Linux for the Sony PlayStation 2: Dilemma or Dream System?

by Paul Ferris

At this week's LinuxWorld Expo in New York City, the Sony booth was showing off the Linux kit they just announced for their new PlayStation 2 (PS2). Although we're about two months away from the kit's release in the US, new is a rather relative term here. Sony's already sold several thousand Linux kits in Japan, and they've had the PS2 on sale for over a year state-side.

The PS2 is still the hottest game console according to Mike. Who's Mike you ask? He's one of my teenage son's friends. I kind of consider him the expert: he's the one with two PS2s, a host of other game gear and, most importantly, subscriptions to all of the game magazines. He and I spend at least an hour or so every couple of months catching up on all of the latest game console dirt.

Except it's not a game console, according to Adam Bertsch of Sony's computer entertainment division--it's a Computer Home Entertainment System. Right. And my socks aren't socks, they're mens' hosiery.

Regardless of what the Sony representative had to say about the PS2, it's still the undisputed game console champ. The Xbox may have landed, but near as I can tell, it's been a rough landing. Maybe something close to "auguring in" in military terms, where the the plane "lands" face first, embedded into the ground.

The PS2 has a lot going for it. First, it's priced more affordably. Second, regardless of the hype blowing in from the Northwest portion of the American landscape, it has far more game titles available. PS2 also runs Linux, supported by the manufacturer, if you want it.

Running Linux, however, has a couple of its own problems. So I had a lot of hard questions for Adam, such as: Can I make a Linux bootable CD for the PlayStation? The short answer: No. The why behind that requires a bit of explanation.

For starters, up until recently, Sony lost money on every PS2 sold. It's part of the dynamic of the console industry. People pay a lot for games, but they don't want to pay a lot for the system. To make up for the losses, the console manufacturers practically give the darn things away in an attempt to garner valuable market share--to sell more games which come with royalties that help pay the R&D costs of developing new consoles.

These, in case you haven't noticed, are quite different dynamics than the world most of us are familiar with, the commodity desktop and server industry.

Now Sony is introducing a curve ball. By making a Linux product (a keyboard, mouse, hard drive and a special Linux-bootable DVD) for the PS2, they're making the PS2 into an Internet-savvy computing platform and development box, as well as a game console. Some might even squint their eyes a bit and see a desktop PC that can use a plain old TV set for the display monitor and play some pretty cool games.

Microsoft Territory

This isn't Sony's traditional gaming territory we're talking about here; it's definitely new ground. And it's hallowed ground in the gun sights of Microsoft, I'm sure. Sony's move is also making the landscape between the game console industry and the PC market all that much more blurry.

I find it more than interesting that the PS2 is gaining desktop capabilities at roughly the same time that Microsoft is attempting to gain hardware marketshare for a game console. But the Sony people didn't laugh when I proposed this, they scoffed. Regardless, it's a worthy footnote. Also noteworthy is the fact that Sony is a much bigger company than Microsoft. They're also a media conglomerate, which puts some of the following observations in perspective.

You can develop all of the games and applications you want for PS2 under Linux; as long as you don't expect to make a PS2 bootable CD, that is. Because, you see, they won't let you.

Due to the aforementioned loss-leader strategy, if you want to make your own games, you've got to become a Sony-certified game developer, and that means you've got to drink the Sony developer Kool-Aid. (Cough up some extra cash, please).

From a Linux hacking perspective, the certification requirement is kind of sad and quite limiting. Of course, speculation was immediate regarding how quickly this limitation would be broken, but it's exactly this kind of nonsense that the DMCA was written to enforce.

I'm going to take the rare side of corporate interest here and say that I can see their point of view. The game console market is even more fierce than the desktop market in a lot of respects. Even though I don't see Microsoft's Xbox doing more than becoming the cool paperweight of the future, there's still fierce competition from many directions, not the least of which is the desktop PC environment, which continues to get cheaper by the day.

Sony has to have their pound of flesh for every PS2 game sold, but they'd like more developers to learn the PS2 from a technical perspective. It's a tricky situation, and I applaud them for simply making the PS2 Linux kit available in the first place. But it would be even better if they could come up with some way to collect their game royalties and give the developers the freedom to make Linux-bootable games.

The sad fact is this wish to do both doesn't appear to be possible anytime in the near future. The reason I suggest this is because I know the Linux community mindset, and it's one that doesn't like any authoritarian point of control. While Sony may understand that there are people that want PS2 Linux, they can't give up this precious control. Doing so would undermine the cost structure of the market they've carefully cultivated.

PS2 Linux has other limitations. For starters, it's based upon the 2.2 kernel and an old version of XFree86. This, Sony hopes, will be rectified someday soon by people in the community who become interested in the possibilities of PS2 development.

The PS2 Linux kit also won't play DVDs, even though the PS2 has this capability out of the box. Why? Mainly, Sony doesn't want to turn it into the ultimate DVD ripping tool, another concern of a company that's got a game-console/media conglomerate focus.

Regardless, running Linux on the PS2 is another bullet point (besides Grand Turismo III ) on my list of reasons why I'd love to have a one. Unfortunately, I suspect that I'd spend a bit more time, um, benchmarking the game hardware than developing software. But Sony hopes to find a few people that can overcome this tendency, which would, in turn, help create reasons for others to purchase the PS2.

At $300.00 for the PS2 and $200.00 for the Linux add-on kit, it's not a bad price-point for the value and capabilities you're getting.

Walking away from the Sony booth, I was struck with a thought regarding the diversity of the Linux platform. Linux is running on game consoles (or, Home Entertainment Computer Centers, or whatever it is), PDAs, desktops and IBM Zseries mainframes. Whatever the outcome is for Sony's gaming market, this is good news for GNU/Linux and free software in general. Now, if I could only convince my wife that I'm buying a $500.00 PC.

Paul Ferris is a Linux Geek-at-Large. He's currently looking for a challenging assignment.

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