Broken by design?

Peter Gutmann, a very reputable computer scientist, has written a highly critical analysis of the content protection features of Microsoft Vista, which is currently being discussed on Slashdot (1, 2) and essentially every other place in the known blogosphere. It seems like Microsoft is trying to close the "analog hole" by using market fiat to require all hardware vendors to downgrade performance unless all devices are certified as DRM-capable. Here’s the executive summary:

Windows Vista includes an extensive reworking of core OS elements in order to provide content protection for so-called "premium content", typically HD data from Blu-Ray and HD-DVD sources. Providing this protection incurs considerable costs in terms of system performance, system stability, technical support overhead, and hardware and software cost. These issues affect not only users of Vista but the entire PC industry, since the effects of the protection measures extend to cover all hardware and software that will ever come into contact with Vista, even if it’s not used directly with Vista (for example hardware in a Macintosh computer or on a Linux server). This document analyses the cost involved in Vista’s content protection, and the collateral damage that this incurs throughout the computer industry.

[…] The Vista Content Protection specification could very well constitute the longest suicide note in history.

I’ll withhold judgement until I hear from people who know hardware design better than me, but this sounds like a major stumbling block for Vista adoption. The underlying market dynamics in the computer market, as Nick Carr recently said it, is that "hardware wants to be software, and software wants to be free." The Vista content protection specs seem to want to reverse that. I don’t think it will work, long-term: As Gutmann points out, cheap and single-use hardware devices can be created that circumvent premium content protection quite easily.

And to think that I just went out and bought a Media Center PC. Arrgh. I have been thinking about buying a Macintosh as my next laptop, this just about clinches the decision. 

(Via Hugh McLeod)

Update Dec 31st: This is turning out to be an interesting discussion, see Joho and Bob Cringely for viewpoints. What a pity Scoble has left Microsoft.

Update Jan. 14, 2007: There is a good interview with Peter Gutmann at Tvit.tv. Amongst other things, he says he got the phrase "longest suicide note in history" from a bad political program – and that you could not listen to the podcast of the interview without having parts of your PC either shut down or intentionally lose performance. The interviewer describes Vista, with it’s 30-times-per-second system authentication check as "insanely paranoid".

Somehow I don’t think this will fly, and not just because hackers will fix it. It has never been good strategy to go to war against your customers. 

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One thought on “Broken by design?

  1. eirikso

    Well, my new iMac is in the mail. The Thinkpad at work will be substituted with a MacBook.
    And you know? When I sit there with my new toys, how long before my wife demands that her Windows box needs to be replaced?
    I am keeping the old Media Center. But maybe it’s time to install MythTV or SageTV on the box?

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