Windows Vista DRM: 'Suicidal'

Dennis Faas's picture

A lot of the hoopla surrounding the new Windows Vista operating system (OS) is based on it's new multimedia capabilities.

However, users purchasing Vista to use the much-hyped and enhanced multimedia capabilities to watch high definition or blu-ray DVDs -- or to listen to audio CDs -- may be in for a very upsetting surprise.

In a disturbing, albeit, eye-opening white paper detailing a cost analysis of Windows Vista Contect Protection, Peter Gutmann (a Department of Computer Science security engineering researcher at the University of Auckland, New Zealand) details the consequences of Microsoft's new Digital Rights Management (DRM) cost in terms of system performance, system stability, technical support overhead, as well as hardware and software costs and their affect on Windows Vista users and the computer industry.

In a nutshell: the paper explains how a new kind of technology is built into Windows Vista that will take high-definition DVDs, blu-ray DVDs, and audio discs, and degrade the play back quality drastically because of the content protection mechanism built into Vista, as well as the Microsoft requirements for drivers. At one point, he refers to the new content protection scheme as "suicidal."

Per the white paper, the new operating system will limit the functionality of certain pieces of hardware (such as video cards and monitors) from viewing High Definition (HD) content, requiring customized device drivers. It also requires that hardware vendors "get the OK" from major movie studios such as MGM, 20th Century Fox and Disney before releasing their drivers to the public.

On top of that, additional costs will be incurred by hardware vendors because Microsoft disallows a one-size-fits-all design for devices in the new system. Futhermore, it bans the use of add-ons such as TV-out encoders, DVI circuitry and other add-ons, since the new OS disallows the feeding of unprotected video and audio to external components.

According to the movie studios and Microsoft, that would make it too easy for a user to get around the copy right protected content. As a result, the devices will require a more custom design before being compatible with the new OS.

The white paper also details the elimination of open source hardware since Vista will require Hardware Functionality Scan (HFS) (basically a unique fingerprint) to make sure the content is genuine. In order to provide that kind of uniqueness, vendors and developers would not be able to release any details of their devices. If a weakness is found in the drivers or devices, the OS will disable it.

A 2 megabyte MS Word file from Microsoft, which details the content protection planned for Vista, is available from Ed Felten's (a professor of computer science at Princeton University) freedom to tinker blog.

The complete white paper by Mr. Gutmann is approximately 6000 words, and it barely touches the highlights. It's a long and technical read, but the author brings up several good points and a lot of things to think about before jumping head-first into Vista.

In response to Mr. Gutmann's paper, Microsoft issued a response on their Windows Vista Team blog which, as usual, raises more questions than answers.

Note also that if a user purchases another sound card and installs it after Vista has been installed, for example, this will modify your computer's hardware profile (a unique fingerprint). If Vista determines that it's running on a different profile, you'll need to reactivate Vista or it will run in "reduced" mode.

So, is the new Windows Vista content protection scheme "suicidal" as this paper explains, or is it much ado about nothing? We'll find out soon.

Oh yeah, one more thing: if you're ordering a new computer from one of several manufacturers, bear in mind that you should still be able to demand one with Windows XP if preferred.

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