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Western Digital's 'crippleware': Some lessons from history

The panic that wasn't

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Western Digital's ineptitude

What was your reaction to the "news" that Western Digital apparently cripples its drives to prevent MP3 files being exchanged? Another root kit, right?

In fact, the hard drives aren't really crippled at all: if you're a Samba user it's just another bog-standard piece of Network Attached Storage, an Ethernet drive like any other.

What's "crippled" is Western Digital's optional extra, a virtual file system for Windows users called Mionet. But then it always has been.

Western Digital's MioNet service

WD's MioNet

Mionet is marketed as a virtual filesystem, and permits you to access your home Windows PC across the internet. It actually does quite a bit more: a shared workspace, and remote device access, for example viewing your webcam remotely. It's a "placeshifting" service, of a kind.

Many of these services are intentionally limited, and this one is no different: Mio blocked shared media over an internet connection long before Western Digital acquired the startup earlier this year.

It's Windows only - so Mac and Linux users can continue to use Samba. Western Digital helpfully included a page describing how to set up Samba. WLAN users aren't inhibited from these restrictions, and these are so easily circumvented (share the user/password among friends) as to be little more than a token nuisance.

So who's kidding who, here?

Well, blogs have dropped the story of the "scandal" like a hot potato. The anticipated consumer boycott fizzled away when word got out that it wasn't doing anything deceptive. It's marketed as a placeshifting/backup drive, it's hard to see how a lawsuit could argue otherwise. Many Linux users simply format the drives anyway, and carry on as normal.

This is a long, long way from the insidious deep integration of DRM into our hardware that we discovered with CPRM on ATA.

But this marks one clear difference from seven years ago. Back then, it was an effort to get people interested in DRM issues. Today, as the internet pulsates with rumour, paranoia and conspiracy, there's a different kind of problem. This constant background noise - and people's willingness to jump in fear at their own shadows.

Instead of information scarcity, there's information overload. So to make sense of this Tower of Babel, people construct a "Daily Me", establish informal social networks of news sources. These, in turn, tell people how to feel about a news story.

Many bloggers today are attuned to the slightest indication that the Imminent Crackdown has begun. It's Black Helicopter country: "Net Neutrality" couldn't have happened without it.

The need to be seen to be reacting "instantly" (and with the "correct" emotion) also militates against sober heads doing the detailed technical analysis required. The upshot of all this is that it makes gauging the "threat level" exceedingly difficult.

This brings us to the second difference from the turn of the decade - and it's slightly more positive. Technological restriction mechanisms such as DRM are, more often than not, bad for business.

We can't say it will always be so. But if a major storage manufacturer were to implement a low-level system enforcement of copying MP3 and video files, it would soon be dealt a swift lesson from the market. No one understands that the demand for larger hard drives comes from sating our appetite for digital media better than the Hard Disk guys.

Plus ca change

Mind you, some things don't change. In October, at its most recent meeting, the T.13 committee heard a proposal for "external path" protection. This is similar to the "secure path" protections in Vista, designed to inhibit unlicensed High Def DVD content such as BluRay. This is already part of the SCSI specification.

(See document e07187r2 for more details.)

Yet even if Microsoft implements driver-level support for External Path protection (as it has for "Secure Audio Path") - will there be any takers?

I doubt it. DRM is falling away from music as sound recordings owners begin to realise they need radically more attractive offerings to compete with the unstoppable tide of free music. No technology force majeure will step in to save rights holders today.

I worry far more that our willingness to fight yesterday's war - fuelled by a Fear Industry of paranoid bloggers - blinds us to the next scam.

Reassure me here. ®

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