Today, Microsoft has announced something that I've been expecting for a long time - that 32-bit versions of Windows Vista won't be able to play back next generation high definition protected content. What does this It won't stop determined hackers from copying protected HD content, but it'll be a pain in the rear for everyone elsemean? Well, it means that if you buy a nice (and expensive) Blu-ray or HD-DVD drive, you won't be able to play studio released movies unless you are running on Windows Vista 64-bit.
Has this one move just killed off high definition altogether?
The bombshell was dropped by Steve Riley, Senior Program Manager at Microsoft, during a Windows Vista security presentation at Tech.Ed 2006.
The key issue behind this decision is signed drivers. Under 32-bit Vista, it would be trivial to write kernel mode code to kill the content protection schemes used on Blu-ray and HD-DVD discs. Under Vista 64-bit, this is going to be a lot trickier. The studios weren't happy about the idea of this, so Microsoft pulled the plug on all HD protected content playback under 32-bit. It won't stop determined hackers from copying protected HD content, but it'll be a pain in the rear for everyone else.
OK, so what does this mean?
First, if you have a PC that's running with a 32-bit CPU, you're out of the HD game. You need new hardware.
If you have a 64-bit capable CPU but you are going to run 32-bit Windows, you're out of the game too unless you upgrade to 64-bit Vista.
If you run Linux, you're out of the game too, because it lacks the DRM infrastructure that's going to be required to play Blu-ray and HD-DVD discs.
Mac users .. well, I'm assuming that 10.5 will add the necessary support for HD.
OK then, why don't we all just upgrade our hardware and run 64-bit Vista? Well, because it's not that easy. Even if your PC supports 64-bit, you might not have signed drivers for all your hardware, which becomes mandatory under Vista 64-bit. Even if you're lucky and all your drivers work, you still might come unstuck when it comes to applications - there are a raft of applications that just plain don't work under 64-bit, and even more that half work.
This is why I believe that Microsoft (or, more accurately, the movie studios) might have just killed off HD. Riley tried to brush this off by saying that "by the time that stuff becomes popular, it’ll no longer be an issue because everyone will be running 64-bit Windows". This statement can be read a number of ways, and I'm reading it as saying that HD isn't going to become popular within the Vista lifecycle.
HD is a long way off becoming popular, and one thing it needed to gain traction was to get people playing Blu-ray and HD-DVD discs on their PCs. While it was almost certain that we'd start seeing Blu-ray and HD-DVD drives reaching sane prices over the next year or so, I can't see 64-bit taking over the lead from 32-bit for a few more years (after all, we've had signed drivers and 64-bit for a few years now and there are still plenty of unsigned drivers being used and loads of software that isn't 64-bit compatible). Given that 64-bit is still a minefield, I can't see many of the big PC names shipping them in high quantities. This is going to mean that 32-bit is going to dominate for the foreseeable future. If users can't play HD on their PC, it's going to be a major sticking point, one big enough to put some serious nails in it's coffin. There are already very few good reasons to go down the HD road, and this announcement just makes things worse.
[Updated: August 25, 2006 @ 05:05 am]
OK, things are now getting messy. The Windows Vista Team blog as posted an article saying that the original story was incorrect:
The real deal is that no version of Windows Vista will make a determination as to whether any given piece of content should play back or not. The individual ISV (Independent Software Vendor) providing the playback solutions will choose whether the playback environment, including environments that use 32-bit processors, meet the performance requirements for playback of protected High Definition content.
It's fair to say that this makes things a lot messier. Under this kind of scheme, it's going to be hard to know what will play where. It's also unclear what is means by ISVs - do this refer to vendors who will make the software players (CyberLink or InterVideo say) or those who control the DRM? I still think that Riley offered an honest view of the landscape - that most ISVs won't be happy allowing HD content to be used under 32-bit Vista simply because it will be trivial to copy it. The fact that Vista 32-bit CAN play back HD content doesn't mean that it WILL. Given the headlong rush into DRM over the past few years, I just don't see the studios passing up on the chance to lock down their content even more.
The thing to bear in mind going forward is that Vista contains a mechanism that allows applications to know that unsigned drivers are present on the system. This mechanism can be used to prevent playback. Will it be used or won't it? I don't know, but the uncertainty is enough for me to keep my wallet in my pocket when it comes to HD.