16 November 2006

A Cloudy Vista for Users

Microsoft is kicking off a chain of product introductions that give the users the privilege of getting less value for increasingly more money. The limitations of the Microsoft Zune media player have been well documented, including the fact that if you had bought and paid for music from a Microsoft Plays4Sure music store, it won't play on the Zune - and that's for sure. You pay more, and get less.

Now, we are beginning to see the vista of a new Windows operating system that takes the philosophy of "your computer belongs to the content providers" to new lows. Thanks to the technological protection measures built in to each and every Windows Vista system, you can be guaranteed that something that you legitimately own will be prevented from working on your shiny new system, either now or in the future. We have seen glimpses of this in the past with the multimedia capabilities in PowerPoint (which is why I still use PPT 2000), the ripping of some CDs in iTunes (which is one reason I use Media Monkey), and the disappearance of some programs recorded on TiVo. But listen to the patronizing justifications offered by Microsoft officials for giving users the ability to do less with what they own, and to pay more for the privilege:
Microsoft's official position is that Vista's DRM capabilities serve users by providing access to high-quality content that rights holders would otherwise serve only at degraded quality levels, if they chose to serve them at all. "In order to achieve that content flow, appropriate content-protection measures must be in place that create incentives for content owners while providing consumers the experiences they want and have grown to expect," said Jonathan Usher, a director in the Consumer Media Technology Group within Microsoft's Entertainment and Devices division. "We expect that the improvements in Windows Vista will attract new content to the PC, which is exactly what consumers want."
Yes, but. It is obvious that consumers want access to new content - they always have, all the way back to piano rolls. But just as each new innovation that was thought (by the content industry) to kill their business models has, in fact, created new markets, each an order of magnitude greater than the last, consumers overwhelmingly do not want third parties to tell them what they can, and cannot, do with their equipment. This is especially true when an unrelated party (say the RIAA, MPAA, or CRIA) mandates a limitation on content that is in no way related to them. Further, no consumer wants what is their legitimate and legal consumer right arbitrarily restricted by a technology company that is, in effect, defying the law through technological restrictions.

What does Microsoft have to say about this?
"It remains up to the market to determine the equilibrium that drives any free-enterprise system. Consumers are the final arbiters because they can vote with their wallets," Usher added. "This is as it should be in any well-functioning market, and we believe the improvements in Windows Vista play to this strength."
Again, yes, but. If there was a truly open, free and competitive market, this would be true. However, for the overwhelming majority of consumers who acquire their operating systems without choice, bundled with the computer they pick up at the local electronics store, there is no practical way to vote with their wallet. Few are able to install and configure an alternative operating system. Microsoft's smug appeal to market dynamics is buoyed by their de facto monopoly over the computer desktop. Here's a little gedankenexperiment for Microsoft: If you offered Windows Vista both with and without the TPM that gives remote third parties the ability to turn off content that the user has acquired legally, that also gives Microsoft the ability to turn off YOUR access to YOUR documents (that's right folks, documents you create are now at risk under Vista TPM architecture), how many would buy the TPMed version? Do you really think that Hollywood would not release its latest blockbuster movie for the vast market that would - if it could - tell Microsoft to deep six its TPM?

The sad fact is that the average consumer isn't aware, and doesn't care - yet.

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