Don't Forget the Consumer

Longhorn and DRM offer a lot to digital rights holders and businesses, but what's in it for consumers, the ostensible target for the next version of the operating system?

p>Here's a simple question: Why would a consumer who cares about access to his own computer and the files it contains want to buy Longhorn, the next consumer operating system for Windows?

I see compelling benefits for music and movie publishers, as well as other digital rights holders. I also see some value for corporations that adopt these clients with respect to how they're able to manage and control information, e-mail, and documents internally. I see opportunities for Microsoft as a broker for digital services and a way to lock people further into the Windows platform through proprietary rights management. But I can't help but feel shortchanged as the intended user of this product.

This is nothing new, of course. We've long put up with end-user license agreements (EULAs) that absolve software makers of any and all liability for defects in the software, no matter how egregious. But Longhorn and its Digital Rights Management (DRM) features take this a step further. Longhorn limits how the information or files you store on your computer can be used. This is great for digital rights holders because it means that these publishers will have an additional level of control over how their music, movies, and other content can be used. Piracy is wrong, but so are the tactics of these companies, who seem more inclined to bully and sue their customers than able or willing to provide content to them in a manner they want to consume it.

These publishers have long insisted on rights that weren't theirs to enforce. For example, the Recording Industry Association of America fought personal copying of music you own long before it was possible to replicate files digitally, and the Motion Picture Association fought VCRs. Initiatives like Longhorn and its hardware component, Palladium, will make it easier for these publishers to assert the terms they wanted all along, regardless of their fairness to the end user. It's easy to see why publishers would like them, but how do these features benefit you as a consumer? Why should you buy hardware and software that restricts access to files on your own system?

It's also easy to see how DRM benefits corporate entities. DRM makes it easier to set policies on e-mail and other "intellectual property." DRM also makes it possible to set company-wide permissions on a certain designation—such as confidential—enabling the creator or company to restrict who can copy, forward, or otherwise manipulate the e-mail or other documents. This is great news for some businesses, which will buy eagerly into such rights. But, like music publishers, corporate entities often insist on asserting rights that really aren't theirs to uphold, and this software will make it easier for them to assert these privileges for themselves.

Witness the proliferation of broadly worded contracts that companies insist or demand their employees sign. These contracts often make Rasputin seem a soft bargainer, restricting the ability to recruit friends to a better situation and often asserting that work you create in your spare time and which is unrelated to your work for the company belongs to the company. These contracts are often as unenforceable as the EULAs we're forced to accept before installing software, yet that doesn't stop companies from insisting on them as a prerequisite for employment.

I'm not anti-publisher. I'm a software programmer, which means the work I create operates on a publishing model. I think piracy is wrong, and Napster probably earned the fate it deserved. I often scold coworkers and relatives who download pirated music and software. People might not feel music publishers set fair prices and that they rip off their content providers—but piracy gives absolutely nothing back to the people who created the content in the first place. Consumers bear a lot of responsibility for the current situation; they have abused fair-use doctrine, even as publishers have over-asserted their own rights.

I'm not anti-business, either. I have a job—one that pays well, even—and I want to see the company I work for do well, make money, and give me the gigantic raises I unquestionably deserve.

But the announcements surrounding Longhorn and DRM seem to promise me relatively little as a private consumer of this product. I'd be laughed at in my own company if I wrote software that benefited outside parties at the expense of the end users I write the software for—yet that is exactly what seems to be happening with Longhorn.

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