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Critiquing Vista Criticism

Written by Gordon Fecyk, 2/13/2007

I'VE HAD A BUSY 2007 so far, so my apologies for not ranting sooner. Besides, I'm visiting my wife Bridget this week and, well, I believe she takes priority over my miserable rantings.

I managed some time before my trip to review the criticism of Windows Vista. Vista only came out on January 27th, so it's now been about two weeks to watch the fur fly.

Over the past few months, I've referred to commentaries from The Register, eWeek and even USA Today about how Vista's security features will either save desktop computing as we know it, or plunge it into oblivion. Usually the latter. After all, everyone is afraid of change to some extent, it's just that big name reporters and big name software companies seem more afraid of change than others.

But the word on the virtual street is far more interesting... I'll use Three Rings Design as an example, but they're by no means special compared to, say, Blizzard Entertainment or LucasArts. I just happen to know them a little better than most.

THE FOLKS AT THREE RINGS DESIGN have a very loyal fan base... I should know because I'm one of them. They, like many other online role play game producers, maintain public forums they can use to gauge the opinion of their customers.

Your biggest fans can turn into your fiercest critics. I'm an obvious example. Things really get interesting when customers critique each other, however! I might be evil sometimes, but I really enjoy making examples out of people who do stupid things:

My Vista PC is single user, so I disabled User Account Control and that fixed 99% of permissions issues.

I'd like to see the remaining 1%. I'd also like to know if this fellow cuts off the seat belts after he buys a new car.

But why pick solely on Three Rings' customers? Hacker sites, geeky How-to sites, average folk sites, and let's not forget mainstream media sites, all want you to cut out the seat belts from the car you drive on the Information Highway.

Like I told the fellow on the Three Rings forums: People like you are why the anti-virus industry has years of business ahead of them. Next time you blame Microsoft for the first Vista virus, I'll be there with this quote in hand.

Invoking Orvile Fudpucker again: The guy who practices safe computing is a nobody. But all hail the jerk who deliberately disabled User Account Control.

AND SPEAKING OF BLAMING MICROSOFT, let's blame Microsoft for something they really deserve the blame for. Yes, this is going off my usual path, but please bear with me. It will lead to commentary on bad design. Specifically, this is about the bad design of Vista's digital rights management:

Unless you have a display device that is equipped with specific technology intended to foil recording, the operating system will degrade the image quality so bit for bit copies cannot be made.

Like Burt Carver says: Sounds good so far, doesn't it? But here's the catch:

Considering that almost NO monitors are currently shipping with this technology, it means that if you want to view a movie off a HD-DVD as it is encoded, or stream HD content from a Blue-Ray disk to a display, the operating system will kill the video outputs and give you nothing.

Right. There's even a wonderful example of how one PC maker shipped a high defenition DVD disk with their Vista PCs, even though the PC won't play the disk at full quality.

I purchased an HP Media Center PC with a built-in HD DVD player, together with a 24" 'high definition' 1920 x 1200 HP flat panel display (HP LP2465). They even included an HD movie, 'The Bourne Supremacy'. Sure enough, the movie won't play because while the video card supports HDCP content protection, the monitor doesn't. (It plays if I connect an old 14" VGA CRT using a DVI-to-VGA connector)

-- Roger Strong

PETER GUTMANN WROTE A SCATHING CRITIQUE of Vista's included digital rights management system -- not of the operating system as a whole, so let's get that clear from the start -- but of the DRM system alone. I'm not one to take Microsoft bashing at face value, and I wish I had the time to read this rather long document in detail. However, the bad design aspect caught my attention as it should:

Once a weakness is found in a particular driver or device, that driver will have its signature revoked by Microsoft, which means that it will no longer be fed anything considered to be premium content. What this means is that a report of a compromise of a particular driver or device will cause all premium content-handling ability for that device worldwide to be turned off until a fix can be found.

A bit of backstory is in order here. Faulty device drivers are the most common cause of the infamous "Blue Screen of Death." Drivers work alongside the deepest parts of the operating system, and a failure there could lead to the entire system being compromised. Rather than continue operating, the OS stops and displays the fault, usually with the name of the faulty driver.

Devices Designed for Windows XP have digital signatures, all signed by Microsoft's hardware quality labs -- the WHQL. Usually you can take this to mean that the device's software won't crash your computer. If the device itself fails the driver could still crash it, but by that point you're at least wise to replace the device.

According to Gutmann, a device found to be capable of bypassing digital rights management may have its signature revoked by Microsoft, effectively disabling the device. Apparently, Microsoft can turn off your video card if it can bypass content controls. More likely, Vista would revert to the "Standard VGA" driver and simply stop playing protected content so you can at least work again, and replace your video card later. And I'm not going to get into his suggestions of Windows Genuine Advantage implications from replacing hardware...

Gutmann goes on to explain how devices may have to detect 'possible hack attacks' when cabling conditions change. For instance, every little voltage fluctation, every little power spike, might be a possible attempt to bypass content control. Without going into much more detail, devices and their software won't be as tolerant of 'glitches' and may reduce a system's stability. All in the name of copy protection.

There, I've had my fix of Microsoft bashing. Now, back to what I do best.

I'VE SAID IT BEFORE, AND I'LL SAY IT AGAIN. Only in the entertainment industry can you force your paying customers to behave recklessly, just so they can enjoy your products.

While Three Rings, LucasArts, Blizzard, Electronic Arts and many other vendors share the blame for encouraging reckless computing, it takes a real ego to blame Microsoft for, "a tremendous obstacle to downloadable game distribution." That ego belongs to Alex St. John of WildTangent.

The central change that impacts all downloadable applications in Vista is the introduction of Limited User Accounts. LUAs can already be found in Windows XP, but nobody uses them because of the onerous restrictions they place on usability.

Noboby? Nobody uses limited user accounts? Someone better tell Blizzard Entertainment because they put all that effort into World of Warcraft to make it work... Oh, pardon me... let's continue.

In Vista, LUAs are mandatory and inescapable. Although Microsoft made some effort to soften the obstructions LUAs place in the path of installing software in Vista, they still present a tremendous obstacle to downloadable game distribution and game compatibility with Vista in general.

Translation from MarketSpeak: Microsoft has effectively killed our business model by giving their customers what they want. This sounds so much like the anti-virus industry's response to Vista.

WildTangent built their business model on a then-popular install-on-demand mentality. Now that users are changing their mentality slowly, but inexorably, to more secured personal computers, St. John is crying foul. He can't blame Microsoft for giving their customers what they want!

At least Three Rings Design has a little bit of tolerance to change. It took one minor adjustment to make both of their flagship products work on Vista, and they did it at least six months before Vista's release date. If Three Rings saw it coming, where was WildTangent?

I know, I know, I might've had to grab Elizabeth Fong by the scruff of her neck and rub her nose in the mess her company made, but at least she could smell the 'barnacle' for what it was. If I could only grab the necks of the likes of St. John.

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