April 19, 2014

avatar

MacIntel: It's Not About DRM

The big tech news today is that Apple will start using Intel microprocessors (the same brand used in PCs) in its Macintosh computers, starting next year. Some have speculated that this might be motivated by DRM. The theory is that Apple wants the anticopying features that will be built into the hardware of future Intel processors.

The theory is wrong.

Though they’re not talking much about it, savvy people in the computer industry have already figured out that hardware DRM support is a non-starter on general-purpose computers. At most, hardware DRM can plug one hole in a system with many holes, by preventing attacks that rely on running an operating system on top of an emulator rather than on top of a real hardware processor. Plenty of other attacks still work, by defeating insecure operating systems or applications, or by exploiting the analog hole, or by capturing content during production or distribution. Hardware DRM blocks one of the less likely attacks, which makes little if any difference.

If DRM is any part of Apple’s motivation – which I very much doubt – the reason can only be as a symbolic gesture of submission to Hollywood. One of the lessons of DVD copy protection is that Hollywood still seems to need the security blanket of DRM to justify accepting a new distribution medium. DVD copy protection didn’t actually keep any content from appearing on the darknet, but it did give Hollywood a false sense of security that seemed to be necessary to get them to release DVDs. It’s awfully hard to believe that Hollywood is so insistent on symbolic DRM that it could induce Apple to pay the price of switching chip makers.

Most likely, Apple is switching to Intel chips for the most basic reason: the Intel chips meet Apple’s basic needs better than IBM chips do. Some stories report that Intel had an advantage in producing fast chips that run cool and preserve battery power, for laptops. Perhaps Apple just believes that Intel, which makes many more chips than IBM, is a better bet for the future. Apple has its reasons, but DRM isn’t one of them.

Comments

  1. Michael Zimmer says:

    I think its equally likely that IBM simply doesn’t want to invest much more effort into chips for personal computers, since they’ve left that segment of the hardware market altogether. I migth be possible that Apple essentially was forced to find a new partner willing to invest in long-term development.

  2. Jordan Vance says:

    Well, Ed, what are your thoughts on someone cracking the BIOS, or whatever Apple uses to “protect” OSX from other hardwares? Would you consider the BIOS, etc. would be a DRM? What if it gets built into the hardware? How long before OSX runs on AMD?

    I tend to agree with Mr. Zimmer. Further, I think Jobs probably tried to get a huge discount that would have turned the Apple deal into a cost center for IBM. IBM says the Apple deal was less than 2% of their revenue on processors (iirc of course), so why not get out of developing chips for someone else when they have to pull up the loss with revenue from something else?

  3. Cory Doctorow says:

    “DVD copy protection didn’t actually keep any content from appearing on the darknet, but it did give Hollywood a false sense of security that seemed to be necessary to get them to release DVDs.”

    You’re not giving them enough credit — DVD-CCA licensing did manage to restrict DVD features. The pitch from the studios that I keep hearing is “Feature X (streaming froma player to a remote viewer, making a backup, watching a downsampled video on your phone) has value, and if it has value, we want to be able to offer it as a value-added service.”

    DVD-CCA lets them do that: if you want to add a feature that turns your DVDs into a library on an HDD, and auto-downrezzes them and turns them into mobile phone videos, DVD-CCA stops you from selling that feature in the market.

    Meanwhile, OMA paves the way for the studios to sell you your videos for your mobile phone all over again.

  4. Jeff Keltner says:

    I think you’re right on with the power/performance analysis. IBM uses the same basic Power processor architecture design for the PowerPC chips as it does for its pSeries (Unix) and iSeries (Mid-market) server lines. These processors are not designed for portable use, which is clearly one of the directions that Apple is moving, but for enterprise-level scalability. The PowerPC chip may have been modified to meet personal computer needs, but IBM would not spend much time on such modifications as Apple was its only PC customer. Intel is certainly focused on the mobile market, and their chip roadmap probably makes a lot more sense for Apple when they look a couple of years down the road at the products they want to be releasing.

  5. CJD says:

    I agree that DRM isn’t the motivator for this move, long term growth is.

    In addition, like Jordan, I’m curious as to how Apple intends to enforce the “OS X only on Apple Intel systems” rule that they’ve spoken about several times since yesterday’s keynote. Some water cooler talk has suggested that their approach may be a dedicated chip on the motherboard (Apple will continue to design them) which will be required to run OS X, but would be ignored by Windows XP and other x86 OSs. Is this “Trusted Computing”? Not really, but an interesting idea.

  6. Wes Felter says:

    If Apple wanted TCPA, they could have added it to their PowerPC machines.

    BTW, there are rumors from credible sources (including inside Microsoft) that HD-DVD and Blu-ray discs will only be playable on dedicated (i.e. sealed) players or trusted-computing-enabled PCs with HDCP outputs.

  7. Ima Fish says:

    CJD, the answer could easily be the DMCA. But some encryption in the BIOS that would have to be hacked. And then they’d and then sue the pants off anyone who does. Let’s face it; Apple loves to be litigious, even against its biggest fans.

    However, I’m guessing Apple really won’t care if someone does find a way. We’ll still need a copy of OSX. Apple won’t have to provide any support. And the vast majority of computer buyers won’t take a hacked approach and would simply buy a real Mac from Apple. So Apple gets paid without any of the consequences of having to sell a system.

  8. CJD says:

    Wes ::

    Interesting– I hadn’t heard that rumor, thanks for the heads up!

  9. Alexander Wehr says:

    “BTW, there are rumors from credible sources (including inside Microsoft) that HD-DVD and Blu-ray discs will only be playable on dedicated (i.e. sealed) players or trusted-computing-enabled PCs with HDCP outputs.”

    And I would suspect apple running to both congress and the FTC and crying foul. That would be such a clear violation of antitrust law it would quite easily make their case.

    Additionally, if most pc’s (windows/tcpa) had HDCP outputs, most monitors would either have to support it, or not work at all.

    If hdcp becomes that ubiquitous it would cease to provide the protection they desire, as all hardware would decrypt it easily.

  10. LarsG says:

    If Apple wanted TCPA, they could have added it to their PowerPC machines.

    Apple doesn’t need TCPA on their PPC Macs.

    Appe has said that OSX x86 will only work on their hardware. If they go with an IBM PC compatible architecture, OSX86 will need some way of identifying the manufacturer of the motherboard. A TCPA chip on the board will do that.