Microsoft’s TV Challenge

SEATTLE — Microsoft’s grand vision for the digital home puts the Windows Media Center PC at the hub. The challenge is proving to broadcasters that Windows can lock down the content once it’s on the hard drive.

Today, broadcast content comes into the home through consumer electronics devices that are closed boxes, Jan Hofmeyr, Windows TV group product manager, told Microsoft’s Windows Hardware Engineering Conference (WinHEC).

The company’s goal is to sell more software by letting consumers move content to multiple devices around the home, including PCs, laptops and tablets, in different rooms of the house, high-definition digital television sets, premium television receivers and stationary and portable music/video players.

But once that content moves to the PC hard drive, it becomes highly swappable. Microsoft’s challenge isn’t so much in encrypting the streams that come into the house, but rather keeping consumers from burning it onto DVD or uploading it to the Internet.

Microsoft has to prove Media Center won’t become the Napster of television.

In its attempt to move the content stream from the cable or satellite provider’s single-purpose closed box onto the Windows platform, which runs all sorts of software, Hofmeyr said, “We have to assure studios and content owners and broadcasters that we can protect the content and can protect copyright that goes with the content.”

Still, he admitted, “It will take a complete mind shift for broadcast and satellite companies to embrace our platforms when they have very little control.” What happens when a Windows Update goes out during the Super Bowl, for example?

The other huge challenge, Hofmeyr said, is incorporating digital rights management (DRM) without harshening the user experience.

Microsoft plans to enforce playback rules on Windows devices via encryption, content-license generation and an encryption profile. With Longhorn, it plans to ship Protected Video Path Output Protection Management (PVP-OPM), the successor to Windows XP’s Certified Output Protection Protocol, which will protect content as it passes from the graphics subsystem to the motherboard. PVP-OPM will protect against content theft from the PC system or memory.

Beyond that, its Protected Broadcast Driver Architecture (PBDA) will standardize the transmission of protected capture streams from the television tuner to the OS and standardize the cryptographic APIs. The hardware will generate encryption, while Windows will generate the license.

Microsoft will provide different implementations of Windows Media Digital Rights manager for TV receivers, physical media, portable devices, streaming devices and Internet-delivered content. But they won’t be ready for Longhorn.

“We’ve done all we can do without having hardware,” said product manager Jay Kapur. Tuner vendors need to take the specification and start prototyping, and then Microsoft will complete the implementation.

Post-Longhorn, Microsoft plans Protected Video Path User Accessible Bus (PVP-UAB), which will provide the encryption demanded by movie studios for any content that flows over a user-accessible bus.

For independent hardware vendors, implementing Microsoft’s DRM is daunting, said Pete Levinthal, a marketing executive for ATI Technologies, which sells graphics cards.

“Certainly, content owners wish we could deploy PVP-UAB today, but we don’t have the hardware infrastructure,” Levinthal said. Content protection will cost plenty, he added.

Hardware manufacturers may have to bump up the CPU speed in order to handle encryption without degrading the quality of the content, Levinthal said, while they may need to make changes to motherboard designs. Then, some encryption will need certification by Cable Labs, which can take a while and stall product development.

These costs will ultimately be passed along to consumers, Levinthal said, especially to early adopters. They may be willing to pay through the nose to get the latest and greatest, but the DRM premium could slow momentum.

Testing of hardware drivers and encryption will have to be tightly controlled, Levinthal said, because any code escapes could open device manufacturers to liability for unauthorized content access, as could insecure delivery of driver fixes. “We’re just starting to think about the infrastructure of how to redeploy a [driver] fix,” he said.

True content security won’t come until what Microsoft is calling “the post-Longhorn timeframe,” that is, 2007 and beyond.

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