My Inner Struggle with Microsoft, Linux, and DRM

digital media graphicAs you know Microsoft’s Longhorn OS is just around the corner, and already analysts are keeping a close eye to see how consumers are going to react to buying not only a new OS but a new hardware platform to run it on as well (ideally a PC equipped with a dual-core 64bit CPU, PCI Express graphic card, and whole lot of memory). Being a longtime Windows user, I’m finding it difficult to continue down the ($$$) upgrade path for a few new bells and whistles.

Many who have had the opportunity to actually see Longhorn in action, come away impressed by its speed, due to new memory swap usage and 64bit computing. But those who code for a living will tell you that elegant and efficient code can accomplish the same result and provide a more reliable product that can run on less powerful hardware. Think about it… if your OS and applications can run snappy and responsive on a 1Ghz machine with only 128MB of memory, imagine how much faster it will perform on a 3.2Ghz machine with 1GB of memory.

Enter Linux: Linux is such an OS that can run on soon-to-be legacy and even cutting-edge hardware that provides users (both average and power users) with an optimal computing experience. But Linux still has a way to go before it can become mainstream – trust me, it’s not due to lack of trying. First, the Linux community needs to convince hardware vendors that Linux is a viable and profitable operating system, for the reason that vendors are currently not creating native drivers for Linux (although NVIDA, ATI, and VIA have been making efforts to improve the situation). Second, the Linux community needs to convince popular software vendors that porting their apps to Linux can be lucrative – sure there’s plenty of FREE software, but there’s also a big demand for running Windows apps on Linux (see WINE project). Third (and this point is critical), companies who use technologies to protect their content (Digital Rights Mangement – aka DRM) need to offer licensing to the Linux community as well, unless they want to inadvertently give an open invitation to hackers to make their content playable on their platform (case in point: DVD playback).

Now on to the dreaded DRM. Most of us are at the age where in the past we made copies of music tapes (remember those dual-cassette radios?), radio broadcast recordings (ah, those late night DJ mix shows), and VHS TV show recordings, which was perfectly acceptable because it was considered “fair use.” Well, gone are those days due to the power of digital media encoding and the Internet. Honestly, if you think about why we were able to have those freedoms, it wasn’t because producers and broadcasters were being nice (in reality, it was quite the opposite), it was because the technology wasn’t available to make it a threat to their profit margin (unless you were a black market distributor of dub music and video recordings at the local flee market).

Now consumers are migrating to digital media… the promise of always-on, readily available, high-quality content that can be downloaded, streamed, transcoded, and on and on. The possibilities are endless, which is exciting, but the content producers have taken steps to secure their transmission and playback (justifiably). Most people, including myself, are trying to come to grips with the change. My observation of DRM: it’s a necessary evil, but one that should be kept in check by the legislation. I’m by no means a lawyer or an expert on the subject, but consumers need representation in what seems to be a one-sided debate regarding how consumers can use and share the content they are willing to pay for. In my opinion, it’s not acceptable for consumers to have different terms of use for content playback on particular platforms (case in point: digital music and video services who implement proprietary Apple and Microsoft based DRM technologies). In other words, we need an updated version, and a set standard, for “fair use” in the digital age that clearly states the rights of both consumers and producers in regard to DRM protected digital media.

Furthermore, and this point is one you never hear brought up, is that any producer who releases digital media content embedded with DRM protection technologies for the general consumer market MUST have playback solutions available for ALL platforms (YES, including Linux, and any other open or closed operating systems). The reason I say this is because of the DVD playback fiasco, which is STILL NOT supported on Linux. And with HD-DVD coming up in the next year or so, it will be crucial. But demand for fairness doesn’t just apply to DVD playback, it also extends to online content services. An Apple or Linux user should be able to use services tied to Windows Media DRM, just as much as a Microsoft user should be able to tap into Apple FairPlay protected content. It only makes sense for the progression of digital media services, and should be an undisputed right for all consumers.

Ok, so now you know what has been going through my head… what are your thoughts?

Filed in: Industry Buzz

  • nihilist

    Alexander Grundner said: Enter Linux: Linux is such an OS that can run on soon-to-be legacy and even cutting-edge hardware that provides users (both average and power users) with an optimal computing experience.

    I cannot really agree with that statement. While it is possible to run Linux on a 386, what you can do with it differs greatly with what can be done while running an AMD 64. Comparing Windows to Linux means comparing it to Linux running KDE or Gnome, not to console-based Linux. When you do make that comparison, you’ll see that running KDE on a slower computer provides the same experience as running Windows on a slower computer. GUIs add a significant overhead (and strain) to any OS.

  • Alexander Grundner

    I wasn’t comparing Linux on a 386 to a Windows machine running a AMD 64bit processor. In fact, their are already versions of Linux and Unix — for several years now — that run natively with 64bit processors. You’re right about GUI overhead, but the KDE windowing environment is less bloated (and some would say better coded) than Windows XP, IMHO.

  • Ian Dixon

    I posted my thoughts here

    I can’t say I agree 100% on the
    linux part but I do agree on the DRM element

    It would make a good topic for my podcast (The Windows Media Center Show)

  • Alexander Grundner

    Ian Dixon said: From your blog post: He points out that while Longhorn looks very slick and quick on a 64bit PC with PCI express etc Linux can be as quick on much older hardware. On that I can see that Linux and some of the free Media Center type apps look nice they don’t have the out of a box experience that Windows Media Center has.

    I totally agree with your point about Windows XP Media Center Edition being an out-of-the-box Media Center PC superstar, but my point dealt more with everyday productivity and media playback applications (I guess I should have been more clear) — not necessarily Media Center/PVR apps. Windows, without a question, wins hands down on hardware compatiblity and add-on content services.

  • melvin

    OK, I have to disagree with you in your analysis of DRM.

    First off, DRM does stop people from stealing music. You can still get music for free through P2P the same as you could before. What stopped me from using P2P to steal music was my own ethics, the threat of a lawsuit, and the ability to buy music by song for cheap. They could have just stopped right there.

    What DRM does is allow business to fight for marketshare in new creative ways and safely sell various forms of subsription services in which the consumer usually has no idea what they are buying into.

    Secondly, I don’t think the word ‘right’ should be used in conjection with music and video. It sounds like listening to music should be help up their with freedom of speech, religion, etc. It’s still just entertainment. Businesses have a right to sell a particular product or service and consumers have a right to buy or not buy that product, same as it’s always been. Besides the standard copyright laws, there shouldn’t be any legal rights involved here….except for one. Consumers should be clearly informed of what they are actually buying. That’s what I see as the big problem here.

    Most users have no idea what DRM is. They think buying from iTunes or Napster is exactly the same as buying from their local music store, only cheaper. I would say consumers need to be smarter about it, but can you really blame consumers? I would like to see legislation that makes digital retailers give better explainations of the products they are selling in terms the average consumer can understand. It’s like selling a car that runs on natural gas, but failing to explain that it’s virtually impossible to get the gas for your car. Of course, alot of folks would still buy the car even if they did know.

    As far as the requirement that “any producer who releases digital media content embedded with DRM protection technologies for the general consumer market MUST have playback solutions available for ALL platforms”, I really don’t see why? Should they provide the music in 8 track and cassette tape format as well? A business should have the right to chose the markets they want to sell in and not be forced to sell products they don’t deem as profitable or in their best interest. They do need to clear about what they are selling though and that could be a legal issue I suspect. It’s up to the consumer to be smart about what they are buying….and use their buying power to send a message if they so choose.

    I’d love to see a consumer advocacy group created that focuses on educating consumers on DRM, but I don’t any such group could get the funding to be really effective.

  • Alexander Grundner

    I posted a follow-up article to this piece titled “It’s Time to Expand Consumer Rights to DRM.” There’s also a poll tied to the post.

    POLL: Should consumers have more rights regarding DRM?