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No More Cheap Supercomputers? Sony Blocks Linux on PS3

Reach Out and Take Your Stuff

May 4, 2010

Sony Computer Entertainment America (SCEA) faces a class action lawsuit following a recent an update to its PlayStation 3 console that removes the ability to put alternate operating systems on the console.

The late March update for the PlayStation 3 restricts the installation of an alternative operating system to the console's native OS. The feature, called 'Install Other OS,' has been removed, three years after the console's introduction, "due to security concerns," the company said in a blog post.

But that's not sitting well in some quarters because ever since the PS3 hit the market over three years ago, it has been a popular alternative for building a low-cost supercomputer. There have been a number of high profile projects built using clusters of PS3s running Linux including Stanford University's Folding@Home project and the U.S. Air Force.

IBM (NYSE: IBM), which developed the Cell processor with Sony that's at the heart of the gaming console, attempted to make the Cell a more widely-used supercomputing part, but after two years of failing to gain traction, IBM discontinued Cell development in late 2009.

The class action suit, filed April 27 in the United States District Court for the Northern California District against Sony, claimed the removal of advertised features violates California's Unfair Competition Law, the Consumer Legal Remedies Act, and other laws.

The suit contends the firmware update was an "intentional disablement of the valuable functionalities originally advertised as available with the Sony PlayStation 3 video game console. This disablement is not only a breach of the sales contract between Sony and its customers and a breach of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing, but it is also an unfair and deceptive business practice perpetrated on millions of unsuspecting consumers."

The case notes that since the console's launch in November 2006, Sony has made numerous references to its ability to run other operating systems and has promoted it in PS3 materials. "Indeed, Sony stated on its Web site playstation.com that when it designed the PS3, 'it was fully intended that you, a PS3 owner, could play games, watch movies, view photos, listen to music, and run a full-featured Linux operating system that transforms your PS3 into a home computer,'" the suit reads.

The lawsuit claims that Sony's security concerns "did not involve a threat to PS3 users, but rather reflected Sony's concerns that the Other OS feature might be used by 'hackers' to copy and/or steal gaming and other content."

Firmware updates to the PlayStation 3 console are voluntary, and you have to manually check to see if it's there, then approve its download. However, if you don't take the 3.21 download, you won't be able to connect to the PlayStation Network, play any games online or play any games or Blu-ray movies that "require" the new firmware. Of course, most Linux users won't use those features anyway.

Representatives from SCEA declined to comment on pending litigation, or elaborate on the reasoning behind the removal of the features.

Analyst Charles King, president of Pund-IT, said it sounded to him like Sony didn't realize the backlash the restrictions would raise.

"[The supercomputing usage] brought a great deal of positive press to Sony with little effort on their part. It would seem to me that whatever they may have gained from deciding to lock out Linux is going to be more than overshadowed by the bad press they are going to get," he told InternetNews.com.

Ironically, news of the restriction comes during an extensive consumer marketing push by Sony featuring ads and commercials around the slogan "It Only Does Everything."

Andy Patrizio is a senior editor at InternetNews.com, the news service of Internet.com, the network for technology professionals.