Friday, April 20, 2007

How AMD misses opportunities due to DRM

[article finished]

Tom Yager (a very good articulist) wrote about AMD's plans to block the frame buffer access to unauthorized software. This means that the computer owner potentially will not be able to, for instance, take a screenshot of the screen to save it into a file.

This is something to be expected now that Microsoft Vista has been launched. I have written before about Vista (index), but I want to focus on AMD's insistence in becoming the closest Microsoft partner regarding it and how that "lacay" attitude harms AMD.

This is the key argument (taken from "Vista & DAT") to be treated in this article:

[T]he real problem for Microsoft and the Media companies is that while they can insist on control, and thus force their initiatives to be devoid of innovation, the rest of the world is still free to innovate, the innovation will still show up and be superior to what Microsoft and associates offer.
All Digital Rights Management(*) techniques are doomed to fail because of a very simple reason: For the customer to actually pay for the content and player, obviously she must be able to enjoy them, and to enjoy the content, it has to be unlocked to actually play it. This is where the problem lies: The content is unlocked at a point where the customer has control, whether it be a computer or a Blue Ray player or an iPod, and thus the customer may, depending on the laws, either legally or ilegally bypass the devices' DRM.

To close this loophole, the Media companies have succeeded to contractually force hardware manufacturers and software vendors to include DRM in the players, and lobbied very hard to make it illegal to modify them and to erode the law's protection of consumer privacy and personal freedoms. This success is causing harm, because the enforcement requires a "Police State": The only way a government may enforce laws against common people to "mod" their players is to have such powers of supervision of the people that they can detect the occurence of these activities. I think it should be a great "heads up" what is happening right now with the RIAA virtual racketeering against college students, single mothers, grandparents and children under the excuse of illegal file sharing; where the legal system gets inverted because it forces the accused to demonstrate their innocence while they only have the means of normal people against accusations financed with the billions of dollars of the recording industry.

Furthermore, the United States in particular enacted the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which made it not just illegal but also criminal to even discuss vulnerabilities of DRM techniques. There is the famous case of Dmitry Sklyarov, who was arrested while briefly visiting the U.S. for work reasons and imprisoned for months just because he freely discussed the Adobe eBooks DRM vulnerabilities while working in Russia for a Russian company to illustrate the harmful extremes the enactment of laws that criminalize discussion of DRM techniques lead to. More off-topic, but very importantly, DRM harms by obfustating the invasion of customer privacy, DRM-infected products may be perfect trojan horses: They do whatever the provider wants them to do, and nobody knows what that is, furthermore, the government prohibits, through legislation like the DCMA, to even *discuss* what they may be doing(1).

Obviously, a country that denies to itself the possibility of digital content related innovation will lose competitiveness to the rest of the world, even if the country is by far the greatest content producer; because while every country can outlaw innovation within its borders, none can outlaw it in the whole world. For its own good, the greatest content producer country in the world should leverage that leadership into leadership of content players, its insistence in blocking innovation only postpones the inevitable and increases the costs of what will happen anyway.

Exactly the same thing happens with AMD and DRM, let us look at that in more detail:

Although the strategy of infecting content with DRM is ultimately doomed to fail, it is, using Mark Shuttleworth's words "attractive enough to some people that they are doomed to be tried again and again" too. The attractiveness is more or less this: Content owners won't distribute in "unsecured" (what an euphemism for "uncontrolled") channels, therefore some customers may accept prohibitions, to relinquish ownership rights and sacrifice privacy to enjoy the content not available without DRM infection. For Hardware and Software providers, this may mean that they have a chance to become monopolies of content distribution if they get the right DRM compromise, like Macrovision that receives royalties for every DRM infected DVD or Apple with iTunes DRM'ed tracks; part of the attractiveness is that companies may *own* some DRM infection mechanisms, thus, the larger the "adoption" (that is, infection), the larger the monopoly.

Shuttleworth: "it only takes one crack" in the scheme to make all the opportunity costs in development and adoption delays, development costs, unreliability, customer insatisfaction, stiffened competition and etc. an empty expense, damaging the very companies that insisted in the DRM infections. For further confirmation, look at the strong initiative spearhearded by Apple to disinfect music tracks, they seem to understand that DRM blocks their progress more than what it enables competitors to arise, anyway, their real competition is the free-of-DRM MP3. If you look at today's DRM infected players, you will see that the greatest contributor to their complexity is the DRM management; it can't be any other way because they strive to do the impossible: To prohibit the content to be used freely while allowing the content to be used; the same thing makes it easy to crack the players(2).

Shuttleworth gets to the gist of the whole thing when he says (original emphasis):
Someone will find a business model that doesn’t depend on the old way of thinking, and if it is not you, then they will eat you alive. You will probably sue them, but this will be nothing but a defensive action as the industry reforms around their new business model, without you. And by the industry I don’t mean your competitors - they will likely be in the same hole - but your suppliers and your customers. The distributors of content are the ones at risk here, not the creators or the consumers.
Mr. Shuttleworth, having become a zillionaire of the kind who literally enjoyed a vacation in outer space, selling Free and Open Source Linux, has every credential about how to make money in new paradigms: "The truth is that survival in any market depends on your ability to keep up with what is possible", "[t]he truth is also that, as the landscape changes, different business models come and go in their viability. Those folks who try to impose analog rules on digital content will find themselves on the wrong side of the tidal wave [...] It’s necessary to innovate [to] stay ahead of the curve, perhaps even being willing to cannibalize your own existing business". "The content owners need to [think] how they turn this networked world to their advantage, not fight the tide, and also how to restructure the costs inherent in their own businesses to make them more in line with the sorts of revenues that are possible in a totally digital world".How does this apply to AMD?:

It has been demonstrated how DRM infections only temporarily benefit the companies that gain adoption fastest, until they become monopolies due to the excellent powers to contain the competition that DRM gives them. Thus, at the same time, the infections are very harmful for those blocked medium and especially small companies. ATI is important and large enough to have a chance at becoming one of those DRM sanctioned monopolies in computerized media distribution; but this is in shocking opposition to everything AMD has preached since time immemorial about fair competition and more importantly, opposed to standalone ATI, the combined AMD/ATI entity is a company that strives to grow that is at a great disadvantage to Intel in its chances to become king of DRM. Furthermore, the only instrument left for AMD's growth is innovation.

Just like Shuttleworth advises, AMD should try to partner with organizations interested in innovation. Again, I recommend Linux in particular. Imagine what would happen if AMD decided, rather than providing less than mediocre support for Linux, as exemplified here, to help Linux become the platform of choice for everything digital video (Linux already runs in multitude of consumer electronics devices with video capabilities and of course, all kinds of computers from PCs to Mega Clusters). It may happen that doing this AMD may unleash all the possibilities that new technologies have, to its great fortune.

Some examples off the top of my head, "I don't understand" why I can not use Wi-Fi to broadcast TV from my TV Tuner card in my desktop to all of my laptops if the tuner provides me with the video data, I should be able to plug that video data to, for instance, the VLC player to broadcast it through 802.11g wireless to be played in other VLCs. I should be able to log-in to my home desktop from my office at work and stream through the internet the video I decode there. I should be able to stream the video to my file server, that is not the same as my desktop. I should be able to time shift the tuning and recording of programs with my application of choice, not the very mediocre application that comes with the tuner. I should be able to have multiple tuners in multiple computers to watch several channels at once in any of my computers. It should be possible to program my graphics accelerator to do video transcoding and audio processing of the feeds I get from the tuner.

Instead of innovating, AMD insists in riding an old horse, the Windows Operating System, where it failed to even convert the excellent AMD64 instruction set architecture into competitive advantages for the very same reasons: lack of critical mass, small size.

Ratifying my point of view, Microsoft is force-feeding the market with Vista, it is killing XP early because it prefers to annoy partners and customers if that helps Vista deployments to gain the critical mass it needs to become the monopoly of content distribution. This is a shift of strategy on the part of Microsoft, that of de-emphasizing the Operating System dominance to try to transform it into a content distribution monopoly, that speaks volumes of how important that is, athough this was treated already in "Vista $ DAT"; the important thing for AMD here is that Microsoft is leaving a big opportunity for Linux to become the platform for freedom in multimedia and AMD could become the perfect ally.

The point not to be forgotten is that Microsoft has many other partners of comparable size with better positioning than ATI/AMD to ride the DRM infection; but because of precisely that better positioning to infect the market with DRM they are handicapped to participate in the uprising digital video revolution. If AMD insists in handicapping its parcitipation in the said revolution to give it a try at what it is not particularly good at, monopoly development, I fear it will end up empty-handed, as usual.

DRM should be called more properly Digital Restriction Mechanisms

Tom Yager wrote an excellent explanation why Windows is so pathetically vulnerable to malware here; other articles of him are very worthy to be googled and read.

(1)Only very stupid countries may accept DRM products developed outside their borders because of this, nevertheless, it happens!

(2) In the case of software players, it only takes something as simple as a memory snapshot to domestically retrieve the keys that unlock the content (provided that the player stores the keys in memory without some sort of obfuscation), since the cryptography scheme is known, you only have to try every memory location as a potential key until you get it. In the case of hardware players, anyway, one wonders how long the secret of the keys can be kept, if there are multiple companies in multiple countries implementing players, each with thousands of engineers with access to them. Also, potentially, to mitigate the problem mentioned in (1), some countries may demand to know the keys, augmenting the number of entities who have access to them with entire countries and their bureocracies.