Oh my God! why would you want Vista!?

As a follow-up to a recent post, I’ve discovered more horrific information about Vista. The digital content protection system is draconian and actuallly designed to hobble your PC! Read this before you buy Vista.

Digital Restriction Management (or Digital Rights Management as it is sometimes eroniously known) has been with us for some time now. It exists because digital files can be intrinsically valuable, but only if you are able to control access to their contents. Y’see once I’ve paid for a song or movie online and downloaded it to my computer, or computer-like media device, how does the record lable/film house know that I won’t reistribute it to a few thousand of my closest friends for free?

There are two answers: 1) You make the content you are selling sufficiently cheap and easy to view that it’s just less hassle to buy it from the legitimate source and assume that the large majority of your customer base are not criminals and respect the rights they have under copyright law. 2) You assume your customer base are criminals (or want to be) and their rights under copyright law are just too good for them and make the content very dificult to access or do anything with other than replay it on “approved” hardware.

DRM does the latter and Vista is DRM-tastic.

But think about the implications of trying to implement this. In order to make sure that your content is not replayed on any other devices (other than those you licensed it for) you have to make it impossible for someone to copy it (or transcribe it to some other media). The problem is that this is impossible without also imparing the quality of the content. What’s worse is that you can impare the quality of everything else running on the same machine while attempting do achieve it.

Let me explain;

Imagine the situation: I’ve downloaded some premium content piece of music or video for which I have paid money. I am now going to play this back on my Microsoft Windows Vista PC.

Obviously the file is encrypted and paired with my PC. Moving the file to a different PC will render it unplayable as the encryption link shall be broken. Of course the license will permit me to move that file to a limited number of other locations so long as these are compliant with the same encryption and I pair my ownership (of the license to play the content I’ve bought) with this other device. So far so shiney.

But suppose I want to play it on my (not Microsoft approved) media player? Well, I’d need to convert it into some other format that this device can play and copy it on over. I’m allowed to do that under copyright law, amn’t I?

But wait! If you’ve converted it to another format, the DRM will no longer work! That means you could give it to someone else who hasn’t paid, which would be criminal. Therefore we have to prevent you converting that file into any other format to make sure that you don’t do anything criminal with it.

Of course for a techy there are a myriad of ways you could try to get at that digital content and convert it to some other form of content. For pure audio, I could just play it out through my lovely high quality s/pdif co-ax or optical output into the back of another machine and re-encode it as something less restrictive. Obviously that would be criminal so Vista doesn’t allow you play protected content over s/pdif just to be on the safe side. But this means that you can’t output it to your stereo over s/pdif.

Maybe instead I could listen to the activity on the bus as the content is sent to my output device and re-encode it from there. Well to make sure you don’t do that, output devices are required to have hardware that decrypts the content and Vista monitors any unusual activity on the bus to make sure no such sniffing is going on. If it does detect any, it will automatically hobble the content to make sure it is fuzzier. Of course fluctuations in voltage or delays on the bus caused by, say, fluctuations in voltage or other activity on the bus may well activate this. In short the moment you have any DRM protected content on your computer system performance will be degraded, just to make sure you are not trying to steal the content you have paid for.

It gets worse. There are a myriad of flags that device drivers (for your video card for example) that get raised if any “problem” decoding the content is encountered dropping them into fuzzy-mode. The drivers must implement this specification or Vista wont talk to them. If a driver is compromised (so content could be decoded to another format) then Microsoft can revoke the certificate and prevent it working at all. Not just your video or sound card but everyone else that has one too.

The computational and hardware overheads of implementing this also make the costs of new devices and drivers significantly higher than they have ever been previously. In order to check that “nothing funny is going on” your device has to check with the OS every few milliseconds that all is well. If you’re a PC gamer that’s going to represent a horrendous performance hit. If you’re a virus writer it’s brilliant, all you need to do is raise a few of these flags and the machine will cease to work properly.

At the end of my previous post I cited the question “What about games?” as being a major impedement to people taking up any other OS. Vista has solved this problem itself by making it a system where games playing shall be prohibitively epensive or near impossible.

But why!? Because with this kind of control over content, Microsoft guarantees itself as the media distribution channel which content providers can be sure their content is not being redistributed from without them seeing the royalties. And royalties are all that matters, the only job of a consumer is to consume and not worry too much about how they are made to do it or which rights they have to give up.

Although the information in this article by Peter Gutmann is quite technical here and there, I do urge you to read it for a better understanding of this issue.

5 Replies to “Oh my God! why would you want Vista!?”

  1. I blame the movie and music companies. That may be slightly naive, but remember that Microsoft threw themselves behind HD-DVD primarily because Blu-Ray has even more restrictive DRM built in. Unfortunately, I think this is going to be par for the course ’til they realise that DRM harms sales, and doesn’t help them. Yahoo Music’s recent forays into selling unrestricted mp3s are hopefully an indicator that this is the direction the industry is finally going.
    Despite how badly MS has nerfed Vista, with any luck if the content providers back off this sort of crap will be stripped out in the first service pack. I can always hope, but I’m really not going to blame MS for this. At least, not yet. (Which doesn’t, of course, mean I’m about to rush out and buy Vista either.)

    Why keep buying Microsoft, though? I think you posed that question in your previous post. One simple answer: Office. Having been subjected to the twin hells of Wordperfect and OpenOffice, my God, Microsoft really is the best. I mean, it’s in an entirely different league. I realise that word processing and spreadsheets are probably not what you’re primarily concerned with, but from where I’m sitting, they’re the most important thing.

  2. You really should give Open Office 2.0 a fair trial! I’m not prepared to make any defence of WordPerfect.

    I hope you’re right about the media industry waking up and smelling the coffee but in the meantime Vista represents a bit of a timebomb… those flag bits for raising on suspicion of something untoward going on are a Denial of Service waiting to happen!

  3. Yes, the Wine project is very useful – for when you absoutely must run that Windows Compiled binary on your linux box. Codeweavers do an enhanced version specifically for running MS Office as well if that remains the major concern.