How Sony Forged, Then Squandered, Its Relationship With Linux Users

How Sony screwed up 15 years of goodwill with developers and open-source users by removing Linux support from its console—support hacked back in anyway.

Feb 1 2021, 2:00pm

As companies innovate over time, they inevitably take things away. In the case of Apple’s M1 chip, for example, it took away the ability to upgrade basically anything.

As I wrote last year, the Apple Silicon shift is not its first move away from a CPU architecture, but its third, and the parallels between the transitions from PowerPC and Intel are interesting to watch in real time. Now, while it was the most influential company that offered PowerPC computers for sale, it was technically not the largest—not by a long shot.

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The winner was technically the Nintendo Wii, which sold more than 100 million units during its seven-year history on the console market, all while rocking a variant of the PowerPC G3 processor line used in many early Macs. And it wasn’t alone: The Wii’s primary competitors in home video games at the time—the Xbox 360 and the PlayStation 3—also used architecture based on the PowerPC.

The PlayStation 3, while it did not best the Nintendo Wii, may have bested Apple at making the most popular PowerPC platform intended for a degree of general purpose computing … well, until Sony, under duress, threw that crown away.

Let’s talk about the complicated nature of Linux on game consoles—a story that gets particularly complicated when the discussion turns to what Sony did on the PS3.

Why Linux has always found a home on video game consoles

As operating systems go, Linux is a chameleon, one that can be installed on architectures both incredibly mainstream and absurdly obscure.

One architecture in the obscure category is SuperH, a chipset released by Hitachi in the 1990s that was used in three of Sega’s consoles—the 32X, Saturn, and Dreamcast—and not many other places. Where it appeared, however, made a compelling case for a powerful 32-bit chip, one capable of powering Virtua Fighter and Crazy Taxi alike.

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Despite the fact that SuperH (also known as SH) hasn’t seen an architectural update since the mid-2000s, its compressed instruction set approach to code directly inspired the evolution of modern ARM processors (to the point where ARM literally licensed the functionality from Hitachi), meaning that it has maintained a degree of relevance in the modern day.

And a number of Linux developers have helped to carry SuperH into the modern age after the chipset’s patents expired about five years ago.

“We didn’t have to write new code; we just had to dig some of it up and dust it off,” said Rob Landley, one of the developers that led the effort to revive SuperH as an open architecture under the “J-core” name.

Chipsets like these would be forgotten about if not for Linux helping to push them forward.

And often, this means that you can find Linux implementations for video game consoles (admittedly, of varying age and quality). The Dreamcast is a good example. With the device sporting a VGA port, a first-party keyboard, and an optional Ethernet adapter, it has a lot of the elements that could make it a good choice for installing some form of Linux. And well, people have. It’s not going to be as updated as an implementation on an x86 platform, or even a Raspberry Pi or Pine64 device. But in many ways the fact that it can be done at all makes it interesting to some.

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Among common video game consoles, probably the earliest you’ll find a working Linux variant for is the original PlayStation, which relies on a MIPS architecture. But expect to do a lot of digging on old forums or in the Internet Archive for a copy, as it was released in 2001 and the sites that hosted it are long dead.

There have even been attempts on the Nintendo 64, though they started slowly.

Back in 2016, a guy named Alan Williams shared a YouTube clip that featured StarFox 64 getting overwritten on the screen using a GameShark to boot into a version of Linux … that immediately kernel panicked. That it displayed anything at all is impressive—this is challenging work, as shown by the fact that Alex Thorlton, a Linux kernel engineer who actually worked for SGI (the company that produced the N64 architecture) back in the day, recently tried doing the same thing in an emulator, and had to do a ton of research ahead of time to figure out what could be done.

And all that work built up to something tangible: At the very end of last month, as a Christmas present of sorts, a version of Linux for the Nintendo 64 was unofficially released by developer and Linux kernel contributor Lauri Kasanen. If you have a flash cart and a desire to see a terminal on the device you played GoldenEye on, you can find it on GitHub

And to be clear, we’re not talking about polished Live CD variants of Linux here, but code that you have to compile yourself. (If you’re lucky, maybe you’ll find a port of Debian.) As the motivations of the console manufacturers was to prevent theft or cheating on their systems, these are not particularly easy endeavors. Modding might be required, or exploits of the original hardware, such as what Williams did.

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With systems this old, it’s likely that people are messing with Linux out of personal curiosity or a desire to improve their technical skills, rather than a professional need.

But by the time of the sixth console generation, Linux development on video game consoles became less of a curiosity and more of something that could be genuinely usable. There were two reasons for this: One, the fact that the original Xbox was effectively a stock x86 PC with a fancy design—meaning that standard Linux distributions could run on the machine—and two, a downright shocking willingness by Sony to open up its PlayStation 2 to end users.

It was nice for a while, but eventually the door was bound to shut again.

$299

The cost of the PlayStation 2 Linux kit, which allowed owners of the device to use a variant of Linux on their system. Unlike a modern computer that could be booted from a USB drive or CD-ROM, the PS2 required a proprietary kit that was compatible with the company’s MIPS-based Emotion Engine chipset, and specifically blocked off access to the DVD drive, except for PlayStation games. This kit included a keyboard, mouse, VGA adapter, an ethernet adapter, and a hard drive, and additionally required an 8 MB memory card for installing the operating system. It made the system functional as a programming platform, though game-makers could only develop games for other people with the Linux kit, a very small portion of the total install base of the PlayStation 2, still the best-selling console of all time. (The Linux kit itself, however, is exceedingly rare, and sells on eBay above its original list price today.)

An example of Sony’s PlayStation 2 Linux kit, which uses the NeXT-inspired Window Maker interface. Image: Colin Keigher/Wikimedia Commons

Sony’s surprising openness to Linux on the PlayStation … at first

It’s really fascinating to consider that Sony, the company whose competing interests in content and hardware have likely played the biggest role in the rise of digital rights management, that once literally installed a rootkit on people’s computers, was so willing to give Linux a first-class citizen status on its consoles.

It feels like it shouldn’t be in Sony’s DNA, right?

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But Sony had tried to leverage its position as a video game player to help build goodwill among developers, and adding Linux support to the PlayStation 2 was a good way to do that. It also helped that Sony had developed a development kit for the original PlayStation called the Net Yaroze, with the goal of helping to spur interest in development among hobbyist communities. (This was in sharp contrast to Nintendo’s traditional stance, which often discouraged unlicensed development.)

It was a good idea—and Sony’s move to block off the DVD-ROM drive, while limiting the console’s capabilities as a Linux machine, seemed like a fair compromise.

But then, when Sony released its follow-up to the PlayStation 2, it did something unexpected: It included a way to natively boot into alternative operating systems. The PlayStation 3 included a functionality called OtherOS, which allowed for easy booting into other operating systems. Why was it possible to use a Live CD with the PlayStation 3 but an unacceptable risk with the PlayStation 2? It comes down to how the boot process was implemented. Simply, it used virtual machines, which were supposed to limit access to the full system. As you may know about virtualization, it naturally comes with a performance hit—but the belief was it would keep the PS3 secure while still allowing for non-gaming use cases.

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With Playstation 3 devices capable of running PowerPC-based variants of Linux such as Yellow Dog Linux, it created opportunities to stretch the console into use cases that took advantage of its unique multi-processor Cell architecture, which was seen as potentially beneficial in supercomputing applications. After all, a PS3 might have been expensive for a video console upon launch, but it was cheap as the basis of a supercomputing cluster. Its main CPU unit was faster than the CPU in the last-gen PowerBook, but also had a number of co-processors called Synergistic Processing Elements that, together, helped the architecture dwarf many personal computers at the time … in software that could take advantage of it.

It was a bet by Sony (and by extension, its chip supplier IBM) that it had created something so epic that it could draw in the technical community, along with potentially the next generation of developers. In a community Q&A with Slashdot, the president of Sony Computer Entertainment Worldwide Studios, Phil Harrison, said that the goal was to make room for developers to have a way to learn skills using real hardware, to encourage their improvement. He cited his own growth when doing the same thing with the Commodore 64, how it allowed him to try new things while still trying to learn how to program.

“Now, those industry doors are largely closed by the nature of the video game systems themselves being closed,” he said. “So, if we can make certain aspects of PS3 open to the independent game development community, we will do our industry a service by providing opportunities for the next generation of creative and technical talent.”

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That’s all well and good, but there was still a rub: “Now having said all that, we still have to protect the investment and intellectual property rights of the industry so we will always seek the best ways to secure and protect our devices from piracy and unauthorized hacking that damages the business.”

And, unfortunately for everyone involved, that’s exactly what happened. And Sony did not look good by the end of it.

“One of our key objectives with the new model is to pass on cost savings to the consumer with a lower retail price. Unfortunately in this case the cost of OtherOS install did not fit with the wider objective to offer a lower cost PS3.”

— A message from Sony discussing the company’s decision to remove OtherOS from its PS3 Slim models. Despite the decision not to support Linux in later versions of the PS3, Sony emphasized ongoing support for OtherOS at the time, according to The Register: “SCE is committed to continue the support for previously sold models that have the ‘install Other OS’ feature and that this feature will not be disabled in future firmware releases.” That sound you hear is a broken promise.

The “fat” edition of the PS3, which had the OtherOS option available. Image: Evan Amos/Wikimedia Commons

Why Sony’s attempt to turn the PS3 into a computer turned into a case of corporate self-sabotage

Sony talked a big game upon the launch of the PS3, particularly when it came to whether the console was “hackable.” Sony very strongly implied it was not.

And for more than three years, that seemed to be the case. Well, until a hacker with a reputation decided to take a swing at it. The result killed Sony’s Linux efforts almost immediately and hurt the company’s homebrew-friendly reputation almost overnight.

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The hacker that first found a way into the kingdom was Geohot, a.k.a. George Hotz. Hotz had gained a reputation as a master hacker after being one of the first to unlock and jailbreak an iPhone, and took it upon himself to find ways to exploit the console, which had a reputation for being tough to hack.

It took Hotz about five weeks to find a workaround, something he documented on a blog. The vulnerability, as you might guess by the fact that I’m writing this, involved the use of OtherOS. In a blog post revealing his success, he described how he attained hypervisor-level access to the system’s processor and full access to the system memory.

“Basically, I used hardware to open a small hole and then used software to make the hole the size of the system to get full read/write access,” he told The Register. “Right now, although the system is broken, I have great power. I can make the system do whatever I want.”

Geohot noted that in his initial announcement that there was a risk that Sony could remove features to rein in the hack.

“As far as the exploit goes, I’m not revealing it yet,” he wrote. “The theory isn’t really patchable, but they can make implementations much harder.”

He soon did release details on the exploit, and Sony responded with an aggressive firmware update. With Version 3.21 of the PS3 firmware, the company removed support for OtherOS entirely, citing security reasons, and informed users that if they did not agree to the upgrade, they would lose access to the PlayStation Network, games that relied on newer firmware, and access to copyright protected videos.

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And because Sony apparently had no sense of irony, they literally released the update on April Fool’s Day in 2010.

(Side note: Poor Yellow Dog Linux, whose developers had banked its future on OtherOS being accessible … and were the first to reveal Sony’s plans to update the firmware.)

The loss of access to Linux on the PS3 didn’t affect most regular gamers, but the ones who were technically oriented were upset—and this slowly led to an escalation of energy against Sony in trying to break into the PS3.

Geohot played a role in this escalation—for example, helping to restore the OtherOS feature just days after Sony removed it. But he wasn’t alone. Others joined in, too.

Eventually, Sony brought in the legal team to take on Hotz, suing him and a secondary group, fail0verflow, for their efforts to jailbreak and reverse-engineer the console.

 Hotz, at least at first, took the lawsuit in stride, posting a music video on YouTube where he rapped about the case, with a flow highlighting the fact that he is clearly a polymath.

But the legal action took some dark turns; at one point, a judge approved a subpoena that gave Sony access to the server logs and IP addresses of anyone who accessed Hotz’s blog, the one that detailed his exploit efforts. If it seems like it was over the top, that’s because it was.

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Sony eventually settled with Hotz, who wrote this in a statement about the settlement: “It was never my intention to cause any users trouble or to make piracy easier. I’m happy to have the litigation behind me.” Some, such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation, took it to be something of a gag order.

(Hotz later took his hacking abilities into the startup space, launching the artificial intelligence startup comma.ai, which specializes in autonomous driving solutions.)

This decision to go after Geohot cost the company goodwill for years afterward.

As Sony had specifically marketed the first model of the PlayStation 3 as having this ability to boot into Linux, it meant that some tinkerers spent hundreds of dollars on the machine for a feature they could no longer use. Perhaps it wasn’t the PS3’s primary use, but it nonetheless gave it daily-driver capabilities for some. You literally could get work done on a PS3, which had hardware that was pretty good for its day, so good that some out there feel that the Cell architecture was never truly utilized in full. One day, all of it was gone.

This created a mess of legal action, as people sued over losing access to something that a subset of them really liked. It was like Sony had shown that it cared about the little guy, but as soon as the little guy did something it didn’t like, it pulled the rug out.

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(One point of irony here: Not long after Sony sued Hotz claiming violations of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, the company faced a class-action suit accusing the company of violating the same law.)

Ultimately, the company agreed to a settlement, which took a few detours, but ultimately led to a class-action settlement for the roughly 10 million people that bought the original “fat” edition of the PS3.

That long-running class-action lawsuit could have been avoided had Sony taken another approach to handling OtherOS. It was as if all of the good things the company had done to embrace homebrew development had been forgotten overnight by a corporate culture arguably too focused on piracy, and people instead looked to the negative stuff like the heavy DRM and the rootkit scandal, and offered a heavy-handed dose of payback in the process. 

Geohot’s formative efforts in jailbreaking the console eventually led to more in-depth hacking efforts by others that took the mantle, as Sony’s decisions made the PS3 a target. By 2012, a series of codes were released that allowed for the installation of custom firmware. To this day, you can mod an old PS3 to access (an admittedly older version of) Linux, and you can even do so with low-level hardware access OtherOS didn’t offer.

Sony’s efforts to stop its console from getting hacked led to it getting hacked more thoroughly than it might have … had it left Geohot and his blog alone.

five

The number of miles of wire that were used to connect the more than 1,700 PlayStation 3s used in the Condor Cluster, a project built by the U.S. Air Force to take advantage of the console’s supercomputing capabilities. As The Verge notes, many of the consoles used in the effort were sold directly to the Air Force by Sony after the company removed them from the market after the firmware update fiasco.

I think the lesson here is that people will hack your system no matter how many barricades you put up against it. Or at least try to.

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There will always be folks who find ways to unlock the Nintendo Switch with pieces of 3D-printed plastic and paper clips.

But hacking requires motivation. In the case of the Switch, it is a console that looks like it can run Android really well, and some people want that. Geohot’s motivation was that the PS3 somehow managed to survive unhacked for more than three years, and after the iPhone, he was looking for a new medium to conquer. But the average user, if they’re even aware of hacking, often just wants access to additional capabilities—and not just for reasons of piracy.

Perhaps the company that has managed to find the perfect type of middle ground to this situation is Microsoft. The just-released Xbox Series S already has open-source emulation software on it, thanks to a move that Microsoft did starting with the Xbox One to make the platform more welcoming to developers: Any console can be made into a development console, as long as you’re willing to pay the $20 for that right.

 

As the console-modding-focused YouTuber Modern Vintage Gamer noted in a recent video, this decision effectively removed many of the motivations for exploiting the Xbox One or Xbox Series architecture for those who want to screw around or learn. But it does so in a way that limits the system from being used in nefarious ways. It’s a church and state split: You can’t run a retail game in Dev Mode, nor can you run homebrew software in retail mode, and the apps that the Xbox supports in dev mode don’t allow low-level access to the hardware, meaning you’re leaving some performance on the table.

Nonetheless, the result is that on day one of the Xbox Series S being in stores, it is possible to run some really powerful emulators on the new consoles—which is honestly what hacked consoles are often used for anyway. And for the Geohots of the world, Microsoft has implemented a bounty program to convince them to use their skills for good. (Sony recently followed suit.)

Thanks to programs like these and notably strong security mechanisms, the seven-year-old Xbox One has yet to be jailbroken in a serious way, despite a hacking incident before the console’s launch that involved the theft of sensitive information related to the device.

Compare this to what happened with the PlayStation 3, where Sony’s decision to remove a developer-friendly feature eventually led the system to face more dramatic exploits than even Geohot was ever able to pull off himself (though not because of a lack of trying).

These days, PlayStation 3s are a common sight in e-waste settings, just like the Wii and the Xbox 360. The slim models and the fat models alike show up there in various states of disrepair. It would sure be nice if they could still be used for something.

One has to wonder if Sony could have figured out a way to de-escalate things.

Tagged:

Sony, Playstation, Linux

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