Making a blender out of your PC

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Last Tuesday, Microsoft released the much-anticipated Windows Vista, which has been lauded as revolutionizing the personal computing experience in much the same way the move from MS DOS to Windows 3.11 did. Yet, amongst all the fanfare, very few people are questioning the most potentially negative aspects of the release, in particular the focus of Microsoft on Digital Rights Management, or DRM.

The two largest media industry groups in the United States, the Recording Industry Association of America--renowned for shutting down Napster and suing 14-year-olds--and the Motion Picture Association of America--renowned for showing melodramatic guilt-trips at the beginning of movies--are the biggest advocates of DRM. DRM currently focuses on securing the song or movie itself; for instance, any songs you download from the Apple iTunes store are tied to a limited number of computers. However, many of the newer, high-definition video and audio formats such as Blu-Ray require the hardware itself to be secured in order to prevent unauthorized copying. In closed devices such as DVD players this isn't a problem because it's essentially an appliance like a blender. Securing devices as complex and varied as PCs is way more difficult, thus Vista employs system-wide DRM to accomplish this.

So, why is this a problem? After all, if only criminals are afraid of cameras, shouldn't the same logic apply to pirates and DRM? Unfortunately, the DRM imposed by Windows Vista directly affects hardware, regardless of whether the user even owns a Blu-Ray drive. For instance, in order to secure the video output, graphics card manufacturers will be required to implement various expensive security technologies on the video card itself, the costs of which are passed on to the consumer. As well, people who've looked at these problems extensively believe without these technologies, displays will revert to a low-resolution version, high-end sound setups fed from certain digital outputs will be silenced and the user will be unable to run any form of protected content when these devices are active.

Furthermore, in order to secure hardware, hobbyists and open-source driver developers are effectively locked out due to the requirement of Microsoft signing off on all driver releases, causing doomsday scenarios to be predicted where entire lines of older graphics cards are disabled.

The extent of the issues with Vista DRM extend far beyond a short opinions article, and indeed, a large report has been released by a researcher at the University of Auckland on just this (For those interested, see www.cs.auckland.ac.nz/~pgut001/pubs/vista_cost.html). Regardless, it's very disconcerting to see Microsoft bowing to the industry groups like the MPAA and RIAA instead of using its clout as the largest software provider in the world to influence them to drop their hardware DRM requirements, adversely affecting not only the fair-use rights of consumers but also the computer industry at large.

Microsoft could have put its foot down and stopped the negative in-roads the RIAA and MPAA have made into the tech industry, preventing the proliferation of technologies and litigation that are utterly contrary to any notion of innovation. Instead, they dropped the ball and allowed a group of complete outsiders to govern the course of the technological development in North America. What we're left with is a crippled operating system and a mentality that believes computers should be as simple and closed as devices used to make smoothies.