Open source games console raises $2m in 24 hours

It can often seem like we are living through a slow process of software enclosure. Ever since the Apple App Store became – seemingly to Apple’s surprise – a huge success, the idea that a single point of software approval and dissemination might be a good idea has been gaining ground. Apple expanded the idea to the Mac itself from its roots on mobile devices, and plans to make App-Store-Only a default setting in its newest iteration of OSX. Microsoft Windows 8 is just around the corner, with a final version shipping to PC makers next month, and a managed software distribution channel called Windows Store built in to all versions. Free and open source enthusiasts fear that the kind of total control of hardware by a third party which Apple operates in its mobile devices cannot be long forestalled from moving across to more general computing devices. The current furore around ‘UEFI Secure Boot’ and Linux¬†typifies the kind of community tensions produced by this fear.

Of course, there is at least one domain of computing where these kind of models have been in place for decades: games consoles. As the console hardware is usually sold at a loss until very late in a console’s on-shelf life, manufacturers are madly keen to control the entire flow of software to their devices, in part so they can make back their investment on royalties and licence fees. While it is not legally possible to entirely restrain the production of unlicensed games, in practice the technological measures and relationships with distributors that games console manufacturers have developed allow them to effectively dominate their market.

So it is perhaps surprising that it is in this area that a major independent initiative in both open hardware and software has seen such success. Ouya, and Android-based console using a Tegra GPU has doubled its target for funding on Kickstarter within 24 hours. The prospective manufacturers of the console promise both an open hardware design and an open approach to software development, essentially removing the ‘approval and oversight’ layer that has been present in the games console market for so long, and has been slipping into other areas more and more. Like the Raspberry Pi, the Ouya seems to promise a potential return to the days of bedroom coding and one-person-developed classics like Manic Miner¬†(you can play it here if you have Javascript enabled). The rise of the smartphone has seen small scale developer effort shift to those devices, as they are so widely owned these days. As a result expensive console games are seeing falling sales, and new handheld consoles like the Playstation Vita and Nintendo 3DS are struggling to equal the sales of their predecessor devices. It will be interesting to see if a combination of cheap open hardware and open distribution channels can revivify this sector.