Monday, February 22, 2010

Vista... DRM... Who the f*ck cares?

I've actually had a couple of people email me with something along the lines of "Why should I give a rodent's rear-end about Vista and the DRM crap? I'm still using XP, and will for as long as I can. Besides, I don't watch movies on my computer, anyway -- that's what the TV is for!"

My initial tendency is to suggest that folks actually go read the nice article. But since I know I'm a geek and most folks aren't, I'll address a few issues here.

  1. Don't care about Vista, I'm still using XP.
    That's all well and good... for as long as your XP lasts, and Microsoft doesn't fuck with it. Some may remember the "adventure" when MS went full-tilt with their Windows Genuine Advantage that they passed off as a vital security update. Do you SERIOUSLY believe that Microsoft isn't going to figure out how to start applying all of the nifty new "content protection" measures retroactively? Not only that, but XP itself contains some of the initial efforts at DRM that MS came up with (that's those "getting license" things that turn up); they've added even more to Vista, and I don't think it's unreasonable to expect that they'll get even MORE enthusiastic with the next version -- and XP isn't being sold any more, if you hadn't noticed, so if you have to get a new computer, chances are that it's going to have whatever Microsofts latest offering is on it... at which point I reckon you will care.
  2. DRM only affects the "premium content", not the computer itself.
    Well, no, that's not correct. All the stuff the computer has to do to "protect" that premium content is always laying there in wait for it show up. Regardless of whatever else you might be doing, the "content protection" stuff is still checking your video and other digital outputs every 30mS (that's 120 times a second, roughly), and analog outputs like sound every 150mS (24 times/second). Sure, you've got this powerful sexy high-end processor... but don't you think that it would work a little faster if it wasn't off playing with itself so much?
  3. Feh. It doesn't cost anything, anyway, so why bother?
    Strictly speaking, that isn't entirely correct. Implementing all that "content protection" means having to add more computer code (hint: Vista comes on a DVD, not CD), and more computer code means more places for software bugs to rear their ugly little heads. But then, Microsoft is SO good about fixing those rare mistakes they make, aren't they? The other side of that is there's an added expense for all the hardware that goes IN to the computer. You don't seriously think that the companies that make video cards, sound cards, motherboards, and all the rest are just going to eat the added cost of all that nonsense, do you (download this PowerPoint presentation by ATI, the video card maker, and see how often the phrase "cost is passed on" shows up)? On top of that, because of the way the "content protection" works, companies that make add-in cards are going to have every reason in the world to offer FEWER choices. The way it works now, they essentially start out by designing a high-end card, then figure out what stuff they can leave off to make progressively less expensive versions (i.e. no TV OUT, no digital video out, etc). The restrictions put on them by the hardware requirements of DRM means that they can't do that any more (lest their product not be accepted at all); the only "reasonable" solution is to minimize the number of genuinely original designs -- which they'll have to charge more for to make the same money.
  4. Meh. I only have to worry if there's a problem.
    Again, that's not strictly true. You see, it depends on what your definition of "problem" is -- and how different that definition might be from that used by the DRM (Microsofts software AND the hardware manufacturers). Mentioned in the referenced article is something called "tilt bits", and the description is entirely appropriate. Just like you could "tilt" the old pinball games and shut them down, the "tilt bits" in the DRM can shut down parts of your computer: software and hardware both are obliged to check for anything suspicious, and "tilt" if they find it. What's suspicious? Could be a slightly out-of-specification voltage (maybe someone is trying to "spy" on the signal!), a little bit of electrical noise at the wrong time (more spying!), a strange code due to a hiccup of some kind (spies!), a weird reading (SPIES!), or whatever the hell somebody thought needed to be included (they're out to get me, I tell you!). In such cases, the offending/offended part of the computer system will be re-started. Repeatedly, if necessary. Just what you need in the middle of a romance or horror movie, yes?
I'm not just bullshitting people, here. If you don't believe me, go read the article. Then read (with a sceptical eye) the drivel Microsoft posted in "response", and the comments.

“I've just had my first experience with HD content being blocked. I purchased an HP Media Center PC with a built-in HD DVD player, together with a 24″ 'high definition' 1920 × 1200 HP flat panel display (HP LP2465). They even included an HD movie, 'The Bourne Supremacy'. Sure enough, the movie won't play because while the video card supports HDCP content protection, the monitor doesn't. (It plays if I connect an old 14″ VGA CRT using a DVI-to-VGA connector)” — Roger Strong.
“[Vista] refuses to send content through the component output for my plain jane video files. So the content system disables all content through the non protected output. Its listed in the nvida vista driver news that vista's content protection disables this output [See “NVIDIA Features No Longer Supported towards the end of the page ”]. Many forum posts, search engine results for problem. Content protection is active in some form, as I can attest. The mere disabling of UNPROTECTED output while playing UNPROTECTED content is proof enough as far as im concerned.” — Kevin Cripe.
“By any standard, Vista's new DRM capabilities hardly qualify as a selling point; after all, it's hard to sing the praises of technology designed to make life harder for its users” — Matt McKenzie, Computerworld.
“The net effect of these concerns may constitute the real Vista revolution as they point to an unprecedented loss of consumer control over their own personal computers […] Vista seemingly wrestles control of the 'user experience' from the user ” — Michael Geist, Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law at the University of Ottawa, Faculty of Law.
“DRM causes too much pain for legitimate buyers […] There are huge problems with DRM” — Bill Gates (reported by blogger Michael Arrington).

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