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Intel and Microsoft attempt KO blow to Linux

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INTEL IS ABOUT TO CUT Linux out of the legitimate content market, and hand the keys to the future of digital media to Microsoft at your expense. Don't like it? Tough, you are screwed. The vehicle to do this is called East Fork, the upcoming and regrettable Intel digital media 'platform'. The funny part is that the scheme is already a failure, but it will hurt you as it thrashes before it dies. Be afraid, be very afraid.

First, lets explore what East Fork (EF) is. It is basically a media server PC on steroids with a lot of interesting software. The downside is that it is aiming for you, not aimed at you. The first iteration, due out in Q1 2006, is based on a Smithfield dual core Pentium 4 with the Lakeport and ICH7-DH chipsets, a fairly plain combo. You also need a S-ATA HD with NCQ, and Intel HD Audio, but you can supplement that with anything else you need as long as it is on the board. You also need MS Media Center Edition 2006 (MCE 2006).

This will be replaced shortly after launch with a version based on Yonah, more like late Q1 2006, but since the Smithfield one slipped so much, this one might be delayed as well. It replaces the chipsets with Calistoga and ICH7-DHM, not a big change, and the rest remains the same. How they are going to sell a 64 bit launch and a quarter later an 'upgrade' to a 32 bit version is beyond me, but it isn't my idea. The replacement of the 130W Smithfield by the 31W Yonah won't cause many loud complaints, and the exhaust temperature of your stereo cabinet might go down a few orders of magnitude.

The concept is collectively called EF, and the one key to this all is something called the EF platform driver. It does a bunch of neato things, it will use all the horsepower the CPUs can throw at it, and a lot more. The first thing is that it will transcode content on the fly, and is officially stated as 'Transcodes content that's not supported by Digital Media Adaptor into a supported format'. Sounds cool, except the, and I mean the supported format right now is .WMV. It also can do the same for bandwidth, basically it transrates on the fly. No abject evil here, it is a good idea in every way.

Secure premium content muddle
The problem is something called the Secure Premium Content Module (SPCM), and its reason for being is to decrypt MS DRM fast and 'securely'. It is an open question as to how this security benefits the user though. Anything other than Microsoft DRM is listed as 'possible' for SPCM, but as now, the list of additional supported DRM providers is zero. The transcoding will basically add DRM to anything that touches the box, preventing you from using any fair use rights, and preventing legal sharing. This strategy worked well enough to turn the mighty Sony into an also ran in the MP3 player market.

There are also a few more goodies. One is called Energy Lake, an instant-on technology. It does what it says it does, press the button, and the beast springs to life in short order, think more toward the speed of a DVD player than a PC. This is a good thing for all involved, and hopefully will spread farther than the EF platform.

Last up is the EF online zone, which is one of those portals where you are a captive, and can 'freely choose' to spend your money in the ways they want you to but only on the limited selections they offer. There will be 'exclusive content' for those who appropriately tithe, think the latest Brittney pablum for those with short attention spans. Don't expect anything that you can't find on the web for less, you are captive and you have large corporate profit margins to support.

I say captive because although it will support other shells that are not MCE 2006, it will only support other shells, but not programs. This is not the same as being open in any way shape or form, you are locked in, period. That's not to say that there will not be choices. There have to be at least two providers in each country where it launches to provide the content, but the blessed ones are the only ones. Call me absurdly cynical if you like, but I expect there is a lot of money changing hands here, and it will come out of your pocket in the end.

With the Intel GMA950 GPU, it will decode up to 720p and 1080i, but no guarantees on 1080p. If they allow you to use an Nvidia card, a 6600GT with PureVideo and the right drivers should make 1080p a distinct possibility. That should be 'good enough' for most uses.

In Q1 2006, East Fork will launch in seven countries, the US, Canada, Germany, France, Japan, South Korea and the PRC. Notably absent is the UK, but on the upside, it looks like their buses will be spared the indignity of the ad campaign. At least the iPod ones don't look all that bad.

This advertising campaign is going to be huge, about one third of a billion US dollars. Remember the Centrino campaign? That is what you are in for, an inferior product that sells you out for more money. There will be EF devices, EF branded content and probably EF branded contraceptives to use while watching EF branded porn.

Up the river without a paddle
So, that is what it is, how does it sell you up the river? The first part is DRM. Any DRM on a machine is simply a sign of failure. It signifies that the providers cannot, or will not provide you with a good product at a fair price. People are inherently averse to getting screwed, in the way that Intel is doing mind you, and if you try to screw people, they will avoid you. If you offer them something they actually want, they tend to readily open their wallets. This crushing DRM that is being foisted upon you is the surest sign that you don't want this product, and you will be paying too much for it. Don't like that? Bought legislators are hard at work making sure you will go to jail if you try to exercise your rights on the issue.

Remember there was a time when something called fair use existed? Remember when you could rip a CD to your MP3 player to listen to in your car, or while out biking? That was and is called fair use. Breaking down the term, fair means equitable, and use means to use. Both are about to be stripped from you, but you get to pay for the privilege.

Here's how it works. The record companies, and to a far lesser degree the movie studios, are rapacious greedy bastards that have a failing business model. No, really, look at the numbers, they are on a treadmill where they need bigger and bigger hits to support the 90 plus per cent of projects that don't make dollar one. Each time, they spend more and more money making the latest plastic knuckle dragger seem cool enough so you will part with your money.

It is getting harder and harder to do, mainly because quality is declining so rapidly. So, rather than go for quality and content you want to buy, they are trying to make it so you have to buy, and crying to legislators that you are evil if you don't consume how they want, when they want, in the ways that they want. Pay per play has these cretins drooling.

Add in the fact that they completely missed the boat for digital media, obstructed its growth at every possible turn, and sued their prime consumers when they didn't flock to sup-par offerings at super-par pricing, and you have a recipe for failure. This is exactly what the record companies are doing, failing, and it is richly deserved. Some adapted early, Go-Kart being a prime example, are doing the right thing for the right reasons. The vast majority are not.

In their failing, they are passing laws left and right that make you a criminal for doing things that you were entitled to do up until it did not make several large corporations enough money. Don't like it? How many Congressmen do you own?

Their excuse it that they won't enter a market without what they deem as adequate protection. Silly me, it seems that they define adequate protection as charging more for a download than a physical product that has actual costs to produce, ship, stock and sell. It is a flat out sham, and strangely, people are stupid enough to believe it, and buy the fact that the poor record companies will lose their shirts if they so much as dip a toe in the water without DRM. They can't come in without you giving up your fair use rights.

That is a lie, they voluntarily left, and choose not to enter without you kneeling before them and giving up your civil liberties. It would be laughable if so many people didn't do just that. A good analogy was one I used on a person giving a speech about DRM a few months ago. I said imagine that during his speech, I walk up on stage with a baseball bat, and for no reason, start hitting him. Then, out of the goodness of my heart, I stop hitting him, does this suddenly make me a nice guy? The record companies are hitting you by not supporting the current prevailing formats, and are asking you to call them nice guys when they stop hitting you. I hope you are not that stupid.

East Fork handles
Back to EF though, there are a lot of problems, and it mainly starts with exclusive support for Microsoft DRM. There is no other, and as of the last time I checked, there will not be. Intel refuse to comment on unannounced products, but others have told me there is nothing but Microsoft DRM.

If you look at the history of the public, lets call them sheeple, they take what they are given, grin and bear it. Netscape, Real and others have all fallen victim to the Microsoft bundling machine, and even if EF has the option to include other forms, there will be none in the box to start.

What do you think content providers will encode in, Microsoft or some other format that has a vastly higher probability of not being on the box? By Intel selling out to MS for co-advertising dollars, they basically hand all content over to MS controlled and MS licensed schemes. Not a problem if you are willing to pay MS for the privilege of using their codecs.

How about if you are using a non-MS platform? You can always pay Microsoft for the privilege, and several Linux based devices do, but they charge you for it. They also have handcuffs placed on them as to what they can do after that. Forget 'free' as in beer, 'free' as in freedom just went away with a whimper, not a bang. Also, if you think Microsoft is cheap or altruistic, wait until they are a monopoly here too. History is a great guide.

So, with this single coup, Intel is handing the keys of the digital media kingdom to MS, and content providers will follow like the sheep they are. In almost no time, Microsoft will be the default digital media codec, in the same way that people 'chose' the 'superior' IE and WMP programs. When the content follows, which it will, you are locked in.

But you can always play it on another player, Linux will have something that can read it, right? Not legally in the US anyway, there are laws against circumventing protection mechanisms, and DRM is just that. Fair use and your rights are going to go away when EF comes to town.

Linux is verboten
So, Linux becomes a forbidden for those who want to watch a movie legally. Think this is by chance? Think it won't catch on? There is a $300 million plus ad campaign cooking to make sure you equate digital media with EF, and don't question that you are giving up all your rights to pay for the privilege. People are stupid, and by the time they catch on that the EF machine they bought is the main method that they are being screwed by, it will be too late and you won't be able to buy anything else. Trust me, this really is the plan.

I have asked Intel several questions, and never really got a satisfactory answer to any of them, mainly because I don't think they can answer them honestly. The first one is, 'who is your customer for EF, is it the consumer or the record companies?' That is the round about way of saying, are you doing this for our benefit, or the content providers? When I asked it, I don't think they had considered it enough. Now, Intel's actions speak louder than words, and the answer is that it is not for our benefit.

The second question is how does DRM benefit the consumer? Intel deflects this deftly if you ask it, you get an answer to the question 'why is your DRM version better than theirs?'. Intel replies that a single standard is better than multiple fragmentary standards. Intel won't point out that a single walled garden is no better than several, and in many ways can screw you just as much. If Intel had the guts to push a single free standard, free as in freedom not necessarily as in beer, then I would have no problem with it.

The problem is that there is no theoretical, practical or implementation benefit of DRM for the consumer. It costs money to develop, costs money to implement, and adds hardware and complexity to a device. This all comes out of your pocket while it takes your rights away.

Intel has apparently failed here, and sucked up to the money danglers at your expense. The 'solution' it is offering, EF, only takes your rights away when you write a cheque and so it is the wet dream of every media executive out there. MS is rubbing its hands with glee, it gets a chunk of everything played from 2006 on, and consumers have to just bend over and take it.

If you don't like it, you can live without music, TV and movies, an increasingly appealing proposition to me. You cannot play things without tithing, that would be illegal, and probably you're even a thought crime citizen. The fact that the 'brains' at Intel and Microsoft could not come up with a scheme that makes them money in a way that you and I would want to buy is a shining badge of failure.

Thanks a heap, Intel
This whole East Fork scheme is a failure from the start. It brings nothing positive to the table, costs you money, and rights. If you want to use Linux to view your legitimately purchased media, you will be a criminal. In fact, if you want to take your legitimately bought media with you on a road trip and don't feel the need to pay again for it - fair use, remember - you are also a criminal. Wonderful.

Intel has handed the keys to the digital media kingdom to several convicted monopolists who have no care at all for their customers. The excuse Intel gives you if you ask is that they are producing tools, and only tools, their use is not up to Intel. The problem here is that Intel has given the said tools to some of the most rapacious people on earth. If you give the record companies a DRM scheme that goes from 1 (open) to 10 (unusably locked down), they will start at 14 and lobby Congress to mandate that it can be turned up higher by default.

In closing, thanks Intel for selling us out. Thanks Microsoft, for being Microsoft. Thanks RIAA, MPAA and the other for being shining examples of unbridled greed. You and I, we were sold out, and when East Fork debuts in Q1 2006, there won't be much you can do about it, legally anyway. Enjoy the little freedom you have left. µ

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