Intel's new chip for security Renaissance

The Lullaby of Trust


Hideous viruses and terrifying hackers will soon be neutralized so that the computing public might finally doze blissfully in a cocoon of safety, Intel announced yesterday at the Developers' Forum. The proposed solution is LaGrande -- which is not, as it sounds, a genteelized pickup truck for suburban use, but a hardware system which will control your computing experience for your own good. It will prevent you from doing silly things by sandboxing numerous risky processes and apparently establishing a secure sanctum sanctorum on one's HDD along lines of the IBM rapid restore gimmick.

Details are sketchy, but LaGrande is, we're assured, "a new level of safer computing," according to Intel COO Paul Otellini, who gave the keynote address and announced the new initiative. It will also be engineered to dovetail with Microsoft's 'Palladium' controlled-computing scheme, according to a report from the Associated Press.

With the world's largest software maker and largest chip maker both officially embracing controlled computing, we can now see the future as imagined by the Wintel colossus.

Stagnation

Surely, the most recent 'innovations' in Microsoft products have been entirely self-serving. For example, virtually all of Win-XP's mighty engineering effort was devoted to making it more difficult for consumers to use one copy on more than one computer, save for a few minor cosmetic changes and trivial whistles and bells. It was all about product activation, and almost nothing else. Come on, really Mr. Consumer, does XP do anything for you that 98 didn't? (I mean aside from binding itself to a single machine.) Outlook is still the Prime Mover of viruses; IE is still riddled with scripting vulnerabilities; the OS still crashes. Office is still the same too. Oh, XP's got maybe a score of obscure little 'features' that 2K lacked. Do you need any of them? Do you even know what they are? Can you name three? It organizes your day; it formats; it prints; it saves; it makes backups; it tracks changes for committee editing. What else does it need to do?

The fact is, Windows and Office have for quite some time done virtually everything a Windows home or small-business user wants done. There's really no need to 'upgrade'.

And what about your hardware? Got a P3 or P4? I bet your computer runs just fine. Unless you're running servers or databases or doing scientific work or hard-core graphics work, you don't need a more powerful machine. If she's a bit sluggish, strap on some extra RAM or drop in a nice graphics card. There's really no need to buy a new system.

But Microsoft and Intel (not to mention Dell and Gateway and HPQ, etc, etc) desperately need to sell new desktop systems, whether you need them or not. Recent advertising has emphasized low-end systems which can be had cheap, to attract first-time users who perhaps have long felt that a computer is an expensive luxury. Now it's not. The $699 complete system is all the rage these days.

And that's smart, certainly; but it's obviously not enough. To keep the tech gravy-train running at full speed, we're all going to have to start buying, and that's where controlled computing comes in. If it succeeds, it will mean that we all have to buy new kit. New hardware and new software: all different; all improved; all selflessly engineered with our safety in mind. In three years or so the dominant PC marketing pitch will be the Lullaby of Trust.

"I'm sorry, Dave..."
But as we've pointed out on numerous occasions, controlled computing is not at all about protecting you and your stuff, but very much about protecting digital content from you. The software and media industries are convinced that you're a criminal, and they're determined to control in minute detail what you can do with content you've paid for, by controlling minutely what you can do with your machine.

You've bought some music and you want to listen to the MP3 on your computer and the CD on your DiscMan. Forget it. There will be no more ripping and burning except under conditions of which the labels approve, like if you pay a surcharge, say. This technology is just too well suited to industry extortion for that not to be a significant driving force behind it.

Here's a simple example: let's say studio X sells you a CD for $15.00 with no copying permitted. Perhaps for $20.00 they'll sell you almost the same CD, but one which can be copied twice (allowing for the accidental loss of the copied content); but of course you won't be able to duplicate the data files. Your trustworthy set-top box masquerading as a computer simply won't do it, and the bloody CD won't copy to an untrusted machine at all.

It can work just as well in the other direction. Say you buy the content from an official download site. You'll pay extra for the privilege of burning it to removable media; and the scheme will require a specially-formatted blank medium which won't permit duplication. If these conditions aren't met, the computer you thought you owned refuses to comply. "I'm sorry, Dave..."

Thus we find Otellini's assurance that the LaGrande scheme will be "strictly opt-in" to be the most disingenuous bit of corporate hair-splitting we've heard in months. The hope is, the time will come when you quite simply have to opt in to get your digital content to work.

The content itself -- software and media -- will drive the need for controlled computing because these products will gradually be designed not to work otherwise. That, in turn, will drive the need for us to go out and buy heaps of expensive new kit and operating systems and applications and media for which we otherwise would have no use at all. Intel and MS will be back in business hard-selling to the consumer market. The OEMs will stand up and cheer, while Hollywood counts its guaranteed profits off a brand new distribution monopoly. It will be nothing short of a Renaissance.

It's quite a beautiful scam -- the evil ingenuity of Corporate America never ceases to swell my heart with profound nationalistic pride. But if the US economy continues down its current path, I seriously doubt it has a chance. We may all be a good deal poorer three years hence; and the likelihood of selling Joe Sixpack a $1000 desktop that does less than the one he's already got is going to be slim to none.

Unless there's some economic miracle (or at least another economic mass-delusion such as we enjoyed in '96--'00) in store for us, basically this Palladium/LaGrande business is a crackpot scheme that does nothing so much as illustrate the growing desperation of the consumer tech sector to sell stuff. ®


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