Practical Technology

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Vista’s Multimedia Mess


Now, as those of you who follow my adventures in such sites as Linux-Watch and DesktopLinux know, I’m no fan of Windows in general. That said, I actually have had some success with Windows Media Center 2003 and 2005. As a result, I’ve used this operating system both to watch video on my PC and to my Sony HDTV via first a D-Link MediaLounge DSM-320 Wireless Media Player and now a D-Link DSM-520 MediaLounge Wireless HD Media Player Since then, I’ve also used Windows Media Player 11 for XP with good results.

So, when I started doing some serious testing work with Vista Ultimate, I assumed it work at least as well. I was so wrong.

Microsoft has gone to bed with DRM (digital rights management) and the resulting child is a monster.

When I recently tried to listen to a CD of Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, I found that Vista Ultimate wasn’t pushing the music to my HP Pavilion Media Center TV m7360n PC’s high-end audio speakers. It wasn’t pushing them to the cheap speakers either but that’s because Vista simply didn’t recognize that audio hardware at all. It had, however, recognized my Intel High Definition audio chip, aka Azalia, when playing other music.

What gives? What gave was that the m7360n’s 5.1-channel surround sound outputs are S/PDIF (Sony/Philips Digital Interface Format) compliant. S/PDIF is probably the most common high-end audio port around for PCs. It also has no built-in DRM (digital rights management) capability, and that turned out to be the problem. .

You see, I found that Vista disables media outputs that don’t incorporate DRM, when you try to play DRM protected media through them. So, there I was with a legal copy of the CD, but Vista wouldn’t let me play it.

Windows XP had, Media Center had, Linux had and my Mac Mini, with Mac OS X, had played it. But if you’re using S/PDIF for your computer-driven audio, and you probably are, Vista won’t let you play it.

A little further investigation reveals though that it wasn’t just Vista. It’s all of Vista audio and video drivers. And, pay attention kids, that means any audio or video hardware in a PC running Vista.

According to Matthew van Eerde, a Microsoft SDE/T (software development engineer in test) in Microsoft’s Channel 9 technology site “You can’t play DRM-protected content over S/PDIF because that would give you a zero-degradation copy that you can do whatever you like with; you can play it over HDMI because the HDMI spec addresses DRM protection. You can also play it over any analog output you like.

Van Eerde went on to explain that you can’t play DRM-protected content even over analog unless “all the drivers that touch the audio are correctly DRM-signed. All the audio drivers that come with Vista are DRM-signed; all the audio drivers that come with a system that has a Vista logo are DRM-signed; all the audio drivers that come with a device that has a Vista logo are DRM-signed; all the audio drivers that are distributed through Windows Update are DRM-signed. (If any of these are not DRM-signed, that’s a bug, and one with an easy fix… release another update, correctly signed this time.)”

In other words, Vista has DRM built into it everywhere. If you have equipment, like S/PDIF, in your system that doesn’t support DRM, you can’t use it to play DRM-protected media. Period. You can’t do it. Or, at least, not until someone breaks the Vista DRM schemes anyway.

But, will breaking this DRM scheme really be good news for people who just want to play their media? I don’t think so.

By incorporating DRM into the operating system, Microsoft isn’t just making it hard for everyone from PC DVR (digital video recorder) users to just a guy who wants to play a DRM-crippled CD to be certain that everything will work properly. It’s putting a permanent security problem into any Vista “powered” PC.

We have already seen one DRM implementation, Sony’s “sterile burning” used to create rootkit viruses. To quote, Graham Cluley, a senior technology consultant at the Sophos security company at the time, “It didn’t require Einstein to do this. They’re just exploiting the vulnerability that Sony introduced with its copy protection.”

By its nature, DRM runs at a very low hardware level. With Vista, Microsoft has placed DRM everywhere in the PC it can possibly go. Any break in the Vista DRM systems will potentially enable crackers to have rootkit access to your PC.

Play your video and get a virus? What a deal!

Besides, since DRM protection schemes must evolve constantly, to stay ahead of hackers tearing them down, I have little doubt that one day you’ll come home to find that your Vista DRM-protection has just locked you out of your media collection. You know, the same collection, you paid real money for and which had worked just fine the day before.

Let me make this perfectly clear, DRM doesn’t belong in operating systems. It doesn’t belong in drivers. It certainly doesn’t belong in one system that integrates DRM through an entire computer. This is more than just not being able to reliably use Vista as a multimedia platform.

Perhaps Peter Guttmann is right when in it his detailed A Cost Analysis of Windows Vista Content Protection paper, he said “The Vista Content Protection specification could very well constitute the longest suicide note in history.” All I know is that Vista is now a completely unacceptable platform for acting as a multimedia server or player.

I’m going to be turning my media collection over to the Apple TV. Yes, it has DRM too–unless Jobs gets his way with the media companies–but it’s a standalone device, it’s not a PC. I may not like it, but I can live that. Vista? Forget about it.

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