Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Microsoft to Kill Industry with Copy Protection

Microsoft is set to constrict and disable parts of your computer if you install Vista. I'm NOT kidding. Extensive research has been done by Peter Gutmann digging into the developer's guidelines and what he has found is nothing short of amazing. Or, amazingly bad. Perhaps even silly and certainly overboard. His article is over 30 pages long and is largely written for tech persons. What I'll try to do here is boil it down not point for point, but down to more "what it means to you." I think everyone needs to know about this. I've verified his findings with other sources although none of them go into this much detail. I still recommend reading it for yourself and looking into more sources (just Google "Vista copy protection" and you'll get lots).

Microsoft Vista intends to protect any and all "premium content" on your computer from piracy. It is attempting to force manufacturers to conform to an extreme set of standards that will ultimately make using a Vista PC a slow, limited, costly and low quality experience. What is "premium content?" It's hard to say right now because some older technology (like Super Audio Discs) seem to be included, but certainly included will be HD video discs.

In the new age of High Definition TV and discs like Blu-Ray and HD-DVD, it's understandable that the creators of shows and movies are concerned about having such a high quality version of their work in customer's hands. I would be! With an HD copy of a film, counterfeiters would have a field day selling pristine bootlegs which could kill the industry and then, no more shows or movies. What will happen when you pop in a HD-DVD movie into your Vista PC? Well, Vista will first recognize it, then it will go through and disable everything on your computer that could possibly be used to copy information. This is set to include any cables you may have sending a signal out to a TV or stereo receiver. That means if you have your computer set up like a DVD player (like one you may have built with with Windows XP Media Center) with a digital optical audio cable piping Dolby Digital Surround Sound to your reciever and one of many cables piping out video to your TV, those ports will be disabled and will not work. Why? Because there is the slightest of chances that maybe you've figured out a way to copy the picture or sound. 'Well, if it's disabling all these ports, what about my monitor?' Perhaps most interestingly, the "premium" picture and sound will be displayed on your monitor and out your speakers, but will actually be purposely filtered to be "slightly fuzzy". 'That's crazy! Vista is going to DECREASE the quality of the picture and sound?'Yes. All in the name of copy protection.

If you think that's enough to tempt you to moving to a Mac, there's more. The other thing this will likely effect for Windows customers is their wallets. You may have heard that you will likely have to upgrade your computer just to run Vista at it's minimum requirements. Pretty much anything over a year old will need to be upgraded. I had my 98/NT/Win2000/XP PC for 6 years before upgrading recently and it wasn't even close to to top of the line when I bought it. Now, I'll have to upgrade my 6 MONTH old computer in order to run Vista well. You may have also heard that Vista will require internet access so it can "call home" regularly to authenticate itself and upload hardware information about your computer (and we all know net access will be required to make Vista work correctly with umpteen "critical updates"). This includes businesses as well as consumers and some corporations are already refusing to adopt Vista until the "call home" function is removed. What you may not have heard however is that Windows is "asking" hardware makers to change how they make their computer parts in order to conform to Microsoft's copy protection requirements. One big sector that will be affected are video cards, which are "add-on" cards that many of us use to get better graphics in games and will be required to run Vista. Video cards have graphics processors which computes all video-related information on your computer. This greatly speeds all your graphics and reduces the strain on you're computer's central processor. Currently, most video cards have processors made by either NVIDIA or ATI and the circuit boards that are sold with the processors attached are made by someone else. Popular 3rd party board makers include XFX, EVGA, ASUS and BFG. To run a video card (and any piece of hardware) you need to install "driver." A driver is a little software application that "plugs" the device into the operating system and coordinates the two so they can work together. Right now, if you buy an NVIDIA or ATI-based video card, you can download a single universal NVIDIA or ATI driver that will make all cards with those processors work properly. This covers hundreds of cards from the last 4 years at least. How BFG or EVGA make video cards now, as noted in the article, is similar to a car. They make a universal body for a car to go around the engine with all the nice options and then remove options to decrease the price. "Options" are often extra functionality provided by an added chip. When the chip is taken away, it leaves a little empty conduit on the board. This void, so Microsoft says, is a security risk. So, instead of making a one-size-fits-all board with options-or-no, Microsoft is "asking" board makers to make custom boards for every price-level of a card. Furthermore, they're requiring that every graphics processor and every version of that processor (right now, NVIDIA has 12 in their popular GeForce 7 Series alone) must have its own driver. What this all translates to is more money for manufacture and that means either less choice for the consumer or a higher price, perhaps both. It also means that makers will have to create all new drivers for existing cards in order for them to work with Vista and from now on, make custom per-card drivers. (Many GeForce 8 Series users have complained about there being no Vista Drivers yet. I guess now we know why.) Not only does that mean that we'll have to dig through a ton of drivers to find the one that matches our video card, it means additional costs for makers and higher costs for us. And it means that there are thousands older of cards out there that manufacturers won't be willing to write new drivers for. I have a machine that runs on a 4 year old NVIDIA 5200. If I upgrade to Vista, it won't work anymore (and would be deemed a security risk, of course). There are thousands of businesses that have cards even older than mine in computers running Windows XP and simple programs like word processors just fine. If upgraded to Vista, it would mean possibly thousands upon thousands of "out moded" computers. The film Robots comes to mind. Every little variation of every device out there will have to have custom drivers and this includes every universal piece manufacturers have thoughtfully built-in over the years. Think of this as well, this could mean that my motherboard may not work either because that also has drivers and unused little spots on it-- your motherboard is the mama of your whole computer. Without her, you have no computer! Your DVD drive and your hard drives also have drivers. Will they be effected?

I also have to mention that Vista will only allow you to make a limited number of hardware changes to your computer before it must check your software license online. That means you'll have to be hooked up to the net and the new hardware will have to be approved by Microsoft in order to work. In not, your new hardware will be disabled. If you're a gamer and upgrade your video card often, Vista may soon require you to re-authenticate your copy of Vista or you won't be able to use the new device. In addition, if you're computer happens to have too many data hiccups or little electrical oops's from power fluctuations, outages or just plain who-knows-what, that will also trigger Vista's watchdog program and require you to connect to them online to show them your papers. This also means more info than ever before will be sent to Microsoft. The book 1984 comes to mind.

Wait, there's more! I mentioned Vista would slow your computer (nope, I don't just mean installing hardware). Mainly, it'll slow things down with its new copy protection system called Hardware Functionality Scan. This is yet another one of those "background services" that slow your computer although this one us supposed to be even worse. See, the HFS process is dynamic, meaning that it adapts to changes in your computer in real time. So, if you're playing "premium" music, the detection "fades" in and out when the music fades in and out. So, no only will the song be "fuzzy with less detail" because it's being purposely degraded, but your computer will be enabling and disabling components between every song! A Christmas tree comes to mind. All this activity will slow your computer and there's no way to turn off this "service."

I have no idea what all this will do to software and hardware makers. ATI has already stated that it's spent more in the last 6 months in legal fees related to this than it ever has before. These requirements promise to make software makers lives more difficult because they must conform to a very narrow and strict (and sometimes extremely vague!) set of guidelines. If you're a software maker of copy protection for films, it looks like you'll have to get your software approved by experts in the field, Hollywood studios. These changes are already making producers of open-source software wonder. As far as content producers like artists and musicians, instead of this being a simple and rewarding upgrade, there are thousands of hardware issues to consider. It also raises a lot of questions like, if you're like me and you create HD content, will it be degraded because it's HD? Heck, will we be able to watch HD trailers with Quicktime at full resolution? Will Quicktime even work on Vista? And who actually decides what is "premium content?" Will all your software and drivers have to pass a Microsoft approval process? Also, will Vista run on Macintosh computers with Bootcamp if we so chose?

What this all boils down to is a long list of limitations that borders on fanaticism that will ultimately degrade your computing experience. And Microsoft isn't asking anyone's permission. It's simply suggesting that businesses fall in line or else they'll be failing their customers (because we'll make your content look like crap). Personally, I haven't seen any copy protection that's ever worked. If things don't change, you will be paying for this copy protection no matter what because of all the dollars that manufacturers will have to spend to achieve the glory of a 'Microsoft Approved' certificate. From what I'm reading it will take a lot of hoop jumping and rigid, difficult programming. I think it's absolutely incredible that Microsoft would do this especially since the industry has been moving more towards open source (open source meaning anyone can create and contribute to software like Mozilla FireFox). It will likely encourage some people to make the leap to Apple, which isn't much of a leap being Vista largely imitates Apple's current operating system OSX. This effort by Microsoft is more strict and limiting than anything ever in computing and woe to anyone who simply goes along with it. It restricts your rights and violates your privacy no matter how your slice it. "Non identifiable information" just means they haven't put the pieces together yet. Years ago, there was a HUGE outcry when Intel put a "call home" capability into their Pentium III chips that sent them info about your computer. This is far worse than that.

I encourage everyone to look harder and deeper than I have and get the facts. And then make them and your opinion known. Don't just send your findings and feelings to tech mags and websites either, send them to national news outlets and to your congressperson. Our daily living should be about freedom and choice, not about artificial limitations supposedly in the name of security. And no business should be able to gathering information on us personally. If we want to build computers without having to study computer science, use them without being slowed down because of superfluous background services, if we want to enjoy high quality content without degradation, if we want to use it as our media center and if we don't want to have to pay premiums on top of premiums for these things we must get the word out. Consumers and business both must make their opinions known about this.

Thanks for reading. Hopefully your curiosity is piqued. Please do let me know what you've found out and what you think. I think I'm going to browse for my new Mac with a nice HD monitor.

This entry originally appeared in my Myspace blog. Here are the comments as posted:

Posted by Naughty by N8ture on Wednesday, January 17, 2007 at 11:12 AM
All I can say is I hope Apple is prepared for all the new business they'll be racking up from this one!

Posted by Eric on Wednesday, January 17, 2007 at 3:33 PM
I've maintained for a while that Vista is, in many ways, MS putting the barrel of the biggest gun it can find right into it's gaping, voracious mouth.

An analyst on NPR a few weeks ago ran some numbers -- for corporate/pro users, Vista would require, in order to function at maximum efficiency (and factoring in pro user software costs and the purchase of hardware that can actually RUN the damn thing), somwhere in the neighborhood of $5,000.00USD.


It obviously won't cost that much to home users, but it'll still be pricy.

This could actually, once and for all, cost them a significant number of corporate/business users, because it's no longer cost effective in any reasonable way. Home users were always the bastard stepchild of the MS market (we're essentially the biggest, free software testing bed in the universe), but business users are the company's bread and butter.

It'll be interesting, to say the least.


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