Content Protection On An Open Platform, Why?

Content Protection On An Open Platform, How? Chris Lanier posted another post last night on his argument (and my apologies if I’m oversimplifying it) that goes something like this. DRM is not a bad thing. Without DRM Hollywood won’t release content that can be consumed by a PC. By creating a DRM scheme that is foolproof, Microsoft invites Hollywood to release HDTV and other content for Media Center and once this security is in place the barriers will come down and we will all be able to finally enjoy premium programming. Since we only ought to be using content in legal ways anyhow, for the legal user we should embrace DRM as a tool to expedite the delivery of this content to us.

Here is where I think Chris is wrong though. Do you think when Sony created the BetaMax that they said we must create some kind of tool to prevent people from illegally videotaping Major League Baseball? After all, if we don’t the content providers might stop broadcasting baseball? Of course not. Sony said to hell with Hollywood, we are making our machine and so what if it scorches and burns their world we are going to make a hell of a lot of money selling machines.

In fact it turned out that not only did the VCR not scorch and burn their world but may have been the best thing that ever happened to it as the story has been oft repeated and we are consistently reminded about from folks like Cory Doctorow over at the EFF (you simply must see his Powerpoint presentation to Microsoft if you haven’t yet).

The argument that without DRM, premium HDTV and other content will simply not be available to Media Center is in my opinion wrong. If an HDTV signal can move from a cable box or a satellite box to a TV screen, it can be captured. Hollywood (especially early on) will not risk losing the lucrative HDTV business by screwing with this.

I believe that the decision to push DRM into Longhorn and Longhorn Media Center is not Microsoft with a gun held to its head by Hollywood as the only way, or even the best way, to get a job done for the end user. I believe rather that Microsoft is a willing participant with Hollywood and is participating at a much greater level. As an arms dealer, why only sell guns to one country at war when you can sell them to both countries at war? 1. You can sell Media Center PCs and the lucrative potential license that comes with this. 2. You can sell licenses for set top box software like Foundation (that Comcast is using today). 3. You can sell DRM protection software to Hollywood. Perhaps a lot more money can be made this way than just selling MCE machines at a tepid pace.

The problem is though that this strategy very well may backfire on Microsoft. When you try to play both ends against the middle frequently, unless you are the most masterful of strategists (and if anyone is it’s the folks in Redmond), it does not work.

The single biggest objection to the Media Center PC today for most average consumers is the complexity of use.

This weekend I decided to finally be a responsible wireless user and enable security protection on my Microsoft branded (yes they’ve stopped making them now) wireless router. When I originally bought it a few years back I couldn’t get it to work with the protection and nonchalantly buying into the benevolent neighbor theory I just left my connection unsecured. Well as you’d guess with his tree hanging over into my yard and my midnight drumming hobby I figured the tension was high and it was time to lock the thing down (just kidding of course). My problem, with security enabled, my Microsoft router told me that I didn’t have an internet connection. It asked me to unplug the router for ten seconds and wait two minutes and try again. Guess what, no luck. And again. And again. It was Sunday afternoon, the kids were screaming and the last thing I was going to try and do was to get someone on the phone — so I gave up.

This long illustration is only to prove a point that something good, security, for me was nothing more than a pain in the ass. Microsoft is notorious for writing software that is horribly complex to the end user, buggy and then pushing off the accountability for the bugs off to their OEM, er, partners.

DRM will very likely add to the complexity of the Media Center. Having to go to the internet to get licenses, having your computer crash in the middle of a license download, having a system restore (if there weren’t so many problems why do we need system restore) take away your license. I can only begin to imagine the buzz. And everyone is just begging for one little thing to go wrong with this DRM. Everyone will be looking for one little way that they are inconvenienced and then they will magnify it with the power of the blogosphere and the press and the message that the rest of the less connected world will get is that this thing is just too darned hard to use and who wants a computer in my living room anyways.

2. If Microsoft doesn’t develop an open platform ability to record HDTV then someone else might. Right now Microsoft has the best user interface for consolidated media in the home. This is all they’ve got. This could change quickly. As Linux based products begin to look more and more like Media Center and as certainly the cheaper alternative (remember folks, HP said that they were going to sell a Linux Media Hub, hey whatever happened to this anyway) having an open system that can record HDTV might seem the better deal for the end user.

3. Despite Chris’ positive view with regards to DRM, most often DRM is seen as a negative in people’s minds (bad doggy, no biscuit). Associating this negative aspect and highlighting it for the general public = bad PR. WTF? (See what I’m talking about?)

So is this the best course for Microsoft to be on? I’m not sure. Maybe, maybe not. They are already terribly late to the HDTV party. My TV use on my Media Center PC is all but non existent and near everything I watch is on a DirecTV HDTV TiVo Satellite PVR (yes a closed system). As more and more people adopt cable and satellite solutions, the pool for potential Media Center buyers gets smaller and smaller. Sure, I’ll consider switching my TV back to Media Center if in the next 15 billion years at some point they actually come out with premium HDTV, but I’m a tech freak. For most people they will take the attitude that the cable/satellite freebie box works just fine and why mess with a good thing (TV). Every day Microsoft delays and the more complicated they make this mess, the less chance they have at success. In my humble opinion of course.

And by the way Chris, nice interview with Ian on the Media Center Show!

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  1. Anonymous says:

    Your pictures are beyond amazing.

  2. Tony Chow says:


    HDMI and HDCP-enabled DVI are designed to prevent exactly the kind of video capturing you describe. It will not be possible in the future to capture HDTV content except in analog form (in other words, in degraded resolution). The new generation of DRM technologies destined for the upcoming HD content, such as AACS, are very, very sophisticated, and will not likely be broken for years. Anyone caught trying will be

    Microsoft is doing this out of necessity. They have to go along with Hollywood’s demands to get the HD content played on PCs.