Chipmakers have not completely abandoned efforts to create such copy protection features. But developers now say that they're ready to move ahead with what some call a second best alternative in order to feed surging demand for chips bound for new multimedia devices such as MP3 players, cell phones and PDAs. This so-called soft coding--putting antipiracy rules into software that is more accessible to users--is slower and less secure, but lets companies adapt to rapid changes in the market more easily, developers say.
"In the past we've invested in hardware security that has not borne fruit," said Michael Maia, vice president of marketing for Portal Player, a company that makes multimedia chips focused on portable devices. "But there's a big risk there, because the market changes so much. Until it stabilizes enough, we will be soft-coding."
The impasse over copy protection has stretched on for years, feeding distrust between the entertainment industry and consumer-electronics makers swept up in the digital technology revolution. Delays in hammering out antipiracy features for MP3 players and other devices have led to at least one proposal for legislation that would mandate the creation of astandard--a plan that was greeted with a standing ovation in Hollywood and catcalls in Silicon Valley.
That doesn't mean chipmakers oppose hard-wired copy controls. Indeed, the trend toward software-based protection is at odds with the longer-term direction of companies such as Intel and Microsoft, and their so-called trusted computing initiatives. Under both companies' plans, a hardware-based authentication system would let computers guard against hackers' intrusions and viruses, as well as potentially block use of pirated software, songs or movies.
Hard coding has proven extraordinarily elusive, however, making software-based copy controls the best alternative for bringing passable, but not perfect, antipiracy features to the coming generation of digital devices.
"For the average user, soft coding is sufficient. For the hacker, soft coding leads to a wide-open hole," said Maia. "But that's the reality right now, because the business is in flux."
Average music listeners surely will have little idea how deeply antipiracy technology might permeate the products they buy. But small differences in built-in rights-management technology can translate into big headaches for consumers, and ultimately have substantial influence over the success or failure of consumer products and digital music business models.
A few examples of that influence have already been seen today. Most MP3 players do not have any antipiracy, or digital rights management (DRM), technology built in. That has led the legal online music services to bar most transfers of songs to portable devices, creating a Byzantine list of what can and can't be done with music downloaded through services like MusicNet and PressPlay.
On the flip side, Sony has been one of the few companies to release portable music players with digital rights management technology built in, but some consumers have criticized its products as a result.
Chipmakers have watched the battles between record companies, consumer groups, file-swappers and legislators for the past year with some impatience. One constant has been Microsoft's rapid growth into the leading rights-protection company, while other once-prominent rivals such as Intertrust and Reciprocal have faltered.
Content companies have pushed manufacturers to support rights-management technology for years. Early cross-industry collaborations such as the Secure Digital Music Initiative (SDMI) failed, however. Individual device manufacturers and chipmakers have more pragmatically been signing licenses to use varying digital rights management technologies over time, although few piracy-fighting devices have seen their way to shelves in the United States.
"The hardware companies get stuck in the middle," said Mike McGuire, an analyst with GartnerG2, a division of the Gartner research firm. "This issue is going to be part of an ongoing set of negotiations between content and device manufacturers."
Despite a move away from building the rights-management tools deeply into chips, chipmakers' strategies remain widely varied. Given the long lead time in designing and building chips--often 18 months or more--this is one sign that DRM support is likely to be scattered and haphazard for some time to come.
Giant Texas Instruments has long eschewed hard-coding DRM technology into its chips, for example, despite the potential speed and memory gains.
"Our philosophy has always been that DRM should be software," said Randy Cole, chief technologist for Texas Instruments' Internet audio business. "The advantage to that is that it's changeable in the field."
What that means is that if a consumer is able to break through the antipiracy technology on a device such as an MP3 player, it can be restored automatically the next time the device is connected to the Net, Cole said.
Other functions that support antipiracy technology are increasingly being added more deeply into multimedia chips, however. Maia's company, which has focused on creating chips for mobile devices such as cell phones, is working on features that can speed up decryption of protected files such as songs that are transmitted over cell phone networks. That falls short of the benefits of putting the full rights-management system on the chip itself, however.
GartnerG2's McGuire said he expects the hardware manufacturers and chipmakers to stay out of the fray as much as possible until there is more clarity in the market and in the public policy arena. Given the different needs of different kinds of devices, the market may always be fractured, he noted.
"You're going to see some more false starts, but I think the notion here is that there is going to be ongoing experimentation," McGuire said. "Practically, we do not believe there's going to be a single magic bullet."