The many faces and challenges of Microsoft's DRM strategy

ComputerWorld's Matt McKenzie has published a story that's probably the most comprehensive look (and report card) covering Microsoft's various digital rights management (DRM) initiatives. I don't know that I've ever seen Matt's work before.
Written by David Berlind, Inactive

ComputerWorld's Matt McKenzie has published a story that's probably the most comprehensive look (and report card) covering Microsoft's various digital rights management (DRM) initiatives. I don't know that I've ever seen Matt's work before. But, with this one report, he has just earned some serious cred (at least with me) as being one of the great communicators of what the future will be like as long as DRM is allowed to infiltrate every part of our lives.  But, in the same breath, you can't help but walk away from his report thinking that Microsoft is on the doorstep of what could be a massive failure in strategy -- particularly when it comes to the way that its moves with Zune are going to fragment an already fragmented marketplace. 

McKenzie's discussion of Output Protection Management gives us a special glimpse of the lengths to which the entertainment cartel and its technology partners are going in order to rid the path -- from content source to final output device (eg: a display) -- of any opportunities to siphon content into the unprotected world. Wrote McKenzie:

Perhaps the most prominent (or notorious) OPM technology [is[ known as Protected Video Path (PVP)...[Copy protection on DVDs themselves] cannot stop attempts to intercept and copy the protected content further downstream, as it moves first to the graphics card and finally to a user's display -- a problem sometimes referred to as the "analog gap."....

PVP eliminates these security gaps, enabling a series of DRM measures that keep a high-resolution content stream encrypted, and in theory completely protected, from its source media all the way to the display used to watch it. If the system detects a high-resolution output path on a user's PC (i.e., a system capable of moving high-res content all the way to a user's display), it will check to make sure that every component that touches a protected content stream adheres to the specification. If it finds a noncompliant device, it can downgrade the content stream to deliver a lower-quality picture -- or it can even refuse to play the content at all....

....sooner or later, most Vista users will probably encounter PVP-protected content -- and more often than not, they will walk away from the encounter at least a little frustrated, disappointed or even angry.

This, of course, makes no mention of the fact that some of your most expensive gear could be rendered obsolete by such protection technology. And, if you think this technology is going to be restricted to video content, think again. Several sources  I've spoken to say that the record industry is extremely keen to have a similar degree of protection from content source all the way to your speakers. Given the investment I just made in filling my house with audio, the idea that all my gear, including the monster cable I've run through the insides of my walls, could end up being for naught is infuriating. McKenzie's report goes on to quote Directions on Microsoft analyst Matt Rosoff as saying (of the HD-DVD and Blu-ray formats) that Windows Vista's DRM is "so consumer-unfriendly" that he thinks it will fail "and when it fails, it will sink whatever new formats content owners are trying to impose."


McKenzie gets Microsoft Consumer Media Technology director Jonathan Usher on record with some quotes that are confounding, even to a casual watcher of the industry. Usher told McKenzie ""We expect that the improvements in Windows Vista will attract new content to the PC, which is exactly what consumers want."  

More content on the PC? What isn't there now? Counting sites like YouTube, JibJab, and a whole bunch of other Internet sources and the DVD players found in most computers, I actually have access to more content on my PC than anywhere else. What new content could he possibly be referring to? What consumers is Microsoft talking to? They can't possibly inhabit the same planet I do. I've never heard any consumer say anything that even remotely validates this statement. In an indication that he believes consumers are actually in control (instead of the entertainment and technology cartels), Usher told McKenzie "Consumers are the final arbiters because they can vote with their wallets."  What a friggin' crock. Is this sort of like the way we're the final arbiters of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (another endeavour of the entertainment cartel)? 

What are we voting for now? One DRM vs. another? A different degree of protection? Vote for no DRM altogether? Seems like no matter what consumers will get to vote for, as long as they actually vote, it's a no win situation for Microsoft (or any other DRM provider). The feeling I get is that, between the DRM parasites attaching themselves to all the content we consume (eventually text too) and the DMCA, the general idea is to give consumers no vote whatsoever.

McKenzie does a great job condensing the connection between DRM and anti-piracy schemes like Microsoft's Windows Genuine Advantage program into one paragraph (it would have taken me ten) and finally lands on Zune (launched yesterday). McKenzie quotes Bill Rosenblatt, managing editor of Jupiter Media's DRM Watch as saying:

Music bought for Zune may not be playable on other PlaysForSure devices; Zune will decrease interop, not increase it......Customers who bought tracks from Napster et al. can play them on Zune, but not vice versa......Why do this?.....The device ecosystem strategy is too fragmented, too complex to use and too hard to market to consumers; it simply is not an effective strategy to compete against Apple.

Meanwhile, here in ZDNet-land, there's plenty of content flowing that points to problems for the Zune brand. Mary Jo Foley points out how Zune is currently incompatible with Vista (a situation that Microsoft says it will be resolving) while News.com reports that Zune sales are off to a slow start, and in fact, aren't even on display yet at some stores that are supposed have them. Where customers have found Zunes (eg: Best Buy), the reactions have been mixed. The wider screen (wider than what iPods have, a gap that Apple can easily close) seems to be getting the most positive attention. People have cited that feature as making the device more suitable to video playback but are also pointing out that 30GB is hardly enough drive space if video is what they're going to load onto the device.  Good point!

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