Is Vista’s DRM a step too far?

If it isn’t enough that Vista’s licensing legalese has being causing raised blood pressure, its use of DRM technology is arousing passionate outbursts and outpourings of FUD. The fact that DRM has been part of the Windows has been included in Windows since the 1990’s does nothing to quell the storm. One thing that needs to be pointed out is that the whole furore entails the delivery of protected content to consumers. Microsoft would no doubt approve of the line that if there was no protected content, then there would be no need to worry. However, there is a sizeable number of people who do not trust Microsoft to keep to its word and are making their feelings known.

The embodiment of the issue is Microsoft’s incorporation of HDCP into 64-bit Vista. It is an Intel standard and it’s already on the market but users already are having bad experiences with it. The problems surround the need to ensure that protected video is not intercepted while a movie is being played and this involves the hardware as much as the software. The result is you need a compatible monitor that will have the correct inputs so that DRM can be employed. Some also suggest that this is not the end of the matter as regards hardware compatibility and the list can grow long enough that a whole new PC looks a good idea.

At the heart of this debate is a paper written by Peter Gutmann of the University of Auckland, in which the consequences of Microsoft’s implementation are examined. The idea of a system with an alternative agenda to that which you have is hardly enthralling: neither using CPU time to monitor DRM and the locking down hardware are particularly attractive. Such is the exposure that this article has received that even Microsoft has had to respond to it. The point that they try to make is that decoding of protected content occurs in a sandbox and does not affect anything else that might be going on in the system. Unfortunately for them, many of those adding comments to the piece take the chance to launch a broadside on the company; some of the vitriol is certainly successful when it comes to trying to put me off Vista. To Microsoft’s credit, the negative comments remain but it far from helps their attempted rebuttal of Gutmann.

The main fuel for the negativity is not Gutmann’s paper per se but lack of trust in Microsoft itself, all of this in spite of its Trustworthy Computing initiative. The question goes like this: if the company uses DRM for video and audio, where else could it use the technology? The whole licensing debate also furthers this and it is on this point that the fear, uncertainty and doubt really goes into overdrive, no matter how much effort is expended by people like Ed Bott on debunking any myths. Users generally do not like software taking on itself to decide what can and cannot be done. Personally, I have past experience of Word’s habits of this nature and they were maddening: trying to produce my doctoral thesis with it went OK until I tried pulling the whole thing together using a master document; I backtracked and made PRN files for each chapter so that it wouldn’t change; LaTeX would never have done this….

What is the point of all of this DRM? It looks as if Microsoft clearly feels that it is necessary to pitch the PC as an entertainment content delivery device in order to continue growing their revenues in the home users market. Some would take this idea even further: that it is control of the entertainment industry that Microsoft wants. However, in order to do so, they have gone with strong DRM when there exists a growing backlash against the technology. And then there’s the spectre of the technology getting cracked. In fact, Alex Ionescu has found a potential way to fool the Protected Media Path (called Protected Video Path in a ComputerWorld Security article) into working with unsigned device drivers. Needless to say given the furore that has been generated, but there are others who are more than willing to take the idea of cracking Vista DRM even further. A recent remark from a senior Microsoft executive will only encourage this.

I must admit that I remain unconvinced by the premise of using a PC as my only multimedia entertainment device. Having in the past had problems playing DVD’s on my PC, I nowadays stick to using a standalone DVD player to do the honours. And I suspect that I’ll do the same with HD video should I decide to do watch it; it’s not that high on my list of priorities. In fact, I would be happier if Microsoft made a versions of Vista with and without protected HD capability and they do: 32-bit Vista will not play protected HD video. And it avoids all the hackles that have caused so much controversy too, allowing an easier upgrade in the process. The downsides are that the security model isn’t as tough as it is in the 64-bit world and that maximum memory is limited to 4 GB, not an issue right now it more than likely will become one. If you are keen on Vista, the 32-bit option does give you time to see how the arguments about the 64-bit world run. And if hardware will catch up. Me, I’ll stick with XP for now.

VMware and ZoneAlarm

Contrary to appearances given by this blog, I am not exclusively a Windows user. In fact, I have sampled Linux on a number of occasions in the past and I use VMware to host a number of different distributions – my Ubuntu installation is updating itself as I write this – as I like to keep tabs on what is out there. I also retain a Windows 2000 installation for testing and have had virtual machine hosting a test release of Vista not so long ago. I also have my finger in the UNIX world with an instance of OpenSolaris, though it is currently off my system thanks to my wrecking its graphics set up. However, ZoneAlarm has been known to get ahead of itself and start blocking VMware. If you go taking a look on the web, there is no solution to this beyond a complete system refresh (format the boot drive and reinstall everything again) and I must admit that this sounds like throwing out bath, baby and bathwater together. I did find another approach though: removing ZoneAlarm and reinstalling it. This wipes all its remembered settings, including the nefarious one that conflicted with VMware in the first place. It’s amazing that no one else has considered this but it has worked for me and having to have the security software relearn everything again is much less painless than rebuilding your system.

Buying OEM Vista?

A few days ago, I mused over buying OEM Vista if/when the time came for me to do upgrade. Then, I came to the conclusion that OEM was a no-no unless you bought it installed on a system. In an article on the PC Magazine website, things seem not to be as cut and dried as that. Apparently, the perceived wisdom is that if you are building a system for yourself and you agree to provide all support as the system builder to yourself as the system user, then everything is OK under the licence. Also, there seems to be a trend among resellers that it is not them who are subject to the terms of the licence but the customers who purchase the OEM software. It is all just a little bit confusing. Draw your own conclusions…

Windows Vista Upgrade Advisor

Following the arrival of Vista, some are probably planning to upgrade straight away; I think that I’ll wait a while. As it happens, we are using Windows 200 at where I work and the ending of Microsoft’s support for this now elderly workhorse is driving a deployment of Windows Vista across the company that is due to start in the summer, very quick turnaround in IT terms. Given that it wants people to upgrade in order to keep its coffers full, Microsoft has made a tool available a tool to test for Vista readiness. Oddly, you have to install it after download. I would have thought that a tool like this should run without installation but there you go. Running it tells you the best version of Vista for you and any actions needed on your part. Vista Business edition was suggested as best for me and the deficiencies included: hard disk space on my Windows drive, a pair of incompatible devices and a number of applications whose compatibility could not be guaranteed. Curiously, some Microsoft packages turned up on the last list. As regards hardware, my sound card and scanner are the offending items. Sound cards are cheap if that needs to be replaced but I had onboard sound capability on my motherboard that can be instated if so required. Throwing away a perfectly good Canon scanner isn’t my idea of sustainable living so I have been on a trip to the Canon website in order to find out more. The good news is that a driver update sets everything in order though there are caveats for Vista 64 bit. All in all, a Vista upgrade is a goer.

Vista is coming…

2007-01-30 (next Tuesday) is given as the date for Windows Vista’s launch to the wider world. It’s an expensive beast so I think that I’ll wait for a while and take the plunge when all the hype has died down. When compared with retail prices, it seems that a TechNet Plus subscription would be a good move, particularly as it would be useful to have an awareness of up and coming Microsoft Technology for my work. However, what looks really tempting is the OEM option. There are caveats with this, especially since Microsoft changed the licensing arrangements so that OEM Windows should only be bought installed on a complete PC. This has always been the case with its server and office software but buying a component such as a CPU or hard drive once was sufficient for OEM Windows. I suppose that I’ll keep waiting then…