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Where art thou Stuckists? Intel reveals share denial PC scheme

Digital certs in hardware, and re-education for all

It was a schizophrenic Intel that faced the world at its Developer Conference in San Jose yesterday. In the morning keynote it touted its new multimedia "adaptor" platform, with glossy lifestyle videos explaining how our "digital media experience" would become "more convenient".

In the afternoon it explained why it was embedding digital certificates into the hardware - and a spokesman from VeriSign Inc., which is partnering with Intel in this great adventure, could hardly believe his luck.

On Thursday, when most of the press will have departed, it will host a session discussing a variety of share-denial technologies being funded by, or developed in, Intel's labs. These include our old favorite CPRM - incorporated into DVD-Audio players from Panasonic (DMR-E20) and Pioneer (DVR-3000) - along with DTCP (Digital Transmission Content Protection, which encrypts air to ground, or cable transmissions over FireWire) and HDCP (High Bandwith Digital Content Protection), which encrypts the display transmissions from your computer to your monitor.

What an astonishing loss of courage from America's greatest technology company - and we mean that most sincerely.

Intel can at least lay a legitimate claim on the crown, as students of the Victorian era will know. Much of Intel's R&D goes largely unnoticed - it's spent on manufacturing improvements that shrink the process size, for example, and allow unimaginable quantities of processors to be produced on these processes at low cost.

Although the great computing pioneer Charles Babbage never actually completed anything, his R&D into ever more exacting tools and processes gave Whitworth, amongst others, and an ungrateful British Empire, a fifty year technology lead. Thanks to Chipzilla, we don't have to wait this long. Intel's R&D work feeds directly into finished consumer goods, which is A Good Thing, and it's doubtful that anyone else would commit the capital, or have quite the single-minded devotion to advancing the semiconductor industry's processes as Intel.

But under pressure from the Pigopolists who own today's analog entertainment distribution industry, Intel is buckling under. It's now devoting its considerable brainpower to kill the open platform that it nurtured and popularized.

Embedded certificates

Intel is to embed certificates into the processor. Embedded certificates will be a feature of Banias processors next year.

That's an extraordinary gambit, considering that Intel backed down under a hail of fire when in 1999 it introduced, and then withdrew its processor ID. But certificates are much worse, as they leave you with little use for your communications device, unless that is, you want sit there and recompile vi all day. The audit trail leads right back to the certificate provider, so shopping and other, typical retail exchanges are linked to the certification authority. Verisign Inc. and Intel yesterday boasted how if your laptop was lost, you could magically revoke the certificate and render the machine as dead metal. Well, whoopee.

What are the downsides? You can count them. The business of ownership of a device suddenly becomes very important indeed - your PC is tagged at birth, and your choice of operating system or browser is contingent on the generosity of the certification authority. Now let's contrast this with the genius of GSM, which became the world's mobile phone standard, trumping the technically superior CDMA air interface, by ensuring that independence was mandated as part of the specification. In GSM land, you can use your phone account - your contract - in another device, without the carrier knowing that you've changed. This guarantees the consumer a huge amount of freedom, and consumers like this kind of freedom, and exploit it. Carriers must consequently compete on better service, and handset vendors must to compete with ever swishier and more attractive phones. Members of the free marketeer Taliban consider this an onerous burden on entrepreneurs, but the results speak for themselves.

The certification model announced yesterday seems to be modeled on the American cellphone lock-down, and all that's achieved is to assign permanent Developing Nation status to this fine country's wireless infrastructure. This is a desperate state of affairs, and all your bases - to tamper a phrase - belong to VeriSign Inc.

Education - that's what you need

Intel's true priorities - or the full extent of its cowardice - are revealed in the presentation we'll see (or not) on Thursday. The talk, by Michael Ripley a "content protection architect" is significant not for the technical information it divulges - this is already in the public domain, although we're grateful for listing which DVD players we'll know not to buy (see above) - but in the language deployed.

Intel is involved, we learn, to ensure an "expanded customary use of content by consumers".

But of course, this isn't the case at all. The customary use of content we know under existing fair use laws includes recording TV shows on video for subsequent consumption, playing music we've bought back to our friends on their hardware - and Ripley's endeavors are designed to thwart such "customary use".

"CP [content protection] should not infringe of customary use of content", says Intel in the next slide. Much as the inventor of the guillotine mourned the popularity of separating the head from the body, no doubt. It gets better.

CP must allow the revocation of compromised keys and injunctive relief. A creation of a "protected digital environment" - note again, the Orwellian language that seals the "protection" of the copyright holders, not the consumers - brings a "Need for consumer education... law enforcement, definition of customary consumer use".

The telling phrase is "consumer education" - ie, we're too stupid to appreciate the loss of fair use, and need to be schooled in the new ways, toot-sweet.

Stuckist options

Intel is the kingmaker in this equation, and it's a historic moment for the industry. But with Chipzilla so obviously captured by outside interests, and both Europe and American consumers lacking the stomach to rewrite laws to thwart the pigopolists, we raised the possibility that China and India could take up the slack. They can, and they most probably will.

(Who needs Hollywood, when you have Bollywood?)

To our now rather naiive summary of a "Stuckist" net - ie, one in which the hardware and protocols remain open - we must add one more requirement - an accountable certification infrastructure. Sorry we missed it first time round, but good people are working on this as we write. ®

Bootnote: We shamelessly borrowed the term 'Stuckist' from the art movement of the same name, which can be found here. We don't really have anything in common - except that we're all stuck if this madness ensues. The term was coined by Charles Thomson.

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