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30.1.07

Vista too costly for the Pacific?


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As we teeter at the threshold of Microsoft's release of Windows Vista, I ask, what does this mean for Fiji and other South Pacific nations?

The biggest question is, what is the total cost of Vista? Aside from its list price (does anyone know if Microsoft offers preferential pricing for developing nations?) and the obvious requirement for newer more powerful hardware, what will Vista cost us and what might we be giving up vs. what we will gain? Peter Gutmann of the University of Auckland Department of Computing Science has published a carefully researched paper on the risks and total cost of Windows Vista. Some of Gutmann's observations about Vista include:

  • Disabled functionality for some high end video equipment
  • Decreased playback quality for some video (display devices over 800 by 600 pixels may have output degraded)
  • No more open source drivers
  • No more unified drivers - we will have to step back into the bygone age of one driver file per device variant
  • If Vista suspects tampering with either a hardware component or its driver, it will lose its ability to play premium content until a fix is applied
  • Potentially reduced system stability due to the requirement for something called tilt bits. These tilt bits render the system more sensitive to random events, events which could be malicious or simply the result of environmental factors or buggy code.
  • Slower computers due to DRM processing overhead
Some have commented that Gutmann's paper is biased against Vista and based on flawed information. Gutmann's primary sources are four documents from Microsoft and one from ATI (see his sources section). Microsoft has also responded to Gutmann's paper on the Vista team blog, which Gutmann rebuts in the Microsoft's Response section of his paper. If you have the time and the inclination, it is well worth reviewing these.

A Canadian legal scholar, Michael Geist, has also written about Vista's legal fine print recently in the Toronto Star. This quote from a related blog post summarizes Geist's legal concerns,
Vista's legal fine print includes extensive provisions granting Microsoft the right to regularly check the legitimacy of the software and holds the prospect of deleting certain programs without the user's knowledge. During the installation process, users "activate" Vista by associating it with a particular computer or device and transmitting certain hardware information directly to Microsoft.

Even after installation, the legal agreement grants Microsoft the right to revalidate the software or to require users to reactivate it should they make changes to their computer components. In addition, it sets significant limits on the ability to copy or transfer the software, prohibiting anything more than a single backup copy and setting strict limits on transferring the software to different devices or users.

Vista also incorporates Windows Defender, an anti-virus program that actively scans computers for "spyware, adware, and other potentially unwanted software." The agreement does not define any of these terms, leaving it to Microsoft to determine what constitutes unwanted software. Once operational, the agreement warns that Windows Defender will, by default, automatically remove software rated "high" or "severe,"even though that may result in other software ceasing to work or mistakenly result in the removal of software that is not unwanted.

For greater certainty, the terms and conditions remove any doubt about who is in control by providing that "this agreement only gives you some rights to use the software. Microsoft reserves all other rights." For those users frustrated by the software's limitations, Microsoft cautions that "you may not work around any technical limitations in the software."
[Vista's fine print, michaelgeist.ca]
It is nice to have "some rights" after paying a lot of money for something.

Returning to my original question, what does this mean for Fiji and the South Pacific? Windows Vista does have a great deal to offer, as many independent reviews and numerous Microsoft web sites will confirm, but it is clear that there is some bad to go along with the good. There is no question that there is an overall cost - both hardware and software - involved in moving to Vista - which is never a good thing for cash strapped South Pacific nations. The failure to deliver truly high definition output from HD media is probably a tolerable irritant in this part of the world. After all, HDTV is not due in the South Pacific for some time - I'm still waiting for Fiji to get a second TV channel! While Microsoft contradicts some of Gutmann's conclusions about drivers and stability, one thing is clear, there will be an increased support burden on the ICT professionals supporting Vista and the hardware on which it runs. For example, whenever new hardware is installed on a machine, not only does a suitable driver have to be located and installed - and it must be a Vista-friendly version of the driver - but the device and driver must be blessed by Microsoft and Vista before they are fully functional. Windows Defender's capability to remove suspicious software without user interaction and regardless of the impact is a recipe for trouble unless Microsoft is extremely careful with its malware profiles. As a result of all of these factors, increased contact with Microsoft support seems inevitable. I hope that Microsoft provides a toll-free phone number to their South Pacific customers.

Of course, researchers are now beginning to announce methods of undermining Vista's built in technical controls. As there is no USA DMCA anti-circumvention law in the South Pacific, Vista users in the region may be legally able to take advantage of these methods and take back control of their own computers. As for myself, I will not be installing Vista at home in the near future as I am happy with Windows XP and Linux. Professionally, I will not be able to recommend Vista to my employer in good conscience until the impact of the upgrade is better understood.

P.S. Here is another chilling discovery that I found in a blog post - assuming that this is not just anti-Microsoft story telling. Some digital content that you have purchased in the past to play on your Windows XP system will not play on your Windows Vista system. You have to go and buy another Vista-friendly copy. And what's more, in some cases, your original copy may be destroyed by Vista in the process! This is a disturbing possibility not only for individual computer and media owners, but especially for libraries and archives tasked with collecting and preserving access to an increasing volume of digital media.

P.P.S. Bruce Schneier has published a scathing review of Vista with some interesting thoughts about Microsoft's motives for Vista DRM.

Photo by Brajeshwar

1 comments:

mark said...

good news indeed! the worse micro$oft gets, the more likely it is people may actually start looking for alternatives.

CentOS anyone?