Microsoft moves to integrate Windows with BIOS

Summary:A deal with BIOS maker Phoenix Technologies would allow the operating system to directly control hardware. It also raises concerns over who controls the software in PCs

Microsoft has expanded its relationship with BIOS maker Phoenix Technologies in a deal designed to more closely integrate the basic building blocks of the PC with the Windows operating system.

The relationship, announced this week, is designed to make PCs simpler and more reliable, the companies said. The move is likely to put consumer rights advocates on their guard, however, since both Microsoft and Phoenix are involved in plans to integrate digital rights management (DRM) technology at the operating system and hardware level. DRM is designed to give copyright owners more control over how users make use of software and content, but has been criticised as eroding consumer rights.

A BIOS, or basic input/output system, is the software that ties the operating system to a PC's hardware. Traditionally, it has carried out basic tasks such as hardware and system configuration, and has been standardised and simple enough to allow the installation of alternative operating systems, including Linux.

Phoenix's Core System Software (CSS) is a next-generation BIOS with a more sophisticated integration of operating system and hardware, for example making it easier for system administrators to remotely monitor the hardware configurations of their systems. CSS is designed for non-PC systems such as blade servers and embedded industrial devices as well as traditional desktops.

Microsoft said integration should mean simpler and more reliable computers. "This is a pivotal change for the industry, and it will rapidly advance serviceability, deployment, and management for servers, mobile devices, and desktops," said Microsoft general manager of Windows hardware Tom Phillips, in a statement. "Effectively, Phoenix is creating an entirely new category of system software."

Microsoft said the next-generation BIOS would allow future versions of Windows to manage server blades when they are connected to a system, without needing to be turned on. The BIOS would also allow better control of unauthorised devices connected to a system, Microsoft said.

Phoenix is one of the biggest BIOS providers, its customers including four of the top five PC manufacturers. Its products are also used by consumer electronics makers such as Pioneer, Matsushita, Sony and Toshiba.

Both Microsoft and Phoenix are currently arguing for closer integration of Windows with PC hardware, and DRM integrated throughout. Microsoft is planning to tie Windows DRM features to the hardware platform via its controversial Next Generation Secure Computing Base (NGSCB) project, formerly known as Palladium. NGSCB is associated with the next version of Windows, code-named Longhorn, which is due in about two years' time.

Phoenix recently said it is touting round a BIOS with built-in DRM technology to major PC manufacturers. In September the company said it had developed a prototype of its Core Management Engine (CME) including DRM from Orbid. The DRM technology would allow content providers to identify which PCs and devices were authorised to play particular files, more effectively controlling content distribution, file-trading and moving software from one machine to another, according to Phoenix.

Phoenix said the DRM-enabled CME was not part of Microsoft's NGSCB, but that the technology was complementary. The CME would allow PC makers to embed digital rights management directly into the hardware, though they would have the option of allowing users to turn it off.

Consumer electronics makers are particularly interested in the technology, according to Phoenix.

Topics: Apps, Software Development

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