Good things about Microsoft: they’re the rich kid next door who can book Jefferson Starship for their Vista launch tour. Good news for PC users: DRM probably isn’t going to keep you from getting a shiny new OS after all.

Whether you choose Mac OS X, Linux, Windows XP, or Windows Vista — or some combination as I do, and let’s not forget your hacked Commodore 64 — your OS choices should be based on fact. As you know, we’re not exactly big fans of over-aggressive Digital Rights Management and content protection. But readers here have found ways of using their tech the way they want: importing unrestricted, legal music from CDs into iTunes, loading MP3s and OGG files onto portable players, and so on. And there are DRM restrictions we can live with; I haven’t ever had trouble with DVDs, for instance. DRM only becomes a problem if it gives you no choice, or interferes with your work.

The problem is, some pundits have been so anxious to blast Windows Vista that they’ve started to spread information that is inaccurate or exaggerated. I was suspicious of the “Sky-is-Falling” gloom-and-doom accusations of content protection in Vista. Sure enough, those of you with actual technical experience wrote in to confirm that at least some of this information was overblown. Readers using Vista haven’t had reliability and usability problems in Vista in general. DRM restrictions are optional; they apply only when you buy hardware built to play the content and only while you’re playing the protected content (like a Blu-Ray disc). And driver signing requirements, while they initially made us a little nervous, aren’t a major hurdle: you can turn off signing requirements to install unsigned drivers when you need to, developing signed drivers should be practical for most developers, and signing requirements may stop misbehaved drivers from trashing your PC system.

Incidentally, take a look at comments; this site attracts a lot of people whose day job is developing drivers and applications for Windows. A lot of you know what you’re talking about.

Microsoft’s program managers have also responded to the content protection concerns:

Windows Vista Content Protection – Twenty Questions (and Answers)

The most troubling content protection to me is the HDCP DRM, intended for consumer HD content like Blu-Ray and HD-DVD. Quite frankly, I think a lot of the restrictions it introduces are horrific; they’re bad for consumers, and they’re bad for manufacturers and content producers because confused and frustrated consumers are less likely to buy their gear. But the question here isn’t whether HDCP is a good idea — it’s whether the presence of HDCP in Vista is something that’s a problem, or something you can ignore. (Keep in mind, Mac OS X may not be immune to content protection in the future. Apple’s basically been mum on that point.)

Based on Microsoft’s response and other information we’ve received, the situation appears to be this:

  1. Content protection only comes into play when you’re playing protected content. These restrictions don’t apply to your whole machine, period. Unless you’re trying to mix the audio output from a Blu-Ray disc into your set in SONAR, it doesn’t matter.
  2. Open source developers will still be able to write drivers. (I’ve heard as much from some in the development community.)
  3. Content restrictions do not impact pro audio. You may have heard about restrictions on S/PDIF digital output. Unless you record your set to a protected file and add the DRM yourself, this will NOT impact work you’re doing in pro audio apps.
  4. Don’t worry about tilt bit. Microsoft believes the hypothetical tilt bit problems posed by some pundits are unlikely. Do you believe Microsoft? Again, it really doesn’t matter, as long as you’re not playing HD-DVD / Blu-Ray on your machine; the restrictions don’t apply at any other time.
  5. Games, music apps, pro audio, and everything else on your system is safe, because the restrictions apply only to content that has already been restricted.

Getting the picture? Pro audio and music creation aren’t going to suffer from the content protection features, because none of those applications support the optional restrictions in the first place.

Now, that said, I don’t think these concerns came out of thin air. I did hear (unconfirmed) reports that earlier in Vista development, Microsoft did want DRM support in pro music applications. I’m sorry I didn’t get to see the reaction from audio developers. I expect it was not “Yeah, that’s a great idea! Let me set to work on it immediately!” Regardless, it didn’t happen. It’s not in Vista. And Microsoft is such a big company, that it’s hard to even know where in the company that idea came from in the first place — assuming these reports are even correct.

I do think the content protection issues are ones we should watch closely, particularly after the Sony RootKit debacle. And we should watch closely on Mac OS X, too. But the current situation for Vista means that the pro audio and music end of the equation is really not impacted.

So, you should run out and switch to Vista the minute it comes out, because it’s the phattest operating system on the planet!

No, of course not. Vista will require or at least benefit from updates to many drivers and applications, so as with any OS update (including those fantastic point releases from Apple that can be automatically installed), you may want to wait to verify compatibility with your stuff. What this means is that other issues, not content protection, are likely to impact your decision. You should consider whether Vista offers significant benefits for the cost on your machine and setup. You should research compatibility. You should make sure that when you do decide to upgrade, you leave enough time to do a full backup and take the time needed to install and tweak the OS. (Why do I point out the obvious? Because I’m the idiot who has broken ALL those rules at one time or another in the past decade and a half on various platforms.)

And, of course, you’ll want to keep reading CDM, because I am the bleeding-edge nut who will try to make it work. You can watch me suffer and/or determine Vista is a good thing, after all. And you can be sure, once I have the finished release, I’ll be frank about the comparison to the experience on Mac OS X and even Linux.

What frustrates me is that distorted fear, uncertainty, and doubt (FUD) about any OS obscures technically-accurate, not-made-up issues. Linux and Mac OS X have some significant, real, not distorted advantages. And readers here are successfully producing music on all three platforms, usually for good (and often very personal) reasons.