Monday, December 12, 2011

PS3 'OtherOS' Scandal: Sony 1, Customers 0

Sony PlayStation 3

The verdict is in: a company can flog you a product while loudly advertising a significant feature likely to sway your buying decision, then yank it away from you sometime later - and get away with it. Yay!

Sounds like a ridiculous, awful parody, doesn't it? Unfortunately, it isn't. This is what's happened with the "OtherOS" feature so unceremoniously yanked by Sony from the PlayStation 3 way back in March 2010 with a firmware update – the infamous version 3.21 - all in the name of increasing system security to prevent game "piracy". At the time the feature was advertised, many enthusiasts realized that they could use the PS3 as a cheap, but powerful computer and Linux was lovingly ported over to it. Even the US military built a "supercomputer" around a cluster of 1760 PlayStation 3's, finding them very useful for such things as researching artificial intelligence, image enhancement and pattern recognition, all things requiring intensive computer power. They can't do this any more, all because of the "fight against piracy." As machines die off, they can't be replaced with new ones. Unless those can somehow have the old firmware put on them using some unofficial workaround, of course...

Sony PlayStation 3

Enthusiasts interested in this feature were understandably not happy at being treated in such a shoddy way. One Californian resident, Anthony Ventura, even had the guts to file a class action lawsuit against Sony over this and the case looked like a strong one. The lawsuit stated that the removal of this feature was an "intentional disablement of the valuable functionalities originally advertised as available." However, today, U.S. District Judge Richard Seeborg unfortunately dismissed all but one of Ventura's claims, upholding the EULA that Sony makes customers agree to when they purchase the console. In its motion to dismiss the suit, Sony wrote: "These contracts specifically provide PS3 purchasers with a license, not an ownership interest, in the software and in the use of the PSN, and provide that SCEA has the right to disable or alter software features or terminate or limit access to the PSN, including by issuing firmware updates."

Judge Seeborg's reasoning that the lawsuit should be dismissed is that Ventura is claiming rights to something which he doesn't have rights to: "All of the counts are based on plaintiffs' fundamental contention that it was wrongful for Sony to disable the Other OS feature, or, more precisely, to [force PS3 owners to decide between] permitting the Other OS feature to be disabled or forgoing their access to the PSN and any other benefits available through installing. The flaw in plaintiffs' [argument] is that they are claiming rights not only with respect to the features of the PS3 product, but also to have ongoing access to an internet service offered by Sony, the PSN."Although a little unlikely, Ventura may yet appeal this dismissal. We will publish a follow-up article if this happens.

The only part of the lawsuit that the judge "upheld", was that Venture was allowed to continue using the PS3 with the original firmware, thereby allowing "OtherOS" to be used in that configuration only. A small consolation, if any at all – how are Sony going to stop him anyway? This "option" of course, brings with it a host of problems for the now hapless user, as Escapist Magazine explains: "The plaintiffs maintain that firmware update 3.21 doesn't just forbid access to the PSN, the main functions of the console are no longer viable. To wit, if you didn't update, you could no longer play new games, play games online, play new Blu-Rays, or even play some older Blu-rays. So choosing not to update and keep the "Other OS" option alive means that no new purchases are possible and it seriously restricts the usefulness of the product." Exactly and Sony know this very well, coldly using it as leverage to force people into disabling this important feature.

However, as awful and unjust as this verdict is, it does appear that the law is apparently completely on Sony's side and therefore the judge was merely applying it. The famous phrase, "the law is an ass" appears to fit this case perfectly. In fact, judge Seeborg did actually sympathise with Ventura's situation, which is nice of him: "The dismay and frustration at least some PS3 owners likely experienced when Sony made the decision to limit access to the PSN service to those who were willing to disable the Other OS feature on their machines was no doubt genuine and understandable. As a matter of providing customer satisfaction and building loyalty, it may have been questionable. As a legal matter, however, plaintiffs have failed to allege facts or to articulate a theory on which Sony may be held liable."

So there you have it, a company can sell you a product and then a considerable time later pull a feature which is a major selling point without penalty, not even having to bother compensating the buyer for it in the smallest way. Nothing. Nada. This gives a very poor experience for the customer and leaves them wondering when the next feature will be pulled, or what other dirty tricks the company will be up to. The only thing left to do in such a situation is for everyone to vote with their wallets and boycott companies that have such nasty business ethics. This doesn’t happen often enough in practice, unfortunately.

Finally, one does wonder if the lawsuit would have been dismissed so easily if an entity with deep pockets such as the US military with its homemade supercomputer would have brought this class action...

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