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Reg readers on keeping the open PC alive

You speak your brains

Hale Landis' posting predicting the end of the PC as an open hardware platform has drawn some strong reactions from Register readers. Many of you are alarmed, and many more optimistic. Several of you interpreted it as an extension of Intel's control over the PC standard: but we don't think that's what Landis meant. Quite the opposite, in fact. Let's get to that in a moment.

Crypto expert Bruce Schneier agrees with Landis. Schneier has been writing about closed or controlled systems - what he calls "trusted clients" - for some time. These are computers trusted by the data owner, not the user of course, and implicit is that the data owner isn't you.

First the optimists.

"As long as you can still kick and scream, why despair?" asks G'o'tz Ohnesorge (we think), summing up many comments.

James Diss picks up the thread:-

"It's not that I feel that my next meal will be spoilt by this, but more that this is a defeatist attitude in the face of adversity that proprietary information will become the next demand; wherever there is a product that is considered by the majority to be overpriced, an alternative will arrive, whether or not mandated by law. Although standards will be written like CPRM, there will always be an underground movement to keep such things at bay."

Kevin Teljeur agrees with Landis analysis of trend's but isn't pessimistic enough to spoil his appetite:-

"I don't see any reason to lose breakfast over it; on the contrary, after the market changes to the new model people like Landis, yourself and (I hope) myself with find things a bit easier than at the moment, with a much clearer demarcation between closed, 'rented' systems, and open 'owned' systems. People who want to own their systems will either build them themselves or pay more to own it outright, anyone outside of that will have a device to suit their own particular needs."

Pat Mitchell is one of many who suggests that only by hurting the "entertainment" industry's pockets will consumers succeed:-

"The entertainment industry only has power and money because we give it to them. It's probably a pipe dream but if we all boycotted their products I believe they would soon abandon this attempt at suppression, because that it is what it is. Do we really need to see that new movie or buy the latest hit CD? I truly appreciate it that The Register has been in the lead in bringing to light what the entertainment industry is trying to force on us."

And Philip W Sagstetter makes the point that individual attempts to control the market fail:-

A lot of big computer companies have tried to control the market and lost. How much control does IBM have in the consumer PC market, hardware or software? Where are Control Data or DEC? There was a time when DEC refused to license VMS, now they can't give VMS away for free. What about AT&T's bid to control the computer business, AT&T was supposed to be the ultimate "deep pocket". Why is Apple hovering around 5% market share? ... I think that if a segment of the market wants open PCs, then some company in Taiwan will be happy to fill the niche

Georgios Vasileiou writes:-

The open standard PC is not going away anytime soon --- at least not as long as the entertainment industry's charlatans don't dupe the average consumer into falsely believing that such a development is inevitable (and thus easily accepting it)."

The PC users are not sheep, and they are not going to be led into a downward spiral of self-fulfilling prophecies -- not by Sony's delirious executives, not by Steve Job's whimsical pharisaical role in the industry, and not by anyone else!"

Ah, but the hardware companies aren't the instigators of the copy control mechanisms. One of the reasons for Landis' pessimism - and he's been guiding open standards for twenty years - is that entertainment industry is looking to by-pass the big industry manufacturers. As Landis wrote:-

"There are many young companies around the world with lots of money doing new, different and strange storage devices. Many have the backing of the entertainment industry because these young companies are willing to build proprietary device interfaces including any kind of "copy protection" desired."

And vigilance is needed, points out Bret Wallace, as media giants have a vested interest in controlling content:-

As long as people are kept well-informed of the consequences of media-conglomerate control, things like CPRM can be stopped before they reach the market. The only real problem is that the best ways to keep the unwashed masses informed are controlled by the very the enemy itself: the big media conglomerates. Case in point: lack of truthful CPRM coverage by the mainstream web sites like ZDNet."

Mark Breivik asks if more we can do more than act as consumers:-

"My opinion (naive, unlikely, dreaming) is that governments should do what they are elected to do and protect us by legislating ageist the activities mentioned below. Control of what I do with my computer equipment should rest in my hands and my hands only.
I know it will probably never happen and I should just hold on tight while the world takes a nosedive into hell :("

Although no one expects gubbiments to write technical specifications, they can and do act to prevent dominant powers in one industry entering another market. And who could possibly object to a restriction on Sony owning both movie studios and record companies, and making PCs and other playback devices? Before you know it, people would be demanding that Microsoft divest itself of Passport, or that AOL/Time Warner stop distributing IM clients... But it's a great point, and one amplified in the most interesting letter we received.

'Chris' points out that he's speaking for himself and not the giant consumer electronics company he works for, but just to be safe we'll withhold his surname:-

"Why do you (or Hale Landis) imagine that the Consumer Electronics industry is any more in favour of CPRM and its ilk than the PC companies?"

"I can take it for granted that a TV from Philips (Netherlands), VCR from AIWA (Japan), CD player from Grundig (Germany), amplifier from Krell (USA) and speakers from Mission (UK) will all connect together and work without a hitch."

Er, because some consumer electronics manufacturers also own studios, record companies and publishers... and so provide the content for the players. But hear him out:-

"This trend is accelerating with the advent of home networking and ubiquitous computing through collaborations such as HAVI.

Such a vision cannot be fully realised under the constraints now being put forward. Take a simple example such as "Follow Me" technologies. Janet and John are sitting together watching a movie in the front room. John gets up and goes to the kitchen to make a cup of tea, the home network notices this and switches on the display in the kitchen to show the movie there too. Bang! In steps the latest harebrained Hollywood copy protection scheme: "Say What?! You want to duplicate this video stream over a network from this device to that device? No way!" The basic hardware at the lowest level is designed expressly to prevent exactly that happening. Their business model mandates one file, one player, one consumer. Period.

These restrictions are not in the interests of any sector of the hardware industry. Neither the IT industry, the consumer electronics industry, nor the converged "computer enhanced consumer electronics" market as Landis names it. Nor do they serve the consumers and end users who of course, lest we forget, will ultimately be paying for all this with no say whatsoever in what they think of it.

Those whose direct interests are being served here are a handful of directors of a handful of American old economy entertainment conglomerates. They are using their financial muscle to force manufacturers to build machines that enforce their onerous rules, terms and contracts on the general populace. They know full well that they cannot get what they want through the standard Free World model, dating back to Magna Carta, of having the rules first considered and passed as law by governments, then enforced by the police who finally hand alleged offenders to a judiciary who consider each case on its merits. Not least because their rules so often fly in the face of any rational person's view of justice or common sense, such as having done watching a film or listening to a piece of music you cannot lend it to your brother.

In the Brave New World of the 21st Century technology has advanced sufficiently for those with the most money and largest collection of assets get to rip up the Magna Carta and return to pure Feudalism. Naturally they insist the populace pay for the machines they use to do so. This is a neat trick; way beyond mere Taxation Without Representation, this is US Global Corporatism turned to septic pus.

The DMCA makes just as much sense as the Red Flag Act of almost exactly a century ago, also a kneejerk reaction to advancing technologies. Only this time Hollywood and The Majors, acting as this era's carriage builders, recognise that the law will not stand indefinitely. You have reported previously in The Register their own admission that the real motives behind the prosecution of Napster is not to put the genie back in the bottle but to keep the venture capitalists out of the market while giving themselves time to construct a technical solution. Their ownership of the vast majority of valuable "content" gives them a bargaining power over the makers of "computer enhanced consumer electronics" that the carriage builders never had over the automobile companies, and this time they won't hesitate to use it to make sure that a motor car will never be faster than a horse and cart.

One is reminded of Ludwell Denny's famous quote from 1930 (discussing the emergence of the USA as a world power):

"We shall not make Britain's mistakes. Too wise to try to rule the world, we shall merely own it".

Many thanks for all your letters. ®

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