For the first time, the Windows operating system will wall off some audio and video processes almost completely from users and outside programmers, in hopes of making them harder for hackers to reach. The company is establishing digital security checks that could even shut off a computer's connections to some monitors or televisions if antipiracy procedures that stop high-quality video copying aren't in place.
In short, the company is bending over backward--and investing considerable technological resources--to make sure Hollywood studios are happy with the next version of Windows, which is expected to ship on new PCs by late 2006. Microsoft believes it has to make nice with the entertainment industry if the PC is going to form the center of new digital home networks, which could allow such new features as streaming high-definition movies around the home.
PCs won't be the only ones with reinforced pirate-proofing. Other new consumer electronics devices will have to play by a similar set of rules in order to play back the studios' most valuable content, Microsoft executives say. Indeed, assuring studios that content will have extremely strong protection is the only way any device will be able to support the studios' planned high-definition content, the software company says.
"The table is already set," said Marcus Matthias, product manager for Microsoft's digital media division. "We can come in and eat at the buffet, or we can stand outside and wash cars."
Hollywood studios didn't get all the protections they wanted in Vista, and record labels have even seen some of their key concerns about copy-protecting CDs left unaddressed. But theas a whole goes much further than any general-purpose computing platform before it toward addressing content companies' piracy fears.
Although ordinary MP3 files and DVDs will play without any difference, the deep changes in the way the operating system handles some entertainment content will come with costs. The most obvious of these may be the risk of compatibility problems between some older monitors or TVs and Vista computers, particularly when trying to play high-quality video. Vista may also make it harder to do some casual copying, such as recording Internet audio.
"This is definitely being driven by Microsoft's desire to position Windows as a home entertainment hub, and to do that they have to make some concessions," said Matt Rosoff, an analyst with research firm Directions on Microsoft. "They're walking a line, trying to please both sides (content companies and consumers) at the same time."
These changes are worrisome to some computer programmers and digital activist groups. They fear that increasingly high security levels will block off avenues of programming innovation, or even stop computer owners from accessing portions of their own machines--a little like walling off a room inside a private house.
"There is a concern that there is a tendency to lock down parts of the design to protect the flanks of the copy-protection system," said Princeton University computer science professor Edward Felten, who has been an outspoken critic of rigid copy-protection rules. "That makes it harder for everyone, including Microsoft, to adapt to new uses."
Putting video behind a wall
Several major changes have been made to the way the operating system will handle video and audio, though few of these are included in the early version now . The rest of the components will likely be added in the next, as yet unscheduled, beta release, and will be in the final launch of the operating system next year.
At the most basic level, some audio and video--at least when it is in Microsoft's Windows Media format--will be handled in a new "protected environment" that will keep applications such as media players or plug-ins separate from the actual media data.
Essentially, this means that much of the actual heavy lifting of decoding, unlocking and playing the audio will happen in what some engineers refer to as a separate "sandbox." Media player applications will send remote control commands such as play, fast-forward or stop into this protected space, without directly handling the data as they do today.
Technology called the "Protected Video Path" will then attempt to ensure that a video stream is encrypted--and thus difficult to copy--all the way until it reaches a monitor or other device where it is being displayed.
This won't always be possible, because most analog plugs, and some digital connections, don't support this kind of copy protection. Part of Vista's job will be to check to see what kind of devices are linked to the computer, and through what kind of connection, and decide whether the content can be encrypted or otherwise protected over that link.
If the answer is "no," in the case of high-resolution Video Graphics Array (VGA) connections, or some early Digital Video Interface connections, the computer could shut down output of video altogether through those plugs, if the content owners require that.
Alternately, Vista will include a "constriction" feature that can decrease the resolution of high-definition video on the fly, outputting a version that is slightly fuzzier (about the same as today's DVDs) than the pristine original. This can be used as an alternative to blocking a connection altogether, if a content company won't let high-definition video play over the lower-security outputs.
This feature won't affect most HD televisions, which typically are already shipped with secure connection technologies. PC monitors have been slower to adopt tools such as Intel's HDCP (High-Bandwidth Digital Content Protection) that support secure connections, however.
Most of these advanced copy-protection features in Vista are designed to apply to high-definition content and are unlikely to change the way today's DVDs or broadcast-quality content is played, Microsoft says.
Labels lack copy-protected CD support
A similar process will happen for copy-protected audio files, potentially encrypting the audio until it leaves the computer, and offering the ability to turn off specific outputs if content owners deem them insecure.
For the last year, record labels have sought additional features in the operating system that would make playing copy-protected CDs a more streamlined experience. But so far, Microsoft has not added any features specifically supporting these new CDs, saying that the technology isn't yet mature, and that other companies--Apple Computer and other music software companies included--also need to be involved.
"We're seeing digital distribution move at a rapid enough pace that the rules for which people access content today across the music services are very consistent," said John Paddleford, lead program manager for the Microsoft team that works directly with content companies. "This is what we're driving the labels to reach on the CD itself, so there's a consistent consumer experience. I think it is going to take time for the labels and the application vendors--not just Microsoft--to find a middle ground."
A spokesman for the Recording Industry Association of America, which has engaged in discussions with Microsoft on this issue, declined to comment.
Microsoft is aware that the high level of protection--which could result in some monitors and TVs not playing high-definition content at full resolution--could spark criticism and confusion.
The company is quick to say that this has not been a case of studios dictating policy to programmers.
"The studios are very good about not trying to design software," Paddleford said. "I've never had a studio say, 'We need an API (application programming interface) that does this.' But they do talk about, 'Well, we want to make sure that our theatrical content doesn't get played in any place but a theater.'"
For their part, studio executives say they haven't been involved in the intimate details, but are happy to see what Microsoft has done.
"The greatest problem in existing operating systems is that content is in the clear across certain interfaces," said Chris Cookson, chief technology officer for Warner Bros. "They've undertaken to improve that, which everyone was glad to see."