Microsoft bolsters video content security in Vista

Microsoft will include new ways to protect video content in Windows Vista to position the OS as a platform for home digital entertainment systems.

Microsoft plans to include new ways to protect video content in the next version of its Windows desktop operating system (OS) in an effort to position the OS as a platform for home digital entertainment systems.

Microsoft will provide technology in the core architecture of Windows Vista to secure "premium content flow," said John Paddleford, a lead program manager in the Windows Digital Media Division of Microsoft, in an interview Wednesday. This type of content is from sources such as cable and high-definition DVD (HDVD).

This secure technology will reside in the Protected Media Path (PMP), which will enable high-definition media to flow securely from its origination point through the operating system to whatever an end point, such as a high-definition TV screen or other media output device, Paddleford said.

The platform will provide both user-mode and kernel-mode protection to digital media content, such as Protected Video Path (PVP) and Protected User Mode Audio (PUMA), to ensure that content cannot be stolen, according to information on Microsoft's Web site about PMP.

"As you bring content into the system and as it leaves the system it's protected," Paddleford said. PMP also will protect digital content if it is transcoded from one format to another, such as from an MPEG2 file to a Windows Media Video file, he said.

"The whole idea is that with Protected Media Path, when you're transcoding, that's a pirate point where someone could siphon the content out," Paddleford said. To protect content during this time, Microsoft has created a secure memory space that is difficult for would-be pirates to access while files are being transformed from one format to another, he said.

Microsoft already is previewing some of this new digital video content protection technology in the Beta 1 version of Windows Vista, which is available now. The OS is expected to be generally available by fourth-quarter holiday time next year in the US.

There are several factors motivating Microsoft to provide this kind of protection, Paddleford said. One is Microsoft's desire to position a PC as more of an entertainment device. Microsoft already has had some success in this endeavor with its Windows Media Center Edition, which is optimized to run a variety of digital content and television programming on PCs.

Another factor driving for these new protections is influence from major movie studios and media content providers such as The Walt Disney Co, Sony and Twentieth Century Fox Film, with which Microsoft is working closely, Paddleford said. These companies need assurance that their content will be protected when it is running on Windows.

One problem with ensuring that digital video will be protected is that the PC itself was not designed to be a secure platform for this kind of content, said Matt Rosoff, an analyst with Directions on Microsoft Inc.

"Microsoft has to do its best and provide a good-faith effort to make the PC secure for antipiracy," he said. "[But companies] are worried about piracy and it's a legitimate concern [because] the PC architecture was not created with copy protection in mind."

Moreover, there is precedent that even with Microsoft's investment in providing new technologies for protecting content, its providers may not choose to adopt them, Rosoff said.

He cited as an example the Secure Audio Path (SAP) technology Microsoft included in the Me and XP versions of Windows that was included to protect audio content. Though Microsoft claims that 95 percent of sound code manufacturers support SAP, "no content owners have chosen to take advantage of it," Rosoff said.

This same fate could befall forthcoming digital media protection technologies in Windows Vista, he said. "Content owners may not take advantage of what Microsoft is doing," Rosoff said. Their alternatives? "They could bypass the PC altogether, or come up with some other type of system," he said.

Microsoft's proactive effort to work in tandem with major content providers gives the company a fighting chance to be successful in its aim to make the PC a mainstream entertainment device, Rosoff said.

"Microsoft is trying to forge relationships with content providers -- they talk all the time," he said. "Microsoft certainly is not working in a vacuum here."