Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Microsoft Vista and AACS - a match made in Hell

Microsoft launched Vista worldwide yesterday. This will undoubtedly be a commercial success, because the desktop operating system market essentially belongs to MS right now. But it may not be a good thing for our computers.

I first heard on episode 73 of Steve Gibson’s great Security Now podcast about the problematic Vista implementation of Advanced Access Content System (AACS), the DRM system used for high-def DVDs. New Zealand researcher Peter Gutmann had written a cost analysis of implementing AACS in Vista, it turns out that this makes the OS far less attractive to users. Peter’s analysis is by necessity qualitative rather than quantitative, but it’s nonetheless a compelling argument to not upgrade to Vista.

Let me be clear - I don’t advocate piracy – content producers should be paid a fair amount for their work. However right now, DRM is killing the goose who laid the golden egg. In a vain attempt to assure revenue streams, Hollywood and music labels are riding roughshod over consumers’ computers. Serious pirates will not be put off by this, only normal users who want to use their paid content on all their devices. See the Doom9 forums here, here and here for new hacks to bypass the protection. A new attack from Alex Ionescu seems to go one better.

My problem with all this is that Microsoft has failed to provide a compelling operating system, but rather prefer to sell us crippleware. The technical specifications were drafted by lawyers with the intention of locking down rather than providing features for the users. The use of tilt bits and promotion of closed source hardware drivers will make our systems more expensive and less reliable.

Microsoft’s response to the controversy has been fairly tepid; see this Windows Vista blog entry. Some of the main criticisms are answered – e.g. suspect video signals will “only” be degraded for premium content, never the user’s own content (it’s incredible that the specs were not clear on this point). However the use of unnecessary CPU cycles; tilt bits and crowding out open source software is just shrugged off, on the assumption that the consumer is ready to accept these inconveniences in order to support high-def DVD playing.

My own personal conclusion is that I won’t be buying any version of Vista. Am I alone?

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