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Analysis: DRM may be why Microsoft flip-flopped on Vista virtualization

Did the company's entertainment industry partners get cranky?

By Eric Lai
June 22, 2007 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - Conspiracy theorists may link Microsoft Corp.'s abrupt decision late Tuesday not to remove restrictions on consumers virtualizing its Vista operating system to a Department of Justice agreement announced the same day or to a desire to jerk Intel Mac users around.

But the actual reason may be found in three little letters: DRM.

Vista's new digital rights management features enable movies or music files to be password-protected or made accessible only to authorized users for opening, viewing or changing.

Whether most users would call DRM a feature, however, is questionable. A close cousin to DRM technology, known as Windows Rights Management Services (which in turn is part of a larger category of technologies called Enterprise Digital Rights Management, or ERM), can help business users password-protect key documents and files, or assign the ability to open them only to trusted co-workers. But DRM's main purpose seems to be to help the Warner Bros. and Sony Musics of the world keep consumers from sharing movies and music. The entertainment industry claims that almost all blocked sharing is illegal; digital rights watchdogs argue that legitimate consumer uses are also blocked by such technology.

DRM is capable of blocking both overt piracy -- distributing movies via BitTorrent and other peer-to-peer networks -- as well as other common scenarios that most consumers do not consider piracy, such as moving legally acquired music files from their desktop PCs to their notebook computers.

"It's like when you batten down the hatches on a ship in a storm," said Aram Sinnreich, an analyst at Radar Research in Los Angeles. "Vista wants to batten down every software or multimedia bit so that they don't go somewhere the creator doesn't want it to go."

Versions out of control?

The problem is that virtualization, by accident, appears to break most of Vista's DRM and antipiracy schemes.

Virtualization software -- think VMware Inc.'s VMplayer, Microsoft's Virtual PC or Parallels Inc.'s Parallels Desktop -- allow computer users to boot one operating system but run a second one as a "guest" at the same time.

That can allow a user who has booted Windows Vista to load XP-only applications in a guest XP operating system, also known as a virtual machine (VM). Or it can let a user with an Intel Mac boot up the OS X operating system but also run Windows Vista or XP applications at the same time.

Microsoft's original plan was to announce on Tuesday changes to the contracts, known as end-user licensing agreements (EULA), for its Vista Home Basic and Home Premium editions. Those changes would permit buyers who use those editions to create VMs. The change was purely to the EULA; there is no technical limitation preventing knowledgeable users from virtualizing retail versions of Home Basic or Home Premium.

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