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Microsoft Buffeted By Criticism Over Vista DRM

Microsoft is taking a few hits over a digital-rights management feature in its upcoming Vista operating system.
Microsoft is taking some heat over a digital-rights management (DRM) feature it's folding into its upcoming Vista (formerly Longhorn) operating system.

The feature, called Output Content Protection Management, encompasses several DRM-related schemes. The one that's raised hackles in several articles and blogs is a DRM-related check that's performed when playing back video on Vista-equipped PCs. According to Microsoft's description, the feature "makes sure that the PC's video outputs have the required protection or that they are turned off if such protection is not available."

In plain English, this means that Vista machines won't be able to play next-generation, high-definition DVDs in their full, high-resolution glory unless they're equipped with monitors that support a new DRM scheme called High-Bandwidth Digital Copy Protection, or HDCP.

That'll mean that PC owners wanting to upgrade to Vista will also have to spend hundreds of dollars to buy HDCP-compliant monitors, according to the flak being fired at Microsoft in the recent online postings. That thinking is reflected in stories like "Windows Offers New Vistas Of Spending," in the online edition of The Sydney Morning Herald and "Microsoft Vista Creates DRM Insanity," on the U.K. Web site The Inquirer. On the Techdirt blog, posters have weighed in with criticisms such as "leave it to Microsoft to actually embrace some Orwellian technology like this," and "who does this DRM technology benefit, apart from monitor manufacturers, who should be in for a nice windfall?"

From Microsoft's perspective, its attempt to comply with a DRM scheme developed by the consumer electronics industry is getting unfairly blown up into a nefarious plan that's far from reality. "Articles saying that you will need new monitors with Windows Vista to play any DRMed content are not correct," said Ken Birge, a spokesman for Microsoft. "Any DRM content that's out there today, you'll be able to play with any existing monitor using Vista."

However, Birge confirms that new monitors will be required to support full playback of high-definition DVDs. "Next-generation DVDs will require HDCP for playback," Birge said. "So that requires HDCP protection all the way out to monitor. As PCs become more of a home entertainment device, consumers are going to expect to play back next-generation DVDs. In order to do that, Microsoft has to require this HDCP support all the way out to the monitor. It's very much following suit to what the consumer electronics industry has already done."

Indeed, Birge pointed out that many high-definition monitors made for the consumer electronics market already comply with HDCP, though most computer monitors have yet to do so. The next-generation DVDs will play on old-style monitors, he said, but in a degraded performance mode. "If you have a Windows Vista machine, and you have your legacy monitor, and you were to pop [in] one of these next-generation DVDs and try to play it back, it wouldn't not play," Birge said. "What it will do is down-sample to something around [standard] DVD quality; you won't get the high-definition experience."

At least one Microsoft watcher sees the company as caught between a rock and a hard place on the DRM issue. "Microsoft is trying to serve two masters, and that's not always an easy task," said Joe Wilcox, a senior analyst at Jupiter Research, "Master one is Hollywood and the content providers, who want their stuff protected. Master two is the consumer, who wants to be able to get at everything easily. And Microsoft's kind of caught in the middle. There are a lot of [DRM] mechanisms being proposed and implemented and Microsoft is just hedging its bets here. If [HDCP] really reaches a mass market, then Windows Vista will be able to support it."