Mike Masnick at Techdirt is fuming over Sony’s decision to remove the ability to install third-party operating systems on the Playstation 3 with their next big firmware upgrade. I don’t think I was even aware of the feature, so it’s of little practical import to me, but apparently there are quite a few coders and scientists out there who got PS3s precisely because, with Linux loaded, they can not only double as computers, but can be networked into a cheap supercomputing cluster. It’s a feature Sony promoted in its marketing: The company touted an all-in-one system that would allow users to “play games, watch movies, view photos, listen to music, and run a full-featured Linux operating system that transforms your PS3 into a home computer.” It’s because of this very feature that the U.S. government bought thousands of the pricey boxes. Now users have to choose. If they refrain from updating their consoles, they surrender the ability to play newer BluRay discs and games, or to use the Playstation Network. If they do update, they lose their Linux—a feature a relatively small proportion of users take advantage of, but probably a central selling point for those who do. So I’ll throw in with Mike: Hugely bogus on Sony’s part.
What intrigued me especially, though, was a comment on a site discussing the user hack that apparently started all this. Very (very) briefly, hacker George Hotz apparently found a way to use the other-OS feature to get low-level access to the system, which only the folks at Sony and IBM are supposed to enjoy. And while there’s still a thick layer of encryption in place, this is in theory a step toward PS3 owners eventually being able to install cheats and (still more worrisome) circumvent DRM on games and videos. In short, Sony’s trying to preempt this by ensuring that system owners aren’t able to avail themselves of Hotz’s exploit if it should ever progress to that point. This exchange between commenters Vasenor and Mingster on the Eurogamer forum caught my eye:
Vasenor: If it does get cracked I’d find it interesting what happens to the sales numbers for PS3 games. Generally platforms have been cracked so quickly that doing a before and after comparison was basically impossible. Then again what is likely to happen is that any poor sales performance on a game which doesn’t quite cut it would be blamed on Piracy.
Mingster: Yeah its interesting that even though there is no piracy on the Ps3 that a multiplatform title still sells as many if not more on the 360. It sort of means that piracy isn’t that big a factor for low sales.
There really should be an article about this as its the only system that can’t blame poor sales on piracy. (at the moment)
For various reasons taken up by others, it’s not clear at all that there will be any brave new world of PS3 piracy opening up, so there’s probably not going to be a “before and after.” But I hadn’t realized that we’re currently operating in a console market where, in essence, piracy is possible (with some difficulty and drawbacks) on two of the three major competing systems, but not on the third. Obviously there are a ton of other factors about the demographics of each console’s user base to take into account—most obviously, people who would want to pirate games might be more likely to buy the systems on which you can pirate games—but given that titles for the two most directly comparable systems (PS3 and Xbox) seem to be priced similarly, this seems like one natural way to try to gauge the real effect of piracy on sales: Pick a couple of multiplatform titles, and then see if there’s any conspicuous difference in the ratio of units sold to consoles in active use for each system. You couldn’t put too much stock in the results for any single title, but if a pattern emerged across the libraries, you’d surely have something.