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Will Windows Upgrade Hand Power to Big Media?

The Electronic Frontier Foundation is questioning who will benefit from the copy-protection technologies in Windows Vista.

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.

“Microsoft is giving [the studios] tools for enforcing [DRM] on consumers,” Schoen says. “So Microsoft can say ‘we’re not doing it, the media company is doing it,’ which is correct. But the media company is doing it with tools provided by Microsoft.”

Schoen says that he spoke with video-card manufacturers at the Windows Hardware Engineering Conference (WinHEC) in Seattle last April. He says the companies (which he declined to identify) told him that if they opted out of the PMP system, they’d be frozen out of the market for Windows media products, such as home theaters. “So they have no choice but to play along,” says Schoen. “I don’t anticipate that any of them will fight this and be shut out.”

“Given the lack of competition in the movie industry, and, to a lesser extent, the lack of competition in the PC software market, I can understand the fear that the video-card makers are feeling,” Schoen adds.

Despite repeated calls, Disney, Sony, and 20th Century Fox declined to comment on Schoen’s arguments.

Microsoft’s Matthias insists that the goal of Vista’s new DRM technology is to improve the security of personal computers–not to lock out hardware that’s unauthorized by the studios. “Having said that, there is a role to enable content protection to drive legitimate usage of content,” he says.

And Paul Lypaczewski, vice president and general manager of multimedia business for ATI Technologies, one of the major video-card makers, denies any strong-arming from Microsoft or the studios. The aim of all parties involved, he says, is to provide a secure platform.

“By having greater opportunities for premium content on the platform, it opens up more opportunities for the end user, and that’s what we care about,” Lypaczewski says. “If the people who provide and display the content are confident that it’s a good and robust platform, then those models are tenable.”

Still, Lypaczewski says he understands both Schoen’s and the studios’ concerns. “Digital rights management is not a bad thing,” he adds. “The studios have an earnest desire to not have their properties stolen, and you can’t blame them for that. We’re working closely with the studios to make sure protections are in place to protect content on that platform.”

For Schoen, though, Vista’s restrictions on how digital media amount to a further erosion of consumers’ long-standing right to mix and match, reverse-engineer, or tinker with the hardware and software they’ve purchased, as long as they don’t violate intellectual property laws in the process.

In August, another critic of the Vista scheme, Princeton University computer scientist Ed Felten, wrote in his blog, which is titled Freedom to Tinker: “Law-abiding people will be paying more for PCs, and doing less with them, because of the Hollywood-decreed micromanagement of graphics system design.”

On the Net:

  • Seth Schoen’s articles at www.eff.org
  • Microsoft’s explanation of DRM features in Windows Vista
    Freedom to Tinker, a blog by Princeton U. computer scientist Ed Felten on restrictions on user-modifiable technology
    “Why would MS do Hollywood’s Bidding?,” a blog entry by the EFF’s Fred von Lohmann
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