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ATPM 11.09
September 2005




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by Wes Meltzer,

Intel-ligent Design

Pre-release versions of Mac OS X for Intel use a chip on the motherboard to control what hardware will execute certain code, according to reports from every tech news organization on Earth (but I saw it first on Slashdot). News of the first sign that hardware-level DRM was to play a meaningful role in modern operating systems probably raised sales of antacids to many pundits, Mac users, and Slashdotters, all of whom were fluffed up like a soufflé with a frenzy of angry comments.

But I wouldn’t be surprised if most of you said, “Huh?”

Let’s take a step back first, this month. The digital rights management, or DRM, that Apple has implemented in their Developer Transition Kit Intel Macs (currently a G5 case with a tiny little motherboard in it) is a chip that is part of the “Trusted Computing” platform used to implement hardware-level DRM for operating systems and userland software. It can do that in a variety of ways, and in the most Orwellian versions it could theoretically prevent a “home user’s edition” operating system (Windows XP Home, we’re looking at you) from so much as executing more than a few applications. Back in the realm of “possible,” a DRM chip—though probably not this particular one—could be used to prevent access to a DVD-ROM by any application other than DVD Player, for instance. Now, I wouldn’t agree with that use of the technology, as someone who uses third-party DVD player software, but it’s technically doable and well within the design of onboard DRM.

Hardware DRM can also be used to control the operating system itself. That’s what Apple is using it for, in effect. Rosetta, OS X/Intel’s runtime PPC-to-i386 translation software, authenticates against the Infineon chip, a little like a password. Rosetta, in turn, controls access to running OS X’s GUI, because significant GUI components are not yet Intel-native and have to be run in emulation. The specific component named as being non-native, though I imagine there are more, is ATSServer; it’s the progress that handles font access and drawing.

The end result? You can’t use OS X as such without Apple hardware (yet). Gasp.

The stage is now set for the classic debate on DRM. Early on, two “A-list” bloggers entered the ring to duke it out. Cory Doctorow, of Boing Boing fame, picked this up as evidence of the upcoming invasion of Trusted Computing, which he worries might:

[M]ake it hard—impossible, if you believe the snake-oil salesmen from the Trusted Computing world—to open a document in a player other than the one that wrote it in the first place, unless the application vendor authorizes it. It’s like a blender that will only chop the food that Cuisinart says you’re allowed to chop. It’s like a car that will only take the brand of gas that Ford will let you fill it with.

Apple, according to Doctorow, is already at the forefront of this, since they’ve already put the DRM chip on the motherboard and locked portions of the OS to it:

Apple may never implement this in their own apps…but Trusted Computing in the kernel is like a rifle on the mantelpiece: if it’s present in act one, it’ll go off by act three.

Doctorow says he won’t continue using a Mac if any part of the OS is locked to the Infineon chip in a final version of OS X.

John Gruber, the Daring Fireball prince of darkness, couldn’t resist taking the bait. He says that it should come as no surprise to anyone that Apple is locking their OS to their hardware; it’s what they’ve said they’re doing all along. He writes:

It’s hard to see how this news is surprising to anyone. Given…that Apple has stated, adamantly, that Mac OS X will only run on Apple hardware…it seems rather obvious that the Developer Kit boxes contain some sort of hardware that the software is tied to. This affects no one other than those who hope to install bootleg copies of Mac OS X on their x86 PCs.

To Gruber, Doctorow (and Slashdot’s “boil the water slowly and the frog won’t panic” crowd) is way out in what he calls “tinfoil hat territory”; he says there’s no evidence to suggest that Apple intends to use the DRM for anything other than locking OS X to their own hardware. Furthermore, it would be suicidal for any computer manufacturer to do what Doctorow fears and build a platform allowing software developers to lock any file format to its own, particular application. Rainer Brockerhoff rightly calls this hyperbole for what it is: FUD rather than fact. (Brockerhoff also goes into great detail about the Infineon chip, so you might find it worth a read.)

In case you were wondering, I find myself somewhere in between: I would be as shocked! just shocked! as Cory Doctorow that Apple would want to use “Trusted Computing” for iTunes, but since the Infineon chip will be Intel-only and not every Windows PC using iTunes will have hardware DRM either, it seems like kind of a pie-in-the-sky dream. And beyond Microsoft and Adobe, I don’t see much of a market for developers who want their file formats to open only in their applications.

But this all raises the question: If all that is locked to a TCPA platform is Rosetta…what happens when the whole OS is Intel-native? Will we see a kernel extension that polls a TCPA chip—which, I’m sure, could be easily circumvented—or code stored in a TCPA chip and loaded by Open Firmware? More importantly, will any applications poll the chip? I doubt it. It’s not impossible that Apple will make the window manager poll a TCPA chip, to lock OS X GUI access to their own computers, and make their install CDs check for the chip. Any more than that strikes me as pure fancy that won’t be implemented.

And it’s not just me. Rob McNair-Huff, at Mac Net Journal, agrees with me:

I have not felt like it is time to start slamming Apple over something it may or may not be doing when the real version of Mac OS X arrives for Intel machines. I prefer to give the benefit of the doubt.

Oh, and within twelve minutes, someone had already hacked it to run on grey-box PCs, as Wired reported. Which should surprise absolutely no one; it just goes to prove that someone will always try to hack anything, so long as it is hackable. OS X on Intel is the Mt. Everest of hacks: “because we can.” Expect other forms of OS control, most notably a boot-control system that resembles OpenFirmware more than the old standby BIOS that your PC motherboard has, to keep OS X off your Gateway or Dell.

Further collection of links: Macworld reports on Apple legal threats to hackers; Arlo Guthrie (not that Arlo Guthrie) observes that hacking OS X to run on your Dell will probably remain possible but will always be painful; Larry Loeb at eWeek disagrees with me and says we can expect a lot more DRM in OS X and should not assume that this is the last word; and Command-Tab asks if Apple is prepared for the legion of hackers they are about to encounter.

Keep your eyes on this front, because I expect a technological (i.e., non-lawyer-oriented) salvo will be fired by Apple in future releases of their developer previews. I have a feeling this will be a very good learning process for them.

And now, we’ll take another quick trip around. Don’t get off the carousel just yet, folks, there’s plenty left to come.

An Entirely Different Style, at Great Expense

  • Also on the Rosetta front…have you wondered just how seamless the transition to Intel will be? Everything depends on Rosetta, Apple’s software to handle all the runtime translation (see previous item). We won’t know until the fat lady sings, but Hannibal at Ars Technica speculates that it won’t be fast, based on his extensive knowledge of CPU architectures. It’s pretty technical, but the crux of it is that Rosetta works more like Transmeta’s much-ballyhooed runtime translation software (hello, 1997!) than like Virtual PC, and if you have enough RAM, and if Apple springs for dual-core CPUs, there’s no reason performance won’t be acceptable enough for occasional use. Don’t bet on it for mission-critical software, though, he says.
  • According to an Engadget source, Apple is poaching Sony designers for the Intel PowerBooks . It’s not the first time Sony’s pitched in—cf. the original PowerBook in 1991—but it would certainly be an interesting turn of events for Sony.

The Pen Is Mightier

  • No Sean Connery jokes here (too late!), but my boss, Michael Tsai, has some quibbles with Apple’s new Mighty Mouse. The mouse has a one-piece shell just like traditional Apple mice, and has a scroll ball instead of a wheel. Initially, word on the street was that it used iPod-style tactile sensors rather than ordinary mouse sensors, but Jacqui Cheng at Ars Technica says that’s not the case. Michael doesn’t think it’s very promising: he thinks it’s an incremental improvement at best, and that it would be better to come up with new and innovative ideas—or at least reimplement some of Apple’s past mousing innovations. I won’t judge it until I’ve had one in the palm of my hand…but Julio Ojeda-Zapata, my favorite tech maven, got one and found it to be nice, but in possession of too small a scroll ball, and technology godfather Walt Mossberg disliked its inconsistency. If you’d like to see the interior, Ars Technica took one apart for you. (They weren’t all that hot on it either.)

  • As Mac users, we often enjoy the schadenfreude of thumbing our noses at Windows every time someone reveals another Internet Explorer vulnerability or CSS bug. Well, we may not be able to any longer: Eminent Microsoft apologist Paul Thurrott, the butt of many jokes on As the Apple Turns, is now encouraging Redmond’s faithful to turn their backs on IE 7. He says, as long as Microsoft refuses to properly support Web standards, Windows users should boycott IE and use another browserFirefox or Opera. I, um, I hate to say, I told you so, but…

  • To end on the one theme I always harp on, I’d like to note that the number of rumors that refuse to die is astonishing. One of the most long-standing rumors, which dates back to at least late 2002 (though I can’t seem to find any extant examples), is the “video iPod” rumor. It takes a close second to the “iPod phone” rumor, which I’ve taken a hack at before, but comparing the two rumors is a little unfair. After all, Motorola will, at some point in the distant future, release a phone with iTunes running on it.

    The latest stand of this rumor is that evidently, Apple has added “video” to their enumerated list of technologies in the iPod trademark.

    As usual, I don’t think that’s such convincing evidence, but since the rumors insist it’s coming in September, we’ll see soon enough, won’t we?

Also in This Series

Reader Comments (2)

Rich · September 2, 2005 - 14:02 EST #1
"After all, Motorola will, at some point in the distant future, release a phone with iTunes running on it."

I saw the advertisement for that yesterday morning, from Cingular.

And here's a link:
Wes Meltzer (ATPM Staff) · September 2, 2005 - 14:16 EST #2
Hi Rich--

Thanks for bringing this to my notice! So far it remains a rumor, and it certainly was when I wrote the column almost two weeks ago (stories are due well before our publication date), but I'll keep my eyes open early next week to see just what we can expect from Stevie J. this time.

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