Sony Zaps PlayStation 3 'Install Other OS' Feature

Sony giveth and Sony taketh away: When the company's newest PlayStation 3 firmware update drops on April 1, it'll remove a beloved feature once trumpeted as a system sale-maker. That's right Linux wonks, it's time to kiss the PS3's "Install Other OS" option goodbye.

Unlike Microsoft's Xbox 360 or Nintendo's Wii, the PS3 shipped with an option to run "other" operating systems, including popular Linux distributions from Debian, Fedora, OpenSUSE and Ubuntu. The "slim" model PS3 (CEH-2000) that appeared in September 2009 debuted without this feature, but Sony exempted older "fat" PS3s.

Until next Thursday, that is. When Sony's PS3 firmware update 3.21 debuts on April 1, it'll disable the "Install Other OS" feature on millions of older systems. While you don't have to install the update, opting out will bar access to the PlayStation Network, newer games and Blu-ray movies, copyright-protected videos streamed from a media server, and any other new features in firmware version 3.21 forward.

Sony's spin goes something like this: By removing the feature, the company says it "will help ensure that PS3 owners will continue to have access to the broad range of gaming and entertainment content from SCE and its content partners on a more secure system."

Translation: You get something you already have ("access to [a] broad range of gaming" etc.) in trade for nothing, while Sony gets to close what it now deems a hacker loophole. What's good for Sony is good for you, in other words.

Except when it's not (good for you, that is). Running Linux on the PS3 allows amateur developers to tinker with the PS3's Cell processor, Sony sanctioned, and cobble together home-baked utilities and games. It's also been used by researchers to build "discount supercomputers" to run scientific simulations that might otherwise "cost thousands of dollars." North Carolina State University professor Frank Mueller called it "$50,000 worth of computer power for a mere $5000."

The majority reaction on Sony's PlayStation blog won't surprise anyone.

"Wait...you are REMOVING a feature?" writes one user. "What's next? Removing BC from early PS3 adopters? Terrible update sony, teeeerrible," writes one user.

"This is an idiotic idea," says another. "I paid for this feature. When the console was $500 I paid for this feature. And Yes, I use this feature."

"Hey Sony, considering you are disabling half of my product (It was explicitly sold with labeling ON THE BOX that states it supports other OS installations) - Can I get half my money back?" asks a third, adding that the move is "like selling someone a table, and then breaking 2 of the legs off."

Access to the system via Linux isn't carte blanche. Sony locks out its powerful Nvidia-developed RSX graphics processor by using a hypervisor--a "virtual machine monitor" that runs the guest operating system in a secure virtualized memory space.

In January, a US hacker known for unlocking the Apple iPhone told the BBC he'd managed to crack the PS3, admitting his workaround would allow players to run pirated games as well as older PS2 software. It's not clear whether the January hack led to Sony's decision to scrap Linux support, but I'd say the timing's definitely suggestive.

In case you're wondering, Sony says this isn't an April Fool's joke. Contrast with betters like "PS3 Leap-Year-Glitch Fix Resets Space-Time Continuum," or "Nude Kratos Toggle in God of War III Update."

My condolences, PS3-Linux wonks. Niche user base or no, it's usually bad news when a company starts pulling features from its product portfolio.

"It only does everything"? Time to re-think that ad campaign, Sony.

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