Lessons in Decision-Making: A Computing Perspective
This article is a part of a series of blog posts that served as an assignment for the course titled Social Implications of Computing (CIS*3000) during my undergraduate studies at the University of Guelph. It was originally published on a free Wordpress.com site I had created for the course.
Sony is a name that rings loudly in the hearts, minds, and ears (of course) of many. The company is a leading manufacturer of electronics, and is the result of two successful professionals, Masaru Ibuka and Akio Morita. Just as with any business, this success came from wise decisions and also from successful clean-ups from the effects of bad decisions. As computer professionals, it is important for us to understand such decisions, even from corporate perspectives. In this article, we shall study a certain important decision that Sony was faced with regarding one of its major investments.
The PlayStation 3 is the latest of Sony’s video game console series. First released in November 2006, it impressed the world with its groundbreaking features like free online networking through PlayStation Network, use as a fully-fledged media center due to its playback of popular video and audio formats, especially Blu-Ray, in-built mass storage (in relative terms) due to its spacious hard drives, and many more. Since then, the PlayStation 3 has seen a significant number of revisions, each one bringing in new features, updating existing ones, and/or removing obsolete ones. However, the removal of one particular feature has caused its users to question the fidelity of the company and continues to be a hot topic among the PlayStation 3 community.
Out of the dozens of features of the PlayStation 3, the console’s most interesting one was the ‘OtherOS” feature. A firmware update following the launch of the console enabled this feature, which allowed users to install third-party Operating Systems, like Linux distributions, on the system. The user could then boot into the distribution from the hard drive of the PlayStation 3 and use most, if not all, of the OS features, much like a standard home computer.
On April 1 2010, Sony released firmware update version 3.21, which effectively removed this feature from the PlayStation 3, along with a few other updates. Although this update was optional, not installing this update posed severe limitations to the use of the console. Users were essentially forced to install this update if they wanted to make any significant use of their systems. Note that the system is still capable of running multiple Operating Systems; there just isn’t an official way to install them anymore. This update caused a huge upheaval within the PlayStation 3 community. Why? To understand this interesting issue, let us first look at some of the benefits and potential uses of this feature.
Benefits & Uses
Development of homebrew programs
The brain of the PlayStation 3, much like most electronics, lies in its microprocessor, which is designed according to the Cell architecture from STI (an alliance among Sony, Toshiba, and IBM). This, in conjunction with the system’s dedicated GPU, the NVIDIA RSX ‘Reality Synthesizer’, provides the computational and rendering power that the PlayStation 3 needs for its games. By running Linux on the PlayStation 3, developers could design homebrew games due to the exceptional computational power of the CPU. However, it is to be noted that graphics acceleration through the NVIDIA RSX is very limited on Linux due to restriction by a HyperVisor that monitors the running of different Operating Systems on the PlayStation 3. Regardless, the concept of homebrew development on such a system is remarkable, and the Cell CPU is quite sufficient, even for some complex 3D rendering.
Employed in the field of research
Perhaps the most interesting use of running Linux-based Operating Systems on the PlayStation 3 is in computer clusters. As mentioned before, the Cell architecture of the PlayStation 3 is very powerful. The microprocessor contains 6 accessible (for development) special engines called Synergistic Processing Elements (SPE), which can perform independent computations. This makes it very useful for number-crunching, which is most often required in research labs, etc. This computing power can be made accessible through running various distributions of Linux on the PlayStation 3. This concept has been used in different projects, such as video and image processing and other uses by the U.S. Air Force, to solve a mystery about the speed at which black holes stop vibrating by scientists at two American Universities, to monitor tumor growth speed through CT scans by researchers at the Mayo Clinic, and even as a fully-fledged Linux server. All this supercomputer goodness can be obtained at a far cheaper price compared to conventional supercomputers.
Potential substitute of a Home Computer
Linux isn’t just for the pros. PlayStation 3 users can perform activities such as surfing the web, watching streamed videos (such as YouTube), play Super Nintendo games, manage e-mails, and other day-to-day tasks that one would use a home computer for, at similar speeds and efficiency. This could, in some cases, completely eliminate the need of a desktop computer.
Why So Much Fuss?
Clearly the PS3’s OtherOS feature had a number of rather unconventional yet significant uses. But why was there such a negative reaction towards the update from the community? After all, the PlayStation 3 is first a video game console, then a discount supercomputer; it was designed primarily with gaming in mind. What is also interesting is that European owners of the console just had to ask for a refund, due to a certain European consumer protection law. But how many owners of the PlayStation 3 actually used the OtherOS feature? Can the views of the consumers be justified? Let us first take a look at why Sony actually removed this feature.
As mentioned before, running another Operating System was limited in terms of graphics acceleration because of the system’s HyperVisor. However, this was compromised by the famed iPhone hacker, George “Geohot” Hotz. The fact that hackers were able to obtain root privileges was alarming enough to Sony, and this played a role in its decision of disabling this feature. Sony’s action demonstrates egoism; it acted within its interests, regardless of the effect on its consumers. Being able to bypass the hypervisor could lead to piracy and copyright infringement of games and other media, which is harmful to Sony’s economic interests. Also, disabling the option of being able to install another Operating System completely removes the need for continued maintenance of the monitoring system (the HyperVisor), which further results in economic profits.
However, was this fair for consumers? Were Sony’s customers getting their money’s worth? The producer-consumer relationship is of key significance to the success of any company, and when faced with sensitive decisions, companies have to carefully analyze the situation at hand.
Simply looking at all of this, one might come to the conclusion that the consumers might be the winners of this debate. The PlayStation 3’s support for Linux was not a secretive gesture; it was a feature that was well-marketed by Sony. With this in mind, it is unfair for customers that they lost a feature they explicitly paid for with their purchase. After all, just because a knife can be used to commit murder, it doesn’t mean that a chef is not going to stop using knives for cutting. However, how many people actually used this feature? Unfortunately, I was not able to find any firm statistics related to this. So to help answer the question, let us ask a different question – How many people would possibly use this feature?
The average person would most likely use Linux on his/her PlayStation 3 just as it was advertised. This means using it as a home computer – web-browsing, media playback, e-mails, the occasional games, etc. The average person who owns a PlayStation 3 most probably also owns either a laptop, a netbook, or a desktop computer. Therefore, for Linux on the PlayStation 3 to be sensible, it needs to be at least as good as a standard computer in terms of speed and efficiency. This is unfortunately not the case. Firstly, the PlayStation 3 can only offer 512 MB of RAM for use by Linux. This results in 256 MB being used for video playback, which is certainly not enough; video encoding would be a whole other issue. This is also due to the off-limits graphics acceleration, which leads us to the second point. Linux on the PlayStation 3 is not viable for current-gen gaming (and even some previous-gen games) because of the limit in FLOPS power. Not being able to use the NVIDIA RSX contributes to this issue. Thirdly, the PlayStation 3’s CPU is not based on the x86 architecture; it uses the Power architecture. This means that only a limited number of applications can be run on it, as most applications for Linux (and any other OS) are designed for the x86 instruction set. So let us strike out gaming, applications, and video playback, and you are left with web-browsing and listening to music. For these two and other similar tasks, the performance gain through using Linux on the PlayStation 3 should either be minimal or nil.
Keeping all of the above in mind, which of the following is the average person most likely to choose for home computer activities – a standard computer or the PlayStation 3 with Linux? The obvious answer is a standard computer, because there is negligible or zero (or even negative) gain from using Linux on a PlayStation 3 versus a home computer, whose main use is for the standard activities listed previously.
Thus, it should be safe to conclude that not many people could possibly use the OtherOS feature. Hence, this update really affects only a small portion of the PlayStation 3 community. Now how about the most significant of the uses – in the research field? Note that the update is optional. Plus, the limitations faced by deciding not to update have almost no relevance to the PlayStation 3’s use in cluster computing. This essentially means that those of the PlayStation 3 community that use the console for research are barely affected by the update; they just don’t need to update the system. Thus, Sony’s decision to remove this feature does not really affect the significant portion of PlayStation 3 owners.
It should be evident how big-time media companies such as Sony have to make thoughtful decisions in order to be successful. In this case, I feel that Sony has made a great decision overall in order to protect its product, while maintaining the significant majority of customer satisfaction. This is reflected in the continued success of the PlayStation 3 – the new PlayStation 3 SLIM model had a world-wide opening sales of a whopping 585000 units, and this model was never even planned to contain the OtherOS feature at all since the beginning. As a computer professional, it is important to remember the relationship between the professional and the client, and I hope this analysis on one of Sony’s critical decisions was enlightening.
My instructor Blair Nonnecke enjoyed the article enough to drop an affirming comment on December 14, 2010 at 2:50 PM:
A very enjoyable article and educating article. I may even buy a PS3 based on your article.