Intel, Apple and the great DRM land grab

It's been a very weird two weeks in the land of motherboards and CPUs. Weird enough to keep normally vociferous vendors near silent on issues they would normally bury with a D5 bulldozer.

For starters, Intel has found itself in the absurd position of paying diplomatic lip service to the copyright lobby during the launch of its enterprise-grade, dual-core CPU (Pentium D), then confusing matters further with a vague repudiation of its original stand.

Computerworld now knows Intel's DRM (Digital Rights Management) will ship as an optional extra for Pentium D. Intel has not released a statement to this effect, but will only admit so if pushed hard. Very hard.

For those of you joining this debate late in the piece, here's a potted summary: Computerworld asked Intel reps at the Australian Pentium D launch what the story was with hardware-embedded digital rights management, particularly Microsoft's much vaunted proprietary standards known variously as Palladium, Microsoft-trademarked DRM, and that other bugbear "ring-minus-zero".

Of particular interest is Microsoft's defined DRM standards which effectively presuppose hardware-based copyright control either by PKI certificate or similar public and/or private key master registry authentication. The bottom line is that a copyright breach could both disable a machine and dob you in.

Intel's answer to the question de jour about its new hardware was to obfuscate. Intel officials said it would ostensibly support Microsoft DRM - and there and then the Intel DRM discussion ended. No specifications. No technical data. No information on where the DRM resides, or whether the DRM will live in Intel's new suboperating system, CPU or firmware. No information on whether it would ship as a mandatory lock-in or an optional (read reference) extra. No information on which enterprise buyers can base a purchasing decision.

Only days later came confirmation of the poorly-kept secret that Apple is to swap its choice of CPU from IBM's PowerPC platform to Intel by 2007. It all leaves Microsoft, and its proprietary DRM, in a rather interesting position.

For starters, Intel has now secured the only software and hardware vendor which the copyright lobby takes seriously. While Apple wobbles around the 5 percent mark of the PC market, the company has survived by the skin of its teeth for more than a decade.

Moreover, the last three years have seen Apple singularly redefine the business model for music copyright holders, proving that consumers are willing to stump up real cash for commercial music downloads - if the convenience is there. Apple's downloading model also neatly translates to commercial video.

And all of this has been done without the spectre of installing hardware-based copyright cops as Microsoft has been advocating. Indeed, you could be forgiven for thinking Intel will need Microsoft and its DRM that little bit less after this week - but Intel just couldn't say that before Steve Jobs hit the stage.

Ask yourself what incentive remains for the world's largest chip-maker, with a new operating system under its belt, to exclusively lock itself into the Microsoft DRM model - and who is really running the DRM standards show.

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