The bell goes and an imposing Peter Gutmann flies across the ring, catching a startled Microsoft by surprise, in mid sponge-down.
Gutmann first posted his analysis, Cost Analysis of Windows Vista Content Protection, on the internet late last year. But it wasn’t the paper’s catchy title that attracted worldwide attention.
In a rare victory of substance over style, Gutmann managed to first capture the attention of the technical readers he had targeted, then journalists and then the general public. As Microsoft’s famous marketing machine cranked into high gear, Gutmann became a big, hairy fly messing up the company’s marketing ointment.
His specific target was the new content protection technologies built into Vista.
“Providing this protection incurs considerable costs in terms of system performance, system stability, technical support overhead, and hardware and software costs,” he wrote.
“These issues affect not only users of Vista but the entire PC industry, since the effects of the protection measures extend to cover all hardware and software that will ever come into contact with Vista, even if it’s not used directly with Vista (for example, hardware in a Macintosh computer or on a Linux server).
“This document analyses the cost involved in Vista’s content protection, and the collateral damage that this incurs throughout the computer industry.”
Then came the sentence the international media latched on to: “The Vista content protection specification could very well constitute the longest suicide note in history.”
Gutmann goes on to declare the specification defies the laws of physics and that it is trying to achieve the fundamentally impossible. He describes the manner in which Vista disables certain types of PC media outputs, to reduce the quality of any media if those outputs do not include in-built content protection.
“In fact, so far no one has been able to identify any Windows system that will actually play HD content in HD quality. In all cases any attempt to do this produced either no output or a message that it was blocked by content protection. While it’s not possible to prove a negative this manner, it’s certainly an indication that potential buyers may be in for a shock when they try and play premium content on their shiny new Vista PC.”
As well as overtly disabling parts of a system, Gutmann describes indirect disablement, which turns itself off or on depending on the type of content it encounters, and systems that downgrade the quality of output received if content is protected.
“What makes this particularly entertaining is the fact that the downgrading/disabling is dynamic, so if the premium-content signal is intermittent or varies (for example, music that fades out), various outputs and output quality will fade in and out, or turn on and off, in sync,” Gutmann writes.“Normally, this behaviour would be a trigger for re-installing device drivers, or even a warranty return of the affected hardware, but in this case it’s just a signal that everything is functioning as intended.”
The paper goes on to catalogue a litany of potential security threats and issues the DRM (digital rights management) implementation could pose and suggests this equates to decreased system reliability and increased costs for users.
Vista takes the count, picks itself up off the canvas and comes out angry.
Microsoft’s lead programme manager for video, Dave Marsh, told the BBC that Vista had the ability to downgrade video, something that is common in playback systems. He said the quality would still be better than that now available on DVD.
He also said the mechanism would only be activated by a “policy” put on the content by its copyright owner or producer. A posting on the Windows Vista blog went further, with Marsh providing 20 questions and answers regarding Vista’s content protection mechanisms.
Microsoft is providing content-producers with a range of “a la carte” options to protect their products, he explained.
“Associating usage policies with commercial content is not new to Windows Vista, or to the industry,” Marsh wrote. “In fact, much of the functionality discussed in the paper has been part of previous versions of Windows and hasn’t resulted in significant consumer problems — as evidenced by the widespread consumer use of digital media in Windows XP.”
Marsh emphasised that the content-protection mechanism was designed so as to minimise its impact on other types of content held on the same PC.
“For example, if a user was viewing medical imagery concurrently with playback of video which required image constraint, only the commercial video would be constrained — not the medical image or other things on the user’s desktop.”
Gutmann takes some hits, grits his teeth and comes back for more
Last month, Gutmann added an addendum to his original paper.“Some of the material was new and interesting (for example, clarifying just what actually gets revoked when a driver revocation occurs), other parts seem more likely to have come from Waggener Edstrom (Microsoft’s PR firm) than Program Manager Dave Marsh,” he wrote.
Gutmann integrated the technical responses that clarified how content protection actually worked into the main body of his article. The addendum addresses the PR spin, he says.
He claims Microsoft contradicts itself when it argues there will be no effect on the open source community’s ability to develop drivers. He also disputes the company’s assertion that the cost of graphics cards will come down. And he reasserts his original claim that when Microsoft says Vista content protection provides additional functionality it really means is that functionality is reduced.
As Gutmann says, the next few months will be very interesting as these issues are more comprehensively tested and explored.