Editor 26-Dec-06
Windows Vista - Broken by Design


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Microsoft Invades Accounting

Vista isn't yet available to consumers but already both hackers and security firms are reporting vulnerabilities in this "Most Secure Ever" version of Windows (E4, E5). Unfortunately these vulnerabilities are nowhere near as serious as features that have been deliberately designed in.

Most of the much-trumpeted new features Vista was supposed to have were dropped so Microsoft could ship it during the current decade, but three new things have remained:

  • A security system that prevents most current software from running on Vista. New versions will be needed for just about everything you run. Even much of Microsoft's own software won't run. For instance, the free workstation database engine much small business software depends on (MSDE) will never work on Vista (E3). Of course this security system has already been penetrated and even some old attacks still worked in tests by security firm Sophos.
  • A confusing new graphic interface, necessary to make Vista look sufficiently different from previous versions of Windows.
  • A draconian DRM (Digital Rights Management) system designed to protect "premium content" published by major studios and music distributors. This is apparently where most of their development effort went to the detriment of other features.

This DRM system will severely increase the cost of computer hardware to the consumer, limit hardware choices, force purchase of much more powerful computers just to achieve the same performance you are accustomed to with Windows XP, and make the system fragile and unreliable.

A Windows Vista computer is completely unsuitable for any critical application because it can be degraded and/or disabled by any number of events, deliberately by Microsoft, by malicious software, or even by power fluctuations and similar events.

If a user is doing some image work, say, and sticks in a "premium content" disk to play some music while s/he works, the image work is immediately degraded in unpredictable ways to protect the "premium content" - but that's the least of it.

Say Microsoft finds a flaw in a popular video card which might allow breaking DRM protections. Their DRM documentation promises content providers they will immediately send out an "update" that causes all Vista computers with that video card to drop to a "less functional" level until that problem is fixed. Generally it will require every impacted user to immediately buy a new video card to restore their computer to a fully functional state - an expensive video card because that's the only kind that supports Vista.

But what if your computer has on-board video as so many now do, or it's a motherboard problem? What if every low cost Dell Dimension made between November 2007 and January 2009 is suddenly crippled? And replacing the whole motherboard / video / memory system will trigger Vista licensing issues to help complicate the situation.

But it gets worse: a Vista computer polls various hardware and drivers 30 times a second to make sure nothing has changed that might indicate an attempt to break DRM protection. Not only does this create great overhead within the computer, but a blip at your local power provider can easily change something Vista is watching - Bingo! your computer is degraded.

Perhaps the greatest risk is from malicious software. Vista has already been shown vulnerable to a variety of attacks. If a malicious program invades your machine (over 80% of small business computers are currently infected), it can make your computer useless either deliberately or more probably accidentally. Recovery will be next to impossible without simply wiping the hard disk (total data loss) and reinstalling Vista, and even then maybe not.

You could say this is all just the ranting of an unbalanced anti-Microsoft zealot, but unfortunately it is not. Those with patience can read all the details and much more from the recently published paper by Peter Gutmann, Department of Computer Science, University of Auckland, A Cost Analysis of Windows Vista Content Protection.

The really sad thing is that all these protections will be breached, quickly and effectively. All this protected "premium content" will be available for download from any number of pirate databases - for free (E0, E2).

Unfortunately this mess will not affect just Windows users. Macintosh users will be affected some by higher hardware costs and probably won't be able to play any "premium content" on their uncertified machines.

Linux users will suffer much more from hardware cost increases. Strict open source advocates will not be able to use any new hardware because open source drivers will not be available. Microsoft will not allow the hardware manufacturers to publish details of how their hardware works. If they do, Microsoft will issue a Vista fatwa disabling their products.

I suspect this whole situation is going to trigger some severe antitrust action against Microsoft - first in Europe, then in Asia, and finally in the U.S. (pending a non-Republican presidency). Massive class action suits could also be initiated if the disable feature is ever used - or lawsuits by the RIAA and MPAA if it isn't.

- Andrew Grygus

Additional Reading

©Andrew Grygus - Automation Access - www.aaxnet.com - aax@aaxnet.com
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