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MS Trusted Computing back to drawing board

Longhorn loses another feature

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Microsoft's extravagent silver-bullet to cure piracy, rid the Internet of worms and viruses, and possibly bring about world peace won't now appear in Longhorn, the next version of Windows. Despite their apparently contradictory headlines, both eWeek and CRN corroborate that Microsoft's promised software support for the Trusted Computing initiative is being hauled back into the lab for a rethink.

Revealed to the world as "Palladium" two years ago, this is the software half of the computer industry's promise to the entertainment industry that media content could safely be distributed to personal computers. Taking its cue from specifications thrashed out by the manufacturers' TCPA (Trusted Computing Platform Alliance), the initiative was last year rebranded as NGSCB (Next Generation Secure Computing Base) although it became subsumed into a larger project at Redmond called Managed Code which sought to replace the Win32 APIs. And this appears to be the sticking point, as we'll see.

It's worth remembering, however, that the hardware half of the project continues at a pace. An entire day-long track at Intel's February Developer Forum was devoted to chiding OEMs to get ready for TCPA. And the hardware part of the promise is substantial, involving a secure CPU, graphics card and I/O bus which are needed to plug the 'analog hole'.

According to CRN, NGSCB has been dropped from Longhorn. The publication quotes Mario Juarez, product manager in Microsoft's Security and Technology business unit as explaining that software vendors didn't want to rewrite their applications using the Managed Code path to the NGSCB set that Microsoft had offered.

After a swift, and no doubt painful ear-boxing from his PR minders, Mario was hauled back to explain to Mary Jo Foley at eWeek that "NGSCB is alive and kicking." Somewhere, perhaps, it is but you'll note that this is not quite the wholehearted promise that the full NGSCB feature set will appear in Longhorn - something that Hollywood is very keen to see.

Furthermore, we learn that the NGSCB team currently "did not have a managed code story," according to Mario, who adds: "We need to go back and figure out how that will look and work." Mary Jo notes that NGSCB is almost invisible at this year's WinHEC and that a release date for the "consumer orientated" version 2 has not been set. It's clear that NX and DRM have been strongly promoted at the event, and both featured prominently in Chairman Bill's keynote.

Independent sources confirm that the Managed Code APIs - which might or might not enable a certain amount of the NGSCB functionality - had been badly received by software developers because of performance issues. It hardly helped that applications really needed to be written from scratch to Managed Code, rather than Win32. All of this points to the Managed Code API project being offshored to somewhere closer to Siberia, and more modest lock-downs, such as No Execute pages (due to appear in XP Service Pack 2) being promoted as a good-enough answer.

The only trouble is, this really isn't the 'silver bullet' that Hollywood wants. For copyright holders of both digital media and software, TCPA promised to render the personal computer a dumb playback device, with rights strictly controlled by the rights holder. So no more promiscuous exchanges of MP3 files, and no more software piracy. It's hard to imagine a personal computer without such capabilities being very popular, and easy to see the PC market bifurcating in ways we've speculated about before: perhaps a serious and safe business class of computer and a Stuckist import catering to the rest of us. But TCPA also offered a cure to the polluted Commons that the Internet now represents for casual users: viruses and worms are problems that would simply vanish, and spam could be more simply controlled.

Either way, Longhorn isn't going to be giving Hollywood what it really wanted, and both copyright conglomerates and virus writers alike can face a future of roadbumps rather than roadblocks. ®

Related links

TCPA - an FAQ
Microsoft Shelves NGSCB Project As NX Moves To Center Stage
Microsoft: 'Palladium' Is Still Alive and Kicking

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