It may be an increasingly FOSS-friendly world out there, but that doesn’t mean Linux doesn’t still face challenges and opposition.
Case in point: Sony’s recent decision to discontinue the option to install GNU/Linux on its new PlayStation3.
What an affront!
‘A Big Hit’
“I was more than a little disappointed, since this is a big hit to low-cost supercomputing,” wrote the Linux Foundation’s Brian Proffitt on his blog last week.
Indeed, researchers have apparently clustered multiple PS3 machines to achieve a relatively inexpensive approximation of supercomputer processing power, Proffitt noted.
Sony apparently explained the decision in a post that has since been removed from the PlayStation2 developer forum, according to Proffitt, citing primarily cost considerations.
Nevertheless, the news was noted with dismay by geeks across the Linux blogs.
‘Gimped to Begin With’
“Lots of research institutions used PS3 clusters for low cost supercomputing; now that future is jeopardized,” lamented zindorsky among the more than 350 comments on Slashdot, for example.
Of course, “without the use of most of the computing power when you actually put linux on it, it seemed gimped to begin with,” PrescriptionWarning pointed out. “In other words they weren’t exactly being open source friendly from the start any way.”
Similarly: “I hate to say it, but Sony probably lost more PS3 sales by removing the PS2 compatibility than they did removing the ability to run Linux,” added VGPowerlord.
Then again: “I don’t think this is going to stop anyone from running Linux on the slim PS3,” sunderland56 wrote. “It’s not like the iPhone comes with an “install other OS” option in the boot code.”
Ha! Good point.
‘Sad to See This’
“I’m sort of sad to see this, mainly because it’s just really neat that you can run Linux on such a divergent architecture as the Cell,” Monochrome Mentality blogger Kevin Dean told LinuxInsider.
“Though, after I’m done geeking out over that, I realize that, essentially, Sony has ONE ‘killer’ open source product,” Dean noted. “If, by eliminating ONE product, they can COMPLETELY withdraw from the open source world, were they really that significant a part of it to begin with?”
Sony Vaio laptops still run Linux, Dean added.
“Sony’s alleged commitment to open source began with the PlayStation2, for which they offered a ‘Linux Kit’ with a Sony RGB to VGA cable, a hard disk, and a USB mouse and keyboard,” Slashdot blogger drinkypoo told LinuxInsider. “It denied the user access to the DVD-ROM and in fact the majority of the graphics functions through a hypervisor environment, making the system largely useless.”
The PlayStation3’s Linux functionality was implemented “in the same fashion, and PS3 Linux uses one of the Cell processor’s seven enabled SPE engines — one is disabled to improve yields — leaving only six of them behind for the user in any case,” drinkypoo explained. “Sony’s commitment to open source was to *cripple* it.”
‘A Pure Business Decision’
Nevertheless, Sony’s decision won’t have much of an impact on the Linux community, Slashdot blogger Josh Ulmer told LinuxInsider.
“While many have been attempting to paint this as an anti-open source effort by a Big Corporation, the issues are much simpler and much less nefarious than that,” Ulmer explained.
Specifically, it was likely a “pure business decision” on Sony’s part, driven in part by the fact that console manufacturers regularly take a loss on the sale of hardware in an attempt to keep the price as low as possible and increase game sales, Ulmer noted.
‘Existing Users Won’t Be Affected’
“At the very worst, Sony is discouraging non-gamers from purchasing the new hardware,” he said. “They will almost be required to maintain software updates for the existing consoles given the established install base, so any existing users won’t be affected and the supply of consoles for what is effectively a niche market should not be endangered any time soon.”
In fact, “the release of hardware that is more attractive to the core demographic — gamers — means it is likely that a new supply of ‘old’ consoles will soon flood the market, enabling users with an interest in open source to acquire them even cheaper and easier than before, likely increasing the user base and contributing to even more advancement,” Ulmer predicted.
“I suspect that the reason Sony allowed Linux to run at all was so that there was an easy way to run Linux without having to break the DRM,” Montreal consultant and Slashdot blogger Gerhard Mack opined. “Of course, now that support has been dropped, someone will need to break the DRM and run Linux anyways.”
‘Are Those Tears?’
Speaking of Linux and gaming, there were also other lamentations on that front in recent days, this time specific to Android.
“Are those tears, or is it raining in here?” was the title of Matt Hall’s post on Android sales of games developed by his firm, Larva Labs.
Specifically, Larva is apparently pulling in a paltry US$62.39 each day on average through Android sales, Hall noted: “Very difficult to buy the summer home at this rate.”
By comparison, “if you were an iPhone developer with a game in the #5 spot, you’d likely be earning around $3,500 a day,” Hall asserted.
‘The Opposite of Shocking’
“Unprofitable — really?” quipped Mack. “With only one phone on the market and no history? Who would have guessed?”
Things will most likely change “as Google irons out their store a bit and previously announced new handsets hit the market,” he told LinuxInsider.
“It is the opposite of shocking that it is difficult to make money selling software for a platform with so few available devices,” drinkypoo agreed. “The question, of course, is *where are the devices?* Numerous manufacturers have announced Android-powered handhelds, netbooks and so on, but there has been little to no actual activity on that front.”
Indeed, Android and profitability “are not synonymous,” blogger Robert Pogson noted. “If Android must be more plentiful to make a market for software, it will have to be shipped on MIDs, netbooks, notebooks and desktops. That will likely happen only when the polish wears off the Wintel fruit.”
That could happen if the release of Windows 7 is not the success it’s expected to be, Pogson told LinuxInsider.
“OEMs who miss at Christmas may be more welcoming of Android and other GNU/Linux in 2010,” he predicted. “Android has to compete with other GNU/Linux distros, so growth may be slow unless it gets large uptake with the ARM products soon.”
Similarly, “I can’t help but look at these sales numbers and complaints and say, ‘Duh’,” Dean said.
In the United States, Android is actually on two devices: the T-Mobile G1 and MyTouch, Dean noted. “Neither of these phones have the buzz of an Apple release,” and they have “nowhere near the numbers of devices. To compare iPhone sales to Android is not only unfair and stupid, but misleading.”
By the end of this year, there should be five Android devices, Slashdot blogger Mhall119 told LinuxInsider. “By middle of next year, there is supposed to be over a dozen. At that time, there will be exactly one iPhone on exactly one carrier.”
PC vs. Mac All Over Again
iPhone developers benefited from Apple’s marketing push, “which was milesahead of anything Google has done for Android,” Mhall119 noted. “But pretty soon Android will outnumber iPhones, simply because every manufacturer and every carrier will have it. Even AT&T is rumored to be preparing for an Android phone.”
In many ways, “this is the great PC vs. Mac war playing out again, only thistime it’s Google instead of Microsoft,” he said. “Apple is the only company thatcan use the iPhone OS, and they manufacture a very small line of hardware in which you can get it.”
Google, on the other hand, “doesn’t make hardware — instead, they let any hardware manufacturer who wants it to use their OS,” he explained.
Now “we’re seeing the exact same outcome,” Mhall119 concluded. “Apple is now going to be competing not only with Google on software, but with Nokia, Motorola, Samsung, LG, HTC and everyone else who wants to make a cellphone on hardware.”
Snowball vs. Avalanche
Indeed, “Apple’s business model is about 100 percent identical hardware running 100 percent identical software and selling as many of these shiny units as they can,” Dean agreed. “Android is about uniting dissimilar devices with a common platform. The idea is that as Android becomes adopted more and more, each additional device can tap into the pool of Android users. Android is very much a snowball rolling downhill while the iPhone is an avalanche.”
It’s understanding that developers would be dismayed to have invested time and money into a release and see very little return, “but I think like all businessventures, there’s some level of risk involved in being an early adopter,” Dean said. “Programmers can often account for platform bugs and glitches, but I think with Android they’ve accounted for something different — a ‘scattershot’ community that looks long-term rather than ‘write, release, profit.'”
One of open source’s selling points is the lack of vendor lock-in, Dean concluded. “Once the source is released, it can be maintained and updated in perpetuity.
“Google is also assisting and encouraging open source Android applications, likely for this same reason,” he pointed out. “Like Android’s model so far, open source is often slow to roll out and becomes an unstoppable juggernaut in the end.”