Vista's Content Protection Badness
As most of you probably know by now, Windows Vista is proving to be a mixed bag of happy improvements and irkful headaches. Yes, there's the shiny new Aero Glass UI, which really does look nicer than Windows XP's offerings (though it comes with its own set of headaches). On the other hand, there are numerous instances of rather uncool things being done in the background, such as Vista's new (and decidedly unshiny) Virgin Stack. The argument over whether or not users should upgrade to Microsoft's latest offering abound, and are beyond the scope of this particular post. But from what I've seen, read, and heard, not enough people outside the more geekish circles are really seeing the important pros and cons of the new OS beyond the purely cosmetic changes. This is probably one of the reasons behind the recent founding of sites like BadVista and the noise they are trying to stir up.
I've heard all manner of rumors and rumbles concerning the copy-protection technologies that are supposedly built into Vista. The credible ones make me sad, and a little nervous about the future, but at the end of the day they didn't have much impact beyond "Well, there's yet another reason to get a Mac or switch to Linux." Reading a recent paper by one Peter Gutmann changed that.
The basic story here is that Microsoft is introducing a large suite of features and technology that enable Vista to control and enforce the use of so-called "premium content"...which amounts to copy-protected media such as HD-DVD and Blu-ray disks. This not only takes a lot of software technology to accomplish, but also requires a large amount of new hardware, as well as new driver technology to support it. The end result is that successful playback of this "premium content" demands that a secure connection is made between the media's reader device and the display it is projected onto. If this secure connection cannot be established (whether it be because you are using unsupported hardware connections, unsupported drivers or chipsets, or whatever) or if that connection is even interrupted, playback will silently fail. The results of this can be anything from severely degraded playback results, to a completely black display. Details of how and why this will happen, as well as the ramifications of Microsoft essentially forcing this technology on hardware manufacturers can be found in the paper.
If you think that degraded output really isn't more than an annoyance, you may be surprised to learn differently.
Beyond the obvious playback-quality implications of deliberately degraded output, this measure can have serious repercussions in applications where high-quality reproduction of content is vital. For example the field of medical imaging either bans outright or strongly frowns on any form of lossy compression because artifacts introduced by the compression process can cause mis-diagnoses and in extreme cases even become life-threatening. Consider a medical IT worker who's using a medical imaging PC while listening to audio/video played back by the computer (the CDROM drives installed in workplace PCs inevitably spend most of their working lives playing music or MP3 CDs to drown out workplace noise). If there's any premium content present in there, the image will be subtly altered by Vista's content protection, potentially creating exactly the life-threatening situation that the medical industry has worked so hard to avoid. The scary thing is that there's no easy way around this - Vista will silently modify displayed content under certain (almost impossible-to-predict in advance) situations discernable only to Vista's built-in content-protection subsystem.
Some other choice tidbits include how Vista's copy-protection technology will foster the "elimination of open-source hardware support" and "elimination of unified drivers," enable "denial-of-service via driver revocation," cause serious system instability, and noticeably increase hardware and software development costs across the board.
It may seem like an article like this would be nothing more than crazed Vista-bashing, but it is not. The horrible fallout for implementing the copy-protection mechanisms described in the paper is completely logical, and Microsoft's reasons for going forward with it anyway are equally so. In short, it stands to put them in a very strong position to completely dominate not only software and hardware markets, but content distribution as well. Seriously, what self-respecting (and continually employed) CEO doesn't want to conquer their respective planet and gain control of their market?
In the same way that Apple has managed to acquire a monopolistic lock-in on their music distribution channel (an example being the Motorola ROKR fiasco, which was so crippled by Apple-imposed restrictions that it was dead the moment it appeared), so Microsoft will totally control the premium-content distribution channel. Not only will they be able to lock out any competitors, but because they will then represent the only available distribution channel they'll be able to dictate terms back to the content providers whose needs they are nominally serving in the same way that Apple has already dictated terms back to the music industry: Play by Apple's rules, or we won't carry your content. The result will be a technologically enforced monopoly that makes their current de-facto Windows monopoly seem like a velvet glove in comparison.
Check out "A Cost Analysis of Windows Vista Content Protection" by Peter Gutmann.
If you have a few minutes to spare, please read the whole thing. It's simply fascinating, and is something that EVERY responsible computer user will need to start thinking about as this kind of technology continues to develop and evolve. There is also some additional commentary that is also worth checking out. Via Schneier.