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Weekly Column

Feeding Frenzy: Digital Rights Management is really just an ecosystem for selling our own stuff to us again and again.

Status: [CLOSED] comments (99)
By Robert X. Cringely
bob@cringely.com

Several readers asked me to comment this week on a very entertaining blog post from New Zealand: A Cost Analysis of Windows Vista Content Protection, by Peter Gutmann (it is in this week's links). The essay characterizes the Digital Rights Management in Windows Vista as a suicide note from Microsoft because Vista's DRM is so draconian and is built into the hardware on such a low level that it is going to piss off the market and ultimately hurt (possibly even destroy) Microsoft, itself.

Except it won't.

This is Microsoft attempting to lead a revolution by running from behind. They didn't invent any of it, but they still want to control it. In order to make that kind of move a success, you have to mobilize immense resources primarily for the purpose of bribing potential partners into becoming partners, which is exactly what Microsoft is attempting to do. And the bribe comes in the form of exactly the currency for which both Big Media and the consumer electronics industry yearn for -- new stuff.

The most sublimely yet stupidly profitable periods for the recording and movie industries, respectively, were when music transitioned from vinyl records to Compact Discs and when home video transitioned from VHS cassettes to DVDs. Everybody bought new stuff -- the same stuff we already had but rebuilt using the new technology. We replaced our record collections with CDs and our video tape collections with DVDs -- exercises that generated untold billions for record companies and movie studios without any risk at all because all they were doing was repackaging established hits.

Having been through these seminal experiences in the 1980's and 1990's respectively, of course they now want to do it all over again, which Microsoft proposes to assist through their DRM technology.

But this desire to sell all new stuff goes far beyond movies and music and Microsoft, all the way to the televisions and stereo systems upon which these old hits are played. This is an especially exciting time for TV manufacturers, because they have never really been in a position to participate in such a feeding frenzy. In the U.S., the old NTSC video standard made all video content backward compatible right up until today. You can still watch American Idol just fine, for example, on an old DuMont TV from 1948, but not for much longer.

And it is not just TV and stereo manufacturers who want in on the game: PC hardware vendors, too, are eager to sell us all new parts, just as they always have been.

And into this confluence of greed and shared interest strides Microsoft and Bill Gates promising a technical solution that gives every potential partner exactly what they want. Content owners get a chance to sell everything over again and this time they'll be supposedly protected from piracy. Everyone will have to buy a new TV with an HDMI connector as well as all new video and stereo components of every type, just so long as they, too, use strictly HDMI connections. Problems of deliberate signal degradation and driver horrors will make all video cards and most processors obsolete, so we'll have to buy all new PCs. Mr. Gutmann characterizes this lack of backward compatibility or any shred of technical elegance as suicidal on Microsoft's part when, in fact, it is Microsoft's best imitation of brilliance.

Intel and AMD love it. ATI and nVidia love it. Thomson and Philips and Sony and Matsushita and Samsung and LG love it. Every movie studio, TV network, and record company loves it. The only people who don't love it are consumers, and neither industry nor government really cared much about them, ever.

Ironically, even the class of nerds represented by Mr. Gutmann loves it, because they LIKE to buy new stuff, too, even if they bitch about having to do so at the same time. In fact, that makes it even better because they can buy new stuff, complain about having to do so, and of course try to hack their way around the DRM technology all at the same time. Is this an anti-Linux strategy on Microsoft's part? Sure! Does it really bother the Linux vendors? Heck no, because they get to sell new stuff, too!

Remember that, as I wrote in an earlier Vista column just a few weeks ago, the OS (just as every earlier release of Windows) is entirely about getting people to buy new computers and that any lip service to upgrading current equipment is just that, lip service. If you want a Windows Vista media PC to deliver high-quality video and audio with no driver problems, just buy a new Windows Vista media PC from some big vendor like Dell, HP, or Sony and match it with other big-vendor stereo and video components that use strictly DRM-preserving HDMI connectors and therefore create no points of signal degradation along the path from hard disk to eye or ear.

And to a certain extent we'll all go for it, too, because this is, for the most part, virgin territory. Most of us don't yet have media PCs OR HDTVs, so an all-HDMI strategy isn't crazy at all. And if the strategy appears to be anti-Linux or anti-Mac, that's only discriminating against 4 percent of the market, right?

So I simply don't buy Mr. Gutmann's argument. Microsoft's DRM strategy isn't a suicide note at all.

But that doesn't mean Microsoft will succeed with it and in this case IT refers to Microsoft's hope to take from Howard Stern the title King of All Media.

For one thing, Windows Vista will fail as both a preserver of digital rights and a maintainer of pristine end-to-end DRM'd content. Vista will fail because the job it is attempting to do is too hard, because Microsoft isn't especially good at these huge integration jobs, and because there is a smart hacker community determined to break Vista over and over again, which it will.

None of this means that Microsoft won't succeed in its real goal of maintaining PC market dominance. But the real threat to Microsoft in the mid- to long-term is Redmond's concentration on Big Media as the key source of content and that is bound to fail in time.

We are poised at the start of a revolution in user-generated content that is actually both useful and valuable. Social networking's ability to create small but measurable markets and new content creation technologies' ability to make cost-effective -- even brilliant -- programming for those new markets will mean more media moguls but smaller and none of those moguls will have a use for DRM OR for Microsoft. So enjoy it while you still can, Bill.

But hey, that sounds too much like a prediction, doesn't it? And my 2007 predictions column doesn't come until next week.

Comments from the Tribe

Status: [CLOSED] read all comments (99)

Microsoft is not leading a revolution. They has tried to do something that they can - software/operating system solution for DRM problem.
They were unable to make hardware-only solution - as this is not their area of expertise.




But as Peter has pointed out - cheap $50 DVD player with some remote control function over Bluetooth (or USB or anything else) can do the trick without costly OS and expensive hardware.




I'm not aware of any value-added features that integration of DRM on PC can offer to users. 90% of users will simply click "Play" button and do nothing else. No needs for full-brown PC for this.

TAG | Jan 08, 2007 | 10:46AM

Microsoft is not leading a revolution. They has tried to do something that they can - software/operating system solution for DRM problem.
They were unable to make hardware-only solution - as this is not their area of expertise.




But as Peter has pointed out - cheap $50 DVD player with some remote control function over Bluetooth (or USB or anything else) can do the trick without costly OS and expensive hardware.




I'm not aware of any value-added features that integration of DRM on PC can offer to users. 90% of users will simply click "Play" button and do nothing else. No needs for full-brown PC for this.

TAG | Jan 08, 2007 | 10:47AM

Microsoft is not leading a revolution. They has tried to do something that they can - software/operating system solution for DRM problem.
They were unable to make hardware-only solution - as this is not their area of expertise.

But as Peter has pointed out - cheap $50 DVD player with some remote control function over Bluetooth (or USB or anything else) can do the trick without costly OS and expensive hardware.

I'm not aware of any value-added features that integration of DRM on PC can offer to users. 90% of users will simply click "Play" button and do nothing else. No needs for full-brown PC for this.

TAG | Jan 08, 2007 | 10:48AM