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Microsoft’s successor to the Windows XP operating system, known as Windows Vista, will come with new technologies meant to provide a secure digital media environment. The idea is to make it easier to download HDTV-quality video to your desktop or laptop. But, in the process, critics fear you will lose something: the freedom to use whatever hardware or software you want.

So what you’ll hear about Vista depends on whom you ask. According to Microsoft representatives, the new operating system (which was known until recently by its Microsoft code name, Longhorn, and is now scheduled to ship in late-2006) will be a vastly more secure platform for delivering high-quality entertainment content.

But ask analysts at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), the well-known Internet civil-rights organization based in San Francisco, and you’ll hear talk of Vista turning into a highly restrictive sandbox–where only the major movie studios decide who can play.

What’s certain is that the new content protections in Vista have been designed in cooperation with media companies such as Disney and 20th Century Fox–a first for Microsoft. Understandably, these firms have a vested interest in improved security. After all, music CDs have no effective copy protection and the content scrambling system in DVD players was cracked by hackers in 1999.

“We’re trying to offer a platform that understands the concerns of a lot of stakeholders to protect the content,” says Marcus Matthias, product manager for Microsoft’s Windows Digital Media division. “If it can’t be protected, there is no incentive to make content available.”

Part of Microsoft’s new digital rights management (DRM) system is an improved method for identifying and authenticating external devices attached to PCs. Plug-n-Play technology has been around for years–but it’s hit-or-miss, as anyone who’s installed a new piece of hardware knows. Microsoft’s new authentication solution, called Protected Media Path (PMP), is being developed in partnership with the entertainment companies. The technology allows a PC to determine whether a newly-attached hardware device–such as a monitor, DVD player, or video card–really is from the same manufacturer, or has the same make, model, and serial number, as it claims. Devices from manufacturers who haven’t adopted the PMP system may not work with PCs running Vista.

Seth Schoen, a staff technologist at EFF, has published several articles critical of PMP and other DRM features in Vista (see Notebook). He argues that they amount to restrictions on consumers’ freedom of choice–for example, by preventing PC owners from using hardware brands that the entertainment industry hasn’t approved.

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