As the PlayStation Network is set to recover from the worst outage in the history of the service, there’s been a lot of talk about the feature this whole debacle started over. In the early days, one of the distinctive features Sony touted of the PlayStation 3 was its Other OS option, the ability to install operating systems such as Linux on your system. With the advent of the PS3 Slim, Sony removed this functionality, setting off a terrible chain reaction. First, the homebrew community managed to bring it back, which almost immediately opened the floodgates for hackers to destroy public matches on the PlayStation Network. Thereafter, Sony pursued litigation against modders looking to jailbreak PS3s, which led hacking groups like Anonymous to launch even more attacks on the PSN. It’s a complicated debate with valid points on both sides, but there’s no end in sight for gamers who have been written off as “collateral damage” by Anonymous. Given how few people actually ran Linux on PS3, it seems most don’t know what the feature they’re arguing about actually did. This installment of the G-Spot chronicles this ultimate irony: that one of the most lamentedly lost features on the PlayStation 3 wasn’t even worth keeping around to begin with.
When I was shopping for my first next-gen console in 2007, many factors led me to the PS3. The biggest one, of course, was the games, as I wanted to play Metal Gear Solid 4, Grand Theft Auto IV, and Final Fantasy XIII all in one place. Blu-Ray was much appreciated, if only for the long term. It was convenient to have a web browser and wireless controllers that don’t need batteries. As a long-time RTS fan and Steam user, I couldn’t see myself ever paying for online multiplayer, so it’s a big deal that the PSN is free. Bluetooth gave you a large range of options when shopping for accessories, the use of 2.5” laptop hard drives gave you great and cheap expansion capabilities, and backwards compatibility of the 60GB systems added a lot of value.
But what really sealed the deal was support for Linux.
Like flipping through a Dungeons & Dragons Players Handbook, my imagination ran wild listening to Kai Staats talk about the possibilities of running Linux on the PS3 (watch the video above). It seemed like a revolution in game consoles, to be able to run countless applications, from web browsers to instant messenger, and even PC games compatible with Linux. And I’ll be the first to admit – I wanted to play delicious ROMs on a television with surround sound and a PlayStation controller. The multiple USB ports, variety of card readers, and bluetooth support made the PS3 the machine to support this bold new endeavor. It was a great marriage, Linux and PlayStation, and the sky was the limit.
Or, as we came to find out, the hypervisor was.
Three Words: No Graphics Card
Other OS for the PlayStation 3 was doomed out of the box. Presumably for security reasons, Sony restricted access to the RSX chip, which means that while you had the incredible power of the cell processor at your disposal, you had no graphics card to go along with it. This immediately cut down the list of reasons you would want to use Linux to begin with, not to mention even simpler tasks were made that much more complicated. This meant no HD video viewing, and the hope of using Linux as an alternate gaming platform on the PS3 was shattered (unless of course you thoroughly enjoy rigorous games of Minesweeper). Even having multiple tabs open in Firefox could seriously kill your performance.
Trying to emulate some of the earlier systems was either impossible or not worth the effort. SNES and Sega Genesis programs suffered severe framerate drops as well as other issues, condescendingly reducing the PS3 to a great 8-bit machine. To make matters worse, just to get the emulator running at its absurdly crippled rate involved locating programs compatible in Linux, hunting down and installing programs to run those emulators, and ultimately finding programs to run those programs. The uncommon nature of the PS3’s architecture meant that after literally hours of scouring search engine results and going back and forth on Linux forums, running that emulator could actually result in nothing happening. The scarcity of compatible programs and lack of community support both stemmed from what was the biggest problem of all.
A Dying Breed
It’s easy to blame Sony for restricting the graphics card; they were essentially inviting the homebrew community to unlock it. But the truth of the matter is, Linux was a nightmare to get working, visual difficulties aside.
The biggest problem came from the PlayStation’s architecture. Like most game consoles, the PS3 uses PowerPC, an architecture that was once popular when it was previously used by Apple for Macs. However, dwindling support for PowerPC led to a diminished enthusiasm for Linux distributions to continue supporting it, and it was dropped by many long before Sony canned Linux support altogether. For example, around the time they were preparing version 7.0, the Technical Board for Ubuntu, one of the most popular and acclaimed Linux operating systems, decided that there just weren’t enough users to continue developing for PowerPC. Subsequently, they dropped official support for the architecture.
Even for distributions that did support it, getting them to work was needlessly complicated. For example, users trying to install Yellow Dog Linux, the biggest initial supporter of Other OS, had to go through an entire ordeal just to get it to run on a Standard Definition television. Many “how to” guides chronicled mind-boggling issues, such as not registering text even though a keyboard was recognized and paired with the system. A quick look at PSUbuntu.com’s known bugs discussion shows how simple tasks like pairing DualShock controllers, finding wireless networks, and even getting sound to work took a taxing back and forth between the community in order to try to get it resolved. Much of the time, there simply was no solution. Personally, I’ll always remember trying to get those black borders around the screen to go away – to actually run it in fullscreen mode – which was a persistent problem, one that kept users ripping their hair out even up to the removal of Other OS.
Linux is a community-based phenomenon. As an open-source platform where you can really do anything you want, its functionality lives and dies by the dialogue between programmers and users trying to get these applications and functions to work. With such a small community active on PowerPC architecture, the resources to overcome these challenges simply weren’t up to the task.
In general, Linux on PS3 just wasn’t worth the trouble.
The Unfortunate Trade-Off
When you weigh the pathetically small user base and lack of functionality of Other OS against the potential network attacks that were starting to pop up, it’s easy to see why Sony made the decision to drop its support. Indeed, once jailbreakers began retrofitting Linux into newer firmware updates, Modern Warfare 2 was almost immediately hacked to shreds on PS3, a story which we broke back in January. Its predecessor, Call of Duty 4, is still suffering from 2x speed and god mode hacks that have yet to be addressed by Activision or Infinity Ward. The PlayStation is a provider of a multitude of services, and when one of them threatens to impede on the security of the whole, especially the games themselves, there’s really only one option to pursue.
Presumably in response to the lawsuits Sony has initiated in response to the custom firmwares allowing Other OS, the PlayStation Network is currently under siege by a group which has gone as far as taken our credit card information.
You have to ask those perpetrators: is it really worth it? Have they followed their struggle to its logical conclusion, that what they’re fighting for, how this all began, was over a limited, obscenely frustrating feature? I’ve seen groups like Anonymous, who took responsibility for the outage earlier in April, claim that they’re doing all of this for us, but what would Other OS have to offer us except for more frustration, wasted hours hunting down programs to run other programs, and cheaters ruining our online games by bringing insane hacks into our public matches?
I had a personal stake in Linux on the PS3, and while I was partially sad to see that the dream was dead, I was more than happy to bid it good riddance.
I just wish some others were as willing to let it go.
Mike Gutierrez is the News Editor and a Podcast regular at Warp Zoned. You can currently catch him on the PSN playing Killzone 3, MAG, and… oh, wait.