Windows Vista – How would you like to be screwed today?

I’ve heard about Windows Vista’s strong DRM, but I thought it was basically for multimedia playback and DRM’d documents.

However, the truth is worse. Peter Gutmann has done a cost analysis of Vista’s copy protection – and it doesn’t look good. Here’s my summary of this great report highlighting some of the issues that are in Vista and my thoughts about them.

Premium Content

Firstly, all those of you who brought nice, expensive HD screens and video equipment will be able to play HD content with them, right? WRONG, because it doesn’t support HDCP content-protection – infact: “None of the AGP or PCI-E graphics cards that you can buy today support HDCP”

What this means, is that Vista will deliberately cripple your playback to a lower resolution, and the new technology you brought isn’t going to be used to it’s true advantage. You’ll have to wait for new Vista-compatible hardware to come out and purchase that.

Of course, this is all to prevent piracy – but the real pirates have various ways around it (as they always do), and at the end of the day, the consumer suffers.

There is also an interesting side-effect of this feature, which criminals could use to take out surveillance video equipment connected to Vista using the DRM – “If it’s possible to convince Vista that what it’s communicating is premium content, the video (and/or audio) surveillance content will become unavailable”. Of course, if you are using one of the most well know security-flawed OSes for your security system, I wouldn’t have much sympathy.

Hardware and Drivers

Then there is the issue of open source hardware. It seems that the hardware for Vista, needs to have a unique fingerprint (Hardware Functionality Scan) to make sure it is “genuine” (aka: Microsoft DRM compatible) – “The only way to protect the HFS process therefore is to not release any technical details on the device “.

This is going to make getting specs to release open source drivers even harder from some vendors. And for windows users, it also adds bloat to drivers, as each driver for each model of device needs to contain unique code.

Now, to add to craziness all of this – Microsoft will have the ability disable drivers at will! “Once a weakness is found in a particular driver or device, that driver will have its signature revoked by Microsoft, which means that it will cease to function” – so if you have a piece of hardware that gets it’s driver DRM cracked, Microsoft can release an update to disable it.

This is bad enough, but where it becomes REALLY bad, is when you consider vendors who might not release a newer version of the driver to fix the problem – eg: for an old video card, a vendor might not care about fixing the driver, so Microsoft can re-release it. Fancy having to buy new hardware without warning? Not me.

Then there is all the overhead that the new bus encryption requires (yes, data being transferred inside your pc, will be encrypted!) as well as the increased development costs of new devices, and you have a whole bunch of nasties waiting for your average Joe Blogs to stumble into.


All this adds up to make using Vista, look much more like a Faustian bargain, giving in your freedom and rights to Microsoft for “premium content” that you probably won’t be able to play on your hardware anyway.

Hopefully hardware manufacturers will put their foot down, and tell Microsoft “no way”. And the media companies should really consider if they want to put all their trust into Microsoft allowing them to run their premium content on Vista as “once this copy protection is entrenched, Microsoft will completely own the distribution channel”. And Microsoft has shown that when it is a monopoly, it certainly likes to abuse that power.

Lots of home users are also going to be bitten by this – and will warn others away from Vista. They will look at other solutions, such as Linux which will allow them to play whatever they want, however they want.

I think (and hope!) Vista will be the unravelling of Microsoft’s desktop domination – Various non-IT people I have spoken to lately (in particular small/med business owners) are going to avoid it as long as possible, because of the high cost of upgrading all their computers AS WELL as the additional problem of getting legacy applications to work on the new Vista, and having to perform staff training for the new releases of programs.

Linux is becoming a smarter alternative for the desktop every day now. And when people have to move from Windows XP, it is very likely we will see a massive uptake of Linux. Virtualisation and emulation technology will also make it far easier to deal with the issue of legacy windows programs.

MacOS is also a very nice alternative these days as well and the hardware is relatively affordable (and damn nice!), although MacOS could have DRM pushed into it should apple decide to do so, as it does contain a lot of propietary code.

Of course, as much as I’d like it to happen, I doubt Microsoft will be disappearing any time soon. It’s quite possible that they will move out of the OS market into other areas such as gaming (Xbox), music (Zune) and online services (MSN/Window Live), which they have been building quite a lot recently.

So, tell your friends, family and co-workers to stay away from Vista, and point them to other, Open and Free operating systems that don’t try to control and lock down their users. And with enough users moving to OSS, Microsoft’s desktop OS domination will start to unravel.

Think Freedom. Think Open Source.


Jon “Maddog” Hall has some thoughts about how vendors might handle the hardware issue:

In the hardware space, what I would do as a hardware vendor is have two “models” of hardware. One with DRM, and one without. I would not publish the specs of the Microsoft DRM-crippled hardware and publish the specs of the non-DRM labeled hardware. If the hardware was designed right, this would simply be turning on or off a bit in firmware, plus the costs of the separate labeling, stocking, etc. The second cost is not to be under-rated, but it would keep open the market for companies and countries that value the experience of their customers and citizens and will not go along with Microsoft’s draconian FRM philosophies.

We did much the same thing back at Digital, where the hardware we had with Microsoft’s software in it was called “Multia”, and the hardware we had with Linux (or BSD, or anything else) was called “UDB” (Universal Desktop Box). Only the nameplate on the front and the software on the disk was any different.

Maddog’s thoughts make sense – there will be a large market of people wanting non-crippled hardware, and this is one of the ways a vendor could handle it.

Another way is to make hardware automatically turn the DRM on or off depending on the motherboard it is connected to – so, if you plug a video card into a Vista-Compatible motherboard it will run in DRM. Or, if you plug into a non-DRM motherboard, it will run in non-DRM mode. This could be done by passing a signal across the motherboard.

However, the best solution by far would be for vendors to refuse DRM – if (for example) ATI, Intel and Nvidia refused this, Microsoft would have no graphics drivers for most of the computers available on the market – and they would have to back down.

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