August 1, 2005

Cory Doctorow misses the point.

Mr. Doctorow appears to be on the verge of having a full-blown snit over Apple Computer's use of TCPA/TPM (Palladium?) DRM inside the kernel in the Mac OS X for Intel developer kits that have so far been released. I (personally) think he's (again) entirely missing the point, in a frenzy of Copyfighter Open-My-Information kneejerk.

Allow me to state for the record: I think DRM is a bad thing. Especially when applied to anything in my data. Especially when applied to anything without my permission. But in this case, take a careful look at what's going on.

Apple is a company that has always made its money on hardware. Sure, people may buy the hardware because of the OS - but the margins are on the hardware, and the higher-end, the better. While this may change in the future, and may be changing as I write this, it's still true. If it weren't true, I don't think Apple would be bothering to produce Intel-based Macs - they'd be producing Mac OS X for your PC. The problem is that that's what Steve Jobs' last company did - remember NeXTStep? Sure you do. Look what happened to them? They had to get bought out by a company that made hardware (Apple) because they fell into the ground trying to survive only making software.

No, I'm not claiming the companies are in similar situations. However, they are both companies with 'different' OSes, headed by Steve Jobs, who doesn't forget things. Apple is spending a great deal of time and money to build a Macintosh product line that runs on Intel chips - to the point of being rumored to be trying to poach Sony engineers to help them build out Intel-based sexy products. So they're going the hardware route.

Given that, anyone running OS X on a non-Apple box is cutting into their survival. They're denying Apple the profit margin on an Intel-based Mac (Note, Mr. Doctorow - I don't say 'stealing'). This isn't something that Apple thinks is illegal, or should be legislated against, or should be punished - yet - but it's something they would like to prevent if possible. So they have started taking steps.

Let's have a look at precisely what, so far, that TCPA/TPM stuff is being used for. As far as I could tell by reading the forum thread that Mr. Doctorow references in his post, the stumbling block to those folks attempting to run their versions of the Mac OS X for Intel Developer's CD on non-Apple hardware have come up against is that the OS seems to be using TPM when instantiating the Rosetta kernel.

The Rosetta kernel is the piece of code that performs on-the-fly translation between PPC binaries and the x86 instruction set. It was (IIRC) a piece of commercial software that Apple purchased via the acquisition of the firm that produced it. Ergo, it's fully theirs. So the TPM is being used to protect the running of the Rosetta code.

This, in turn, is a problem because the GUI for OS X (the ATSServer) apparently hasn't been ported to x86, and is a PPC binary. The GUI code from OS X (at least in the Dev kits) lives in PPC, and thus requires the Rosetta kernel to start up in order to run. No Rosetta, no Mac OS X interface. Thus, if your Mac OS X Intel can't properly authenticate against the TCPA/TPM hardware on the motherboard, it won't be able to start Rosetta, which means it won't be able to start up its GUI, which means - bam.

Mr. Doctorow states that this is an unacceptable foray by Apple into DRM, and goes on to explain that he worries about his data, stored in proprietary programs like Apple's and the like, and that this use of TCPA/TPM means that he will no longer be recommending or purchasing Apple's products.

I wish him well.

I'm personally unsure what has him in such a twist. If, in fact, we find out that the TCPA/TPM is being used anywhere in the OS which handles the loading and unloading of actual userspace data, or in the filesystem routines, or in any place in fact where user data or user code might run up against it, then I could see and possibly agree with his concern. But not at this point. Here's why.

Rosetta is proprietary software, and it is being protected against execution. As far as I can tell from reading the thread, the TCPA/TPM is only being invoked in the specific bit of loader code that invokes Rosetta for the purpose of translating PPC code to x86. NOTE: I am not a coder. I may well be wrong. Ergo, there doesn't seem to be any way (to me) for that to be used to encrypt or otherwise 'lock in' a user's data. The only way it would prevent users from accessing data is if they have data written by a PPC-only program which they then move to an Intel-based mac and cannot access - but that is a compatibility issue, not a DRM issue, since there is no way to retroactively 'lock down' that user's data. It simply means that they cannot transfer it to the new system (voluntarily) and have it work. If they copy it back over, it'll work fine. The data has not been encrypted, and they are free to write an OS X/Intel version of the program which can read it.

Moving on the fact that Apple is locking the GUI of an OS 'based on free software' up behind DRM - yes, so what? I recall quite clearly some diagrams of the structure of OS X. Darwin (the Open Source base of OS X) does not include the GUI. The GUI is proprietary Apple software, just like Rosetta. It is why people want to buy Mac OS X, rather than download Darwin (which they have been able to do for x86 for years).

If we discover that Apple is putting routines inside OS X that allow the TCPA/TPM to be accessed from inside Quicktime, or from inside filesystem modules - then, yes, I would be concerned. I am not even saying we won't discover these routines. I'm not defending Apple. What I am saying is that the fight against DRM is a serious one, and that knee-jerking responses to it weaken our ability to make reasoned arguments against its use. Mr. Doctorow's throwing up his hands at the very mention of TCPA/TPM and DRM and the word 'kernel' and threatening to never buy an Apple product again are a perhaps laudable statement of his commitment, but they are also an easy way for those in the industry to dismiss his statements as hyperbole or ignorance or just plain rabble-rousing. Whether I approve of him or not, he has significant influence in the Copyfighter community - and I would hate to see that influence wasted by firing shots too early, without proper information, on issues that sidetrack from the real problem.

Posted by jbz at August 1, 2005 12:10 PM | TrackBack

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