The Sony PlayStation 3 (PS3) is the easiest and cheapest way for programmers to get their hands on the new Cell Broadband Engine (Cell BE) processor and take it for a drive. Discover what the fuss is all about, how to install Linux on the PS3, and how to get started developing for the Cell BE processor on the PS3.
Let’s ignore the $600 USD “cheapest” flame bait and concentrate on the business significance of Sony and IBM providing and promoting Linux for the PS3, shall we?
The PS3 is not the first game console officially sanctioned by the manufacturer to run Linux out of the box. For a few years, Sony sold a $99 Linux kit for the PS2, available only through their online store. It was discontinued early last year, and is now only available on eBay.
But why would Sony provide Linux for any of their video game consoles? What do they have to gain? In business, nothing is done “just” for the benefit of the consumer, much less for pure “free as in freedom” idealism. In the end, it all comes down to driving revenue and profits up, which ultimately pleases the shareholders. Cynical, perhaps, but do you really believe a public company as large as Sony does anything if not for the sake of revenue and profits? Any activity that does not somehow help improve those two factors, will not be seen very positively with the shareholders.
But still, what does it mean? How does PS3 Linux translate into revenue and profits for Sony? Let’s examine this some more, in the context of an obscure game console manufacturer with a similar strategy.
In Korea, the GP32 game console may not have run Linux, but the manufacturer provided on its website, a full set of open source programming tools that ran on Windows. Linux and Mac OS X support was added by the GP32 developer community shortly later. This made the GP32 the first off-the-shelf game console where the users were officially encouraged to make games for it. GamePark, the makers of the GP32, followed up nearly four years later with the Linux-powered GP2X, which also had a free, full set of development tools, including most of the source for the device’s implementation of Linux.
The response to the consoles was great, both in its native Korea and around the world. There is a healthy global open source game development community. Code-savvy game geeks from all around the world have taken to the GP32 and GP2X. Instead of dismal failure competing against Nintendo and Sony, GamePark has survived and grown against all odds. The gadget-happy Koreans responded despite fierce competition, and a healthy Korean commercial game developer community has grown to serve the Korean GP32 market. Many of these commercial developers were founded by the proverbial “two guys in a garage,” propelled to creativity by the open community GamePark fostered.
So back to the PS3. Sure, it’s freakishly expensive for just a single threaded, single tasking, web browser, digital photo gallery, photo slideshow player, propietary-format movie player, game console. But with Linux and the Blender Game Kit, OpenGL, SDL, etc., this is a garage game coder’s dream workstation on the cheap, with high-definition accelerated 3D graphics, surround sound, and all kinds of fun wireless tech at the developer’s fingertips. At $600 for a 60 GB model with 512 MB of RAM, it would make a nicer Linux computer than most sub-$1000 Windows PCs out there.
Perhaps a cottage gaming industry will grow out of the PS3 Linux strategy, like the GP32’s in Korea. Which makes this Linux play by Sony the direct competitor to Microsoft’s XNA move. You see, both Sony and Microsoft see independent game developers as the future savior of the game industry.
The big game publishers and developers screwed themselves, just as the MPAA and RIAA did, by making production ever more expensive, formulaic, and insipidly uncreative, and by depending on the quarterly mega-blockbuster to survive. They did this at a time when more people than ever have access to the means of production and distribution of digital creative content.
The goal of Sony’s Linux strategy and of Microsoft’s XNA, is to attract the independent game developers to their respective platforms. Microsoft believes that giving the tools away for “free as in free beer,” while keeping the secret sauce bottled up, is the successful strategy. Sony believes making the tools as open as possible without screwing the pooch is the the best strategy.
Now, as an open source fan, I will argue that a truly open community of coders, without central control and oversight, is going to prevail over the “you must please the gatekeeper” culture Microsoft wants to impose with XNA on XBox360.
But let’s not be too idealistic and see this independent game developer thing for what it really is. Just like IBM’s open source moves and Tim O’Reilly’s publishing strategy, both Microsoft’s and Sony’s strategies are all about the alpha geek mind share, and self-interest in the increase in revenue it generates.
But cynical as that may sound, open source is still the better thing. It gives more control to the developer and imposes less order, which leads to greater opportunity for creativity to go where it may. Anything less than an open technology and open community will stave off innovation before it even has a chance to set in.