Digital World: The more things change...

Folks who install the new version of Windows are going to find that a lot of their peripheral equipment isn't going to work because the new OS won't support drivers for a lot of legacy equipment.

By DAVID SHAMAH
March 20, 2007 08:18
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intel image logo 88 298. (photo credit: )

 
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When they came out with their new operating system, Microsoft was just imitating the best features of Apple's OS, which even the wonks in Redmond know is superior to anything they have ever come up with. Folks who install the new version of Windows are going to find that a lot of their peripheral equipment isn't going to work because the new OS won't support drivers for a lot of legacy equipment, and users are going to be forced to shell out big bucks for new peripherals. They do this, of course, to lock you into their distribution channel, going so far as to to engineer the system to make it unusable with "unapproved" hardware/software - a move that will definitely end up generating numerous anti-trust lawsuits. And of course, the security issues for Windows are well known - the thing crashes as often as users change their socks and, of course, you have to spend half your time installing and maintaining anti-virus programs and "security patches" to keep the bad code at bay. Yep, Windows 3.1 was certainly a disaster in the making - or so they said way back in 1992, when what would turn out to be the most popular to (that) date and, as it was often called, "the most pirated piece of software in history" - was released. Win 3.1 was a sham copy of Apple's System 7 for Macs, which appeared a year before, the critics said, adding that the new OS was attacked by viruses even before it was released, and that it was engineered to exclude a popular piece of DOS software (Dr. Dos by Caldera) that would have given users of the earlier operating system the same capabilities as Windows (see, among others, http://tinyurl.com/23t3jx, http://tinyurl.com/ysfu77, http://tinyurl.com/2yeslm, http://tinyurl.com/2a9lew and http://tinyurl.com/2b5rbx) - the latter being the subject of a lawsuit that Microsoft eventually settled out of court. But despite all the problems with older versions of Windows (pre 2K) - which, most users agree, were far more unstable than Windows 2000, XP and Vista - Microsoft overcame the odds and became/retained the position of leading the market in desktop/laptop computer operating system sales, hovering around 90% of the market plus or minus for at least a decade. This in a world where everybody understands the concept of a computer virus, the "Blue Screen of Death" (strictly a Windows phenomenon) and the ease of use of other (i.e. Mac) systems, as has been hammered into consumers' heads by years of witty and aggressive advertising by MS rivals (http://www.apple.com/getamac/ads). And now it's Vista's turn. In one very good sign that shows how Microsoft's commitment to security is paying off, there has yet to be a major hacker exploit or Vista-specific virus found "in the wild" yet (http://tinyurl.com/226v4b), which has got to be a major relief for the company and its customers. But the focus of criticism has now turned to Vista's draconian Digital Rights Management (DRM) system for downloaded media. And since Vista's ability to easily manage and integrate music, movies, TV, photos and other digital entertainment mediums into a single, easy to use and control system, is a key feature of the new operating system - and the main marketing thrust behind Vista's Media Center Edition - any compromise in the system's ability to deliver the promised digital media experience to consumers, on terms they can understand and accept, is likely to be very damaging to Vista sales - tantamount to a "suicide note" by Microsoft (http://tinyurl.com/y7rrzk). The core documentation against Vista's DRM can be found in a scholarly paper by Peter Gutmann of the University of Auckland (http://tinyurl.com/2mftby). The rights management components are built not only into the media (movies, music), but into the equipment necessary to play it back. If you try to connect a Vista system to an"unapproved" high-definition TV or a proper (HD or Blu-ray) DVD "media path," you will end up with squiggly lines and static instead of entertainment, Gutmann says. While most consumers who buy Vista-equiped computers or Media Center boxes won't have this equipment now, chances are that will change drastically in a couple of years, and then consumers will be bound by the DRM chains MS is quietly tying around digital media, with the various distribution deals it is working out with media companies (as described last week). If you get your digital entertainment from "approved" sources, such as the Internet channels Vista will open with approved entertainment partners - and, of course, you pony up your shekels to pay for the experience - you'll have no problem. Of course, we would never advocate digital piracy of any type, and you can't blame MS and/or its distribution partners for trying to protect its investments and/or make a buck off them. But what about this scenario: On a trip to the States, you buy (i.e. pay for) a DVD with a new movie that has not been approved for distribution in Israel yet. Among the "features" you get with Vista (http://tinyurl.com/2f4enu) is an OS that "phones home" on a regular basis, to protect you from committing a "digital crime." If your new DVD isn't on the list (which, of course, it won't be), you won't be able to play it on your Media Center system - at least as things stand right now. So, it would seem, Vista's goose is cooked from the get-go; there are certainly enough big-shot media types recommending you stay away from Vista, at least for now (http://tinyurl.com/242amw). And who in their right mind would sink money (lots of it, if you go for the whole Media System package, with desktop box, monitor/tv, subscription services etc.) into a system that is essentially crippled, in the sense that you can get the same experience without upgrading a thing, right now, on your XP computer (using, for the most part, free or very cheap ware)? You don't get to be the biggest computer software company in the world by not giving the people what they want. And the prevalence of illicit music and movie downloading shows that the people are not interested in DRM. But I have a theory - and to prove it, I use Windows 3.1 as a model. In order to get people to shell out for a new operating system, Microsoft had to come up with something "big" - and digital entertainment/media centers is certainly something that interests users. And if Microsoft owned the rights to the digital media people wanted to watch/listen to, they would include it all for free - or, for a small subscription fee - in at least the more expensive versions of Vista. Ditto for the hardware issues; if MS manufactured its own HDTVs, stereo systems, or even furniture, they'd work out a way to ensure consumers paid a price they were comfortable with, just to get Vista on users' systems. But Microsoft, as big and important as it is, doesn't manufacture hardware, and doesn't own rights to digital media. And in order to create something "new" that it could convince consumers to buy, the company had to come up with a marketing pitch that would appeal to buyers. But of course, no distribution partner is going to make a deal to allow MS to sell its operating systems without getting something for itself. Hence, the various hardware and media "lockdown" arrangements that you get when you install Vista. But like I said, MS and its Big Guy (you know who I mean) didn't get to the top by preventing consumers from getting what they want. And that's where the "hacker aftermarket" comes in (remember, this is just a theory and I supply no evidence for this contention). Microsoft has traditionally tolerated piracy, at least to some extent and in certain circumstances (http://tinyurl.com/yo42h8) - especially when the company is competing with rivals, such as Linux (once a market, like Israel, becomes a "Microsoft shop," enforcement goes way up, according to many). Point of fact: Already, there is a software package that will, for a measly fifteen bucks, rip out all DRM indicators in any media file and allow it to be played on any equipment - Vista-equipped Media Center computers included. It's easily accessible at http://www.soundtaxi.info (Windows XP required), and works on just about any DRM-equipped media file. And if that wasn't enough, there are already hacks out there to bust Vista's on-line registration and DRM "phone-home" behavior (http://tinyurl.com/22pdew). Doesn't Microsoft have enough lawyers and resources to shut down these miscreants and put them in the poorhouse? It sure does. So why doesn't the company take such action? Maybe it doesn't want to - because maybe, as it looks back on how it got to be top banana - thanks, in large part, to humble old Windows 3.1 - it knows how to give the people what they want, and, in turn, sell a lot of Vistas in the process. So, maybe, we don't have to be so scared of Vista's DRM vision? http://digital.newzgeek.com

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