New Broken Hardware?

For the past few days, the Inquirer has had a number of articles pointing out what DRM in Longhorn-compatible systems is going to look like.

For a couple non-ranting summaries, go here and/or here. If you want to see Microsoft’s much longer explanation, go there

A Quicker Summary

These protection schemes are designed to protect HDTV-standard content, and I mean protect.

What is being described here is orders of magnitude more sophisticated than the protection schemes being cracked today. The content will be encrypted up the ying-yang, and decrypting will be heavily hardware-based with constant polling at multiple points in the system.

In a sentence, if your hardware (primarily your video card and monitor) isn’t up to security snuff, and you try playing a future HD-DVD or the like, legitimate or not, it either won’t play at all or at best will only play in low resolution.

If you just bought a bunch of state-of-the-art, cutting-edge equipment, this means you, too. Just about any monitor sold today doesn’t have the circuitry needed to make Longhorn DRM happy. It’s possible to have a little box/adapter that will make it happy, but they’re expensive today, and it’s clear that such technology will be discouraged in the future.

If your reaction to this is, “Oh, I’ll just go over to Linux,” well, understand that if an HD-content doesn’t find what it wants, it just won’t work. I don’t find it inconceivable that this could be broken, but cracking this is likely to be so complicated and cumbersome that it’s unlikely to become mainstream.

I could be wrong there, but if you’re looking at buying expensive equipment today that is going to have to last you longer than, say, 24 months, and you expect to eventually see HD-DVD on your machine, it would be foolish to assume that I am.

To some extent, this affects graphics cards. To a much greater degree, it will affect monitors (for instance, don’t even bother buying a VGA monitor, MS is currently saying those will never work in full HD-standard, and likely won’t work at all in the near future). High-end audio folks ought to be concerned, too, MS has left some ominous hints about that, too, in their white paper.

Under these circumstances, it is wise to invoke the principle, “When in doubt, don’t.” Don’t lay out a ton for a computer monitor (or any other HD-capable screen) expecting to eventually use it for HD-DVD use unless it complies with these standards (the technical term is HDCP).


There can be no doubt that the draconian measures being taken are not Redmond’s idea, but Hollywood’s.

The horse is out of the barn for today’s DVD, and these standards indicate that Hollywood won’t cry over spilled milk, but they’ll be damned if they let it happen again at the HD level.

It’s obvious Hollywood said, “Do this, or our new DVDs won’t play on PCs. Period.” and they don’t care what you or Microsoft or Intel or AMD or anybody else thinks about it.

If you’re saying to yourself, “If Hollywood does this, I’ll . . . .” Hollywood’s answer to you is going to be, “Go ahead.”

It’s also just as obvious that this is the package which will presented to legislatures as “see, we can take care of this problem ourselves.” Maybe they’ll seek a little law or two that will require all systems to follow such standards, and put in serious criminal penalties for anyone who breaks them, but it’s basically meant to get government off the hook on this issue, which will make them very happy.

So this will go through, and there will be tremendous wailing and gnashing of teeth, and millions of people will make mostly empty threats, and when they find out that the answer to their threat is, “Bye, and don’t let the door hit you in the butt on the way out,” and if there’s no easy way to break the protection, they’ll either resume buying, or join a legal music service (perhaps there will be movie services by then), or find something else to do.

A relative few will go underground, and do whatever it takes to copy the new stuff. Rather more will keep copying under the old standards and gradually fade away.

And that will be that.


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