Fake outrage for Sony’s moves

March 2010 is likely to become famous in the Free Software, Open Source movements’ histories as the month of the “corporate betrayals”. From one side, we got Oracle eating away all of Sun, including the latest developments on the Solaris license (which now becomes a 90-days evaluation license) and the change regarding security support for Solaris itself. From the other, we have Sony’s announced 3.21 firmware upgrade that disables the “Other OS” support from PlayStation 3 “phat” that are still around.

Now, the fact that Sony could never be arsed to call it “Linux support” but always stuck with “Other OS” could probably be a good start to understand that they weren’t that fond of the hacking community to play in different ways with their stations, but this is something that probably struck a lot of people, especially after Sony’s own promise of keeping the support around for the “phat” model when “slim” was introduced. Coincidentally, I dissed Sony a bit in my previous post and that was even before 3.21 was announced.

But as you might have understood from the title of this post, I’m not among those who scream “enemy” to Sony for this particular move; while I do agree that it’s obnoxious, and I think that Sony made a very bad move, especially after their promise, I don’t think that some of the comments I read recently seem to have a clue of what Sony is trying to do, and end up looking very silly to me, as they add nothing to the Free advocacy. So I’ll take another page out of Bill Maher, and speak about the “fake outrage” that people seem to have regarding Sony right now.

So the first thing in favour of Sony’s move is… they haven’t tried to stealth this in the firmware update! Sure they are weaseling their way in with “security concerns” but they actually gave a fair warning to the users and organisations that are using PS3s for their tasks, and told them not to upgrade; which is mostly what you should do if you’re just using your PS3s with Linux to do whatever work, it does not hamper you in any way, as the only drawback is… you won’t have support for PlayStation Network or the newest published games. What a waste, for all those people using PS3s for security work! Or is it?

I’m quite sure that most of the people who are using PS3s for high-speed CPU work are not using them to play games with the Sony firmware anyway; I think we actually heard of PS3 clusters to process a huge amount of data like the one that was needed to find the MD5 SSL vulnerability. Also, thanks to Moore’s Law we start to have maybe even more powerful workstation at our disposal: the power provided by (older-model) PS3s is now getting less and less relevant, especially considering that their cost hasn’t really dented so much, maybe cut in half in the past three year. And it still has only 256MB of RAM, doesn’t it?

Of course, I would be a hypocrite if I said that there is no gain for a single geek to run Linux on his or her PlayStation 3. As our own Steve (beandog) shown some time ago, you can use PS3s to rip BluRay discs, thanks to the ability to access the (otherwise pretty expensive) BluRay drive embedded in the unit. But even accepting that fact, which is something I’d be ready to bet Sony is not interested in keeping around, it doesn’t give you such a fantastic use.

Again, I’m all for fiddling with hardware, and getting Linux to run anywhere it’s possible. OpenWRT, OpenBTS, all these projects started by poking around at hardware that wasn’t supposed to be usable with Linux and are providing us with lots and lots of good stuff to use. On the other hand, I don’t see anything like that to be happening here, I actually see something very different! I see self-named “Free Software Advocates” rooting for a “hacker” (which we should probably call a “cracker” instead) that promised a custom firmware… what was the reason again, for which we’d need a custom firmware?

I’m not asserting that we shouldn’t be rooting for “crackers” in general. I think we have lots and lots of examples out there that show us that only by cracking something open we can actually use it properly, even if it might open as well negative and illicit possibilities such as piracy (I don’t condone piracy: let’s agree that all licenses are valid, otherwise I should be condoning GPL violations as well). Cracking encryption and so-called “copy protections” such as CSS, BluRay’s AACS, Apple’s FairPlay, and all the other DRMs is a very important stepping stone to really have Free Software and Free Content. And cracking hardware to run different software and operating systems is just as important for Free Software to extend its influence.

But with these two ideas in mind (cracking DRM and breaking Free hardware), what would a “custom firmware” for the PS3 accomplish? If you were to run a custom firmware, Sony would very much like to keep you out of their store; while obnoxious is something you’d have to accept; the same would be true for games that would require the newer version of the firmware. And if you don’t care about these two things, you can just follow the advice Sony gave you in the first place: don’t update. The only reason why people would root for such a “custom firmware” is – obviously – piracy. It would be hypocrite to say that nobody is hoping to be able to get their games for free, in this crowd.

Again, I’m not happy with Sony’s decision, but as long as it’s possible to use Linux on the PS3, even with some limitations on what you can do with it on the other side of the fence, I don’t see any reason to root for the cracker.