connected to the PSN and NOT update. Google: Logan5

    PS3 "It only does everything" except what it used to.
Display more comments