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Hi all,


I've been giving some thought to how I should approach putting together a new audio system (which may not happen for some time yet, but I like to plan ahead :)). Lately, I've been thinking how great it would be to have a nice multi-channel analog sound card (e.g, M-Audio 410) + power amps and speakers, and have all the decoding done within the PC.


But with the studios/electronics manufacturers putting as much emphasis on HDTV copy protection as they currently are, is it likely that we will even be able to play future formats like HD-DVD on our PC's? Some people have speculated that the biggest mistake made with the current DVD format was to allow it to be played back on PC's... perhaps that's not a path they will want to take again.


This issue would obviously make the HTPC-audio decoding solution redundant and/or less practical. Personally, the comparitively low-cost of a Delta 410 + PowerDVD means I would be happy enough to get those first and then buy the latest external receiver/decoder later should the need ever arise. But I'm not sure that everyone feels the same way (particularly people who would rather not bother with separate amplifiers after purchasing a receiver).


Anyway, I'm curious to know what anyone else has to say about this topic. There's obviously several other associated issues other than the audio side of things I just mentioned.


-Bon
 

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Well, there are two competing interests at play here.


The studios would absolutely love a media format that computers can't read.


However, studios don't make hardware (well, aside from Sony and Pioneer ;-)), so they rely on the computer industry to actually build the hardware and media. The computer industry, having gone to the trouble of creating nice high-density digital storage systems, quite predictably wants to be able to use them for arbitrary data, not just movies. The computer industry is much, much larger than Hollywood, despite the fact that Hollywood has better lobbyists in Washington, so it generally manages to get its way in this regard. However, Hollywood has a better track record of convincing congresscritters that all consumers are crooks, and getting legislation like the DMCA rammed through into law.


So, until the legislative climate changes, I predict that reading HD-DVD content on a computer will be both possible and claimed by the studios to be illegal.



Amanda Walker
 

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Not only do the studios need hardware, they need cheap hardware to create an installed base. Only PC volumes can help prices from hardware going down due to its economy of scale. An example is the usage of standard PC DVD drives in DVD players. Technically it would be cheaper to build a custom A/V DVD drive, but the volume from the PC world makes PC DVD drives cheaper.


Wykat
 

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My crystal ball says there will be PC versions of HD-DVD players. These players will require special hardware (either on a board or built in) consisting of decryption and decompression hardware, along with a number of "secure" outputs like firewire/DTCP and DVI/HDCP and HD analog/watermark (if available).


The PC-HD-DVD equipment will require a license from the industry organization controlling HD-DVD. The license gives the right to decrypt the data on the disc, provided that the hardware follows all the rules for copy control and "robustness" ("robust" means difficult for a garden-variety hacker to access any decrypted signal or encryption key).


It is less clear if you'll be able to record any protected material from the HD-DVD drive to a local hard drive - or to general purpose removable media. This would require another copy control system - which would inevitably open up additional security holes. Certainly, I would expect "high-value content" to be locked down - i.e. no copying allowed, period. If I had to guess, I'd say there will only be two choices for a HD-DVD disc: copy freely and copy never.
 

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Any system of access control built on cross licensing results in artificial barriers to competition and innovation. Innovation cannot easily take place if at every step in product development you need to check with a team of lawyers to see if your approach will violate some term of the technology license agreement.


This is very problematic for any industry that tries to innovate on a predetermined schedule which ties company value directly to the creation of new technology. Most of the computer industry is concerned enough about the burden that Hollywood is trying to place on their shoulders that finally industry dollars are being spent to combat the misinformation of the MPAA.


There is also the proven commercial success of open systems. The Internet for all of its shortcomings is the most successful open system of the last 30 years. Can you imagine what the digital landscape would like if companies like AOL, Prodigy, CompuServe, BITNET all used different technology and all were basically incompatible. Well, we went through that period in the 80's. Sure, the technology worked OK, but once a true open system was made available all of the proprietary closed systems could not compete. Some of the BBS systems transition-ed to Internet service providers early and were successful in that capacity, while others delayed and were eventually made irrelevant by changing technology.


What is troubling to me from the consumer perspective is that a company like AOL which is a direct beneficiary of Open Systems, is also perfectly happy placing arbitrary restrictions granting access to others. AIM is perhaps the best know example to date. Is it a case of have your cake and eat it too? Is it smart business to build barriers into markets? Is it smart public policy to allow that?


The obvious question in the computer industry is, "Can systems that were designed and built on the premise of sharing information quickly, reliably, easily, and at minimal cost be redesigned to prevent sharing of information quickly, reliably, easily, and at minimal cost?" Another more business oriented question is, "Would anyone want to buy such a device?" Given that all experience from previous trips around this mulberry bush indicate that the answer to the second question is NO, it seems like the first question irrelevant.


Of course, that hasn't stopped anyone from trying to build the "perfect" access control system that somehow magically strikes the perfect balance between security and ease of use. But, if you examine the operational characteristics of the systems being developed it's quickly seen that any system that achieves "robust" security and ease of use is a system that requires the individual to submit themselves to constant and ever more invasive compliance checks. A compliance check in the Digital Rights Management world is essentially be a "property search." Illegal software, illegal drivers, illegal copies are all covered under compliance checks.


So think of a time when you need to install an open source software package on you PC to accomplish some goal like actually getting some work done with your computer, but because the open source software isn't on the approved list for the DRM compliance check, your computer will refuse to play any movies, DVD-Audio disks, etc... If the designer of the compliance check system is really nice, maybe they will uninstall the unapproved software for you. Or perhaps the DRM system will just prevent you from running that dangerous software while accessing any DRM protected media? So now a general purpose computer basically becomes only single purpose DVD player or a WMA player, at least while you want to watch a movie or listen to album.


Strangely, it would be illegal for the government to perform such a search without some reasonable suspicion that there is law being broken, but the MPAA and RIAA are perfectly happy to require that any license which grants playback privileges also require that the end user allow all manner of property search. It's not something that I look forward to, and my personal opinion is that I should not be required to relinquish a Constitutional right in order to be granted the privilege of watching "The Simpsons" on my computer.


My research has proven to me that here is no acceptable marriage between open systems and robust access control technology currently in development. All known systems are much too invasive, require way too much private information be collected, force the paradigm of guilty until innocent, and provide the consumer no advantage over what can be achieved using open methods.
 
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