Palladium power play

I hope you caught the Computerworld article about Microsoft Corp.'s proposal for a new security chip called Palladium. I read the story a half-dozen times, and I'm still not sure if it's a real project or an attempt at self-deprecating humor by Microsoft. There's so much wrong with this idea that it's difficult to decide where to start debunking it.

In case you haven't been following this story, Palladium is a security and encryption chip that Microsoft wants every PC and motherboard manufacturer to adopt for all new PCs. Microsoft would use this chip in Windows for a variety of things, the most likely being a way to make digital rightsmanagement foolproof. Digital rights management is an initiative designed to make sure you have no say over how you store and transfer music, video and other copyrighted content to and from your computer.

According to Mario Juarez, group product manager for the content security business unit at Microsoft, Palladium also creates a secure space within the computer that's untouchable by other programs running on the same computer. He promotes this as a way to prevent specially targeted programs from becoming infected by a virus.

One wonders if Juarez knows this is double talk or if he simply has no clue about how one designs an operating system to protect programs from becoming infected by a virus. Unix and Windows XP both already have the guts necessary to prevent a virus from spreading. Windows and its applications are still vulnerable because they have design flaws and security holes. You can't plug holes like these with a security chip.

Indeed, who else thinks that if Microsoft bloats Windows even more to accommodate Palladium, the company is more likely to open more security holes than it closes? Isn't this the same Microsoft famous for its security hole of the week?

But here's the crème de la crème. When asked if you would need Windows to take advantage of Palladium, Juarez said, "The short answer is yeah."

Then Juarez explained, "We understand the importance of being inclusive. We don't want this to be seen as a Microsoft-only initiative. Our goal is to be as inclusive as possible." After that, he said there would be some level of interoperability with other platforms.

Let's see if we can sort this out. You must run Windows to use Palladium. Microsoft's goal is to include as many platforms as possible. Other platforms will have some (but not total) interoperability. In short, it will be a Windows-only, multiplatform, partially interoperable system. Nope, sorry, there's no way to sort this out.

But I'll give you a hint as to which way it will go. As I pointed out above, the only reasonable purpose for Palladium will be digital rights management. Microsoft owns the patent on the concept of a digital rights management operating system. If Palladium ever becomes a standard part of the PC architecture, all Microsoft has to do is persuade content providers to require the use of Palladium to listen to music or watch video content. (Can anyone think of something easier to do?) Once that's in place, Microsoft might just as well own every PC on the planet.

Hollywood and the rest of the entertainment industry might love Palladium, but consumers will hate it.

Unfortunately, PC makers are looking for any excuse to revive the PC market. If they can convince customers that Palladium will solve their security and virus problems, they might back this plan just to sell more PCs. My advice is to force them to yank it out by refusing to buy any Palladium-enabled PCs.

In the end, a Hollywood-backed Palladium plan is roughly the opposite of the Hollywood Palladium itself. Founded in 1940, this dancing and dining establishment featured big talent during World War II but kept prices low enough to let just about anyone in. Microsoft has the "let just about anyone in" security down pat, but the only useful thing about Palladium is that it lets Hollywood force people to pay more for big talent.

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