Apple not marching to the DRM beat yet

Analysis

October 10, 2002|By Dan Gillmor | Dan Gillmor,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

Intel's doing it. Advanced Micro Devices is doing it. Microsoft is doing it.

Apple Computer isn't.

What's Apple not doing? It's not - at least so far - moving toward an anti-customer embrace with Hollywood's movie studios and the other members of the powerful entertainment cartel.

Unlike Intel and AMD, the big chip makers for Windows-based computers, Apple hasn't announced plans to put technology into hardware that could end up restricting what customers do with the products they buy. Unlike Microsoft, Apple hasn't asserted the right to remote control users' operating systems.

The era of "Digital Rights Management," commonly called DRM, is swiftly moving closer, thanks to the Intels and AMDs and Microsofts. They're busy selling and creating the tools that give copyright holders the ability to tell users of copyrighted material - customers, scholars, libraries, etc. - precisely how they may use it.

DRM, in the most typical use of the expression, is about owners' rights. It would be more accurate to call DRM, in that context, "Digital Restrictions Management."

But Apple has taken a different tack in its rhetoric and its technology. Apple's modern operating system is becoming, whether by design or by accident, a Digital Rights Management operating system where the rights in question are the user's rights - and they are expansive.

Now, the music and movie industries have been attacking Silicon Valley and the technology companies for some time. But they've reserved particular venom for Apple among the major computing-platform organizations, and have been witheringly contemptuous of Apple's "Rip, Mix, Burn" advertising that describes the process of converting music CDs to MP3 files, which can be loaded on CD-ROM disks and, of course, Apple's own iPod MP3 player.

The company's "Digital Hub" concept has been one of its major selling points. The Mac is becoming the hub of a digital lifestyle, in which you move data between a Mac and various devices around the home, such as digital cameras, MP3 players and the like.

Apple does admonish users not to infringe the copyrights of others, as it should. And the company built a small speed bump into the iPod, which basically lets users share MP3s between one computer and the handheld player.

But it took little time for a third-party programmer to come up with software that let users move MP3s to other machines, too. And as far as I can tell Apple hasn't said a word.

I recently discovered that Apple's DVD Player software, which came with my Powerbook G4 laptop, gives me flexibility in a way I hadn't expected. Sometimes I like to watch a movie while I'm on a plane, but the DVD drive in my machine drains my battery too quickly. So before I leave home, I copy a movie - note to Hollywood: I do not do this with rental DVDs, only ones I own - to my hard disk. The DVD Player software then reads it from the disk, which uses less power.

I wonder, now that I've published this, whether an upcoming version of the DVD Player will remove this user-friendly feature. Which leads me into some other questions:

Can Apple's distinctly pro-customer approach continue in the face of Hollywood's ire and the entertainment industry's pull in Congress?

Will the manufacturers of the chips that Apple uses for the central brains of its computers build in what Intel and AMD are now promising?

They've embraced an idea known as "trusted computing," which sounds better than it may turn out to be. Trusted computing could give us more faith that an e-mail we send to someone else will get there intact and in privacy, but it's also the perfect tool for the copyright cartel - not to mention future governments that care even less for liberty than the current one - to lock down PCs from officially unauthorized uses.

An Intel senior executive vehemently disputes my characterization of his company as a toolmaker for the control freaks. He wants me to see trusted computing as an innovation.

Sure, it's an innovation - and could have some positive uses. But it inevitably will be used against us by the people who crave control.

Meanwhile, Apple is holding fairly fast to the real compromise position. It's encouraging honor, but not locking us down in ways that prevent innovative uses of the gear it sells.

Maybe Apple will cave, too. If it does, it will betray customers and principle. So far, however, so good.

Dan Gillmor can be reached via e-mail at dgillmor@sj mercury.com.

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