The open PC is dead – start praying, says HD guru

A view from the trenches

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Apologies in advance if the following mailing list posting ruins your next meal. It ruined ours too, but since we believe in equality of indigestion here, we feel obliged to share it with you.

Hale Landis maintains the ata-atapi.com website, and has been working for open standards for 25 years. He has been a participant in the ANSI X3/NCITS Technical Committees that developed the ATA and ATA/ATAPI standards since 1990, and works as a consultant and provider of test software.

His chilling, deeply pessimistic view is that the good times are over. The fight for an open hardware platform is very real, and the power has swung from the PC leaders to the entertainment industry. It's a valuable strategic view from the trenches of the T.13 committee, where the fight over copy control mechanisms continues. It was posted to the private T.13 mailing list, and we cite it here with permission.

Missing the BIG picture

I think many of you discussing CPRM and similar things are missing the BIG picture.

We, the computer industry and especially the hard disk industry, are at a major crossroads and there are lots of people and companies with BIG BUCKS trying to pick the next road the industry will follow. The current business model for the "personal computer" is failing. Hardware prices are rock bottom and no hardware vendor is making any money.

The big software vendors are not doing much better. You only need to review the press releases and product announcements from the likes of Dell, Gateway, Intel and Microsoft to see that near panic has set in. These companies can see that there is a real possibility that the "general purpose personal computer" could be replaced by a variety of proprietary devices. And many of these proprietary devices have entertainment functionality.

The questions for many T13 members, especially those that make mass storage devices, are: Are there any customers out there with money that we can sell devices to? What do those customers want? The hard disk vendors will give a customer anything if it means selling a few devices: CPRM, SD, 1394, "serial ATA", USB, anything, even something completely proprietary.

And it does not help that 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.

The old line hard disk vendors can not survive without bending to the desires of the entertainment industry. Just as all those companies I listed above will be unable to ignore the "requirements" of the entertainment industry.

Basically your "general purpose personal computer", aka "home computer", is history. This should not surprise anyone since Microsoft has done everything in its power to convert the home computer into an Internet appliance. And Intel still thinks it can convert home computer into the central house and consumer electronics "control center". But I think both Intel and Microsoft will find they can't fight the entertainment industry either. They too will end up doing anything so they can continue to sell hardware and software to the "home computer" market. But we probably should start talking about
the "computer enhanced consumer electronics" market.

Unfortunately for many of us we are at the mercy of some very big companies and hostage to some people with lots of money. One example is the now nearly complete control over small computer design: PCI, AGP, "serial ATA", recently announced "wireless 1394", etc. With "serial ATA Intel has successfully shutdown any public discussion of what will probably be a widely used "low end" disk drive interface.

And why is Intel doing a "wireless 1394"? What is wrong with BlueTooth? Answer: BlueTooth is not a specification controller by Intel. And Microsoft thinks we should all be "renting" our software. I'm not surprised since the only business model that many companies seem to trying these days is one that collects money every month from every household. No one wants to "sell" a product, they only want to "rent" something or provide a "service". These products and services are usually proprietary and have carefully crafted and limited functionality. As an example, just WHAT is Tivo "selling" anyway?

In my opinion if you are someone, like myself, that needs and uses low cost general purpose computers then you should start praying that there will be some hardware vendor left selling such a computer and that you will be able to run some general purpose OS and adequate applications software. And I would say it will be unlikely that such a computer will have an Intel processor or that any of that application software will come from Microsoft. This possible future must be driving product planners at Intel and Microsoft crazy.

But back to T13. Where does this leave T13? In my opinion, and trying to be "kind", T13 has become nothing but a rubber stamp for the few proposals that are made public. As pointed out by others there are lots of hard disk drive "features" that are not public information. I expect this will only continue to get worse as more and more companies attempt to "protect" their proprietary products and services.

We are seeing the end of "open device interface standards" and especially the end of T13. I just wonder how long it will be before T10, SCSI, 1394, and others, meet that same fate?

So have fun fighting the battle against CPRM and alike but please do not be surprised when you fail, after all the war has been lost, long live the new world order: proprietary devices, proprietary interfaces, copy protection, limited functionality, and prepare you credit card accounts for all those monthly rental and service charges you will be paying for every "computer controller consumer electronics device" you use.

-- Hale Landis

Readers are invited to comment. ®

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