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Microsoft: yes, we have no incompatibilities

From DR-DOS to DRM

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Analysis Savour this irony.

Last week, we learned that incompatibilities Microsoft hadn't written into its operating system posed a grave threat to users. Last week, we also learned that genuine incompatibilities Microsoft had deliberately written into its operating system posed no threat at all.

In the first instance Microsoft had primed a public relations campaign to warn of the dire consequences posed by these bogus incompatibilities. In the second instance, and times must be tough up there, Microsoft avoided using its public relations professionals to tell us that the genuine incompatibilities were harmless.

Are you still with us? If you're feeling bewildered, your confusion is understandable.

The first instance refers to incompatibilities between Microsoft's Windows 386, 3.x and Windows 95 products and DR-DOS. This was an operating system developed by Digital Research, and later acquired by Novell, which was 100 per cent compatible with Microsoft's MS-DOS. Thanks to citizens in Iowa, who are pursuing a consumer class action lawsuit against Microsoft, these ancient malpractices are being aired once again, and Microsoft executives have been on the stand in Des Moines defending the company's conduct.

Microsoft wanted users to believe that interoperability between DR-DOS and Windows was problematic.

The second instance refers to incompatibilities between Windows Vista and next-generation High Definition DVDs, BluRay and HD-DVD. The incompatibilities are deliberate, and part of the specification Microsoft gave hardware manufacturers so they could design Vista-compatible hardware. Just before Christmas, Peter Gutmann published a technical analysis of the Vista incompatibilities, listed some of the potential security and stability threats they posed, and some of the situations where they might cause real harm.

In this instance, while Microsoft has gone to great lengths to booby-trap its software to disable functionality when certain media discs are being played, and to degrade performance when it finds what it thinks is counterfeit media, or "unauthorized" copying — it wants us to believe this will not have serious consequences for users.

(Until Vista is tested in real world conditions, we won't know for sure if Gutmann's claims are alarmist and Microsoft is telling the truth, or not — or somewhere in between.)

We'll deal with the most topical first.

Gutmann analysed the hardware specifications and declared several problem areas. When "premium content" was being played some functionality was deliberately disabled, specifically video I/O. Vista uses "tilt bits" to detect fluctuations in voltage and severely degrade the operation of the computer. He also said the specification posed problems for programmers developing free software device drivers, and would make the Vista-compatible hardware more expensive than it should be. Finally, Gutmann described catastrophic consequences for users who discovered their driver had been "revoked".

Rather than address questions from Gutmann himself, or from the technical press and analysts, Dave Marsh, Microsoft's lead program manager for video chose his own questions to answer, and passed them along to a colleague, who posted them on his blog.

Naturally these include several answers to questions Gutmann didn't ask, but avoiding the press by selecting awestruck bloggers instead is Microsoft's preferred way of dodging hard questions these days: at CES this month, Gates would only be interviewed by bloggers.

"Gates seems really relaxed unlike in many other interviews I have seen," noted a blogger after watching one of these grillings, conducted by a former Microsoft marketing guy.

Gutmann hadn't asked whether Vista's "content protection requirements apply equally to the Consumer Electronics industry supplied player devices such as an HD-DVD or Blu-Ray player", but Marsh answers anyway. From then on, it's a mixed bag.

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