Microsofts Digital Rights Keynote Hexed

SAN FRANCISCO -- "There must be some Steve Jobs hex on the room," said Gene Gable, the president of Seybold Seminars, explaining why Wednesdays Microsoft Corp. keynote at this weeks conference was starting late.

But, as they say, thats where the troubles began.

In place of the scheduled Dick Brass, Microsofts vice president of technology development, the presentation was given by Jeff Ramos, the companys director of worldwide marketing. He opened with an overview of the nature of digital rights management, calling it "key" to "the business end of things." Microsofts focus in this area, Ramos said, would be in the areas of e-books and multimedia, as represented by Microsofts Reader and Media Player software (Microsofts presence at the publishing show was relatively small, with most of its booth space devoted to Reader).

Ramos noted that Microsoft had distributed 4 million copies of Reader; he compared this favorably with the adoption rate of television and telephones in their early years (though Reader, unlike the other items, is a free download).

He also showcased Reader 2.0, which was first shown two weeks ago, announcing that it would offer full support for digital rights management on the Pocket PC (formerly WinCE) 2002 platform. Also new, he said, was that Reader 2.0 would enable one file to be readable on both a personal digital assistant and a desktop computer, for usage on up to four separate devices -- this is up from Version 1.0s limit of two devices.

"Weve also revamped our user interface," he said, demonstrating Reader 2.0s menus, which features drop shadows, much like those in Apple Computer Inc.s Mac OS X.

After two program crashes and relaunches, Ramos moved to a laptop PC and attempted to show Reader 2.0s new ability to provide external links, as to dictionaries other than Microsofts own Encarta. However, the program chose that moment to crash again.

Rights in general

Ramos then talked more generally about Microsofts plans for digital rights management, saying "anything thats digital well be able to apply rights to," whether its with Readers capabilities or the "genre-specific" ones planned for inclusion in Windows Media Player.

"This will open a Pandoras box," he said, promoting the idea of "elaborate rights." These, he said, could move the concept of buy-once rights to time-based rights -- "you can make it so the user can, say, only read this book on Tuesday" -- or location-based rights.

This, plus Microsofts .Net plans, would add up to "persistent rights management," Ramos said; in other words, he said, the file security will live within the file while management of personal identity and keys will reside in a centralized database. "The real enabler," he said, "will be the persistence of the infrastructure."

He listed commerce, reading/annotating, communications, meetings and entertainment as possible applications for these ideas. "Digital rights management enables these scenarios," he said, though he did not elaborate how these applications would differ functionally from how they work currently.

Q and A

After his speech Ramos opened the floor to questions from the sparse audience. The first asked if Reader 2.0 would be released for the Macintosh platform.

"We have no tangible plans for a Mac version," Ramos said. He listed cell phones, PDAs, PCs, digital cameras and other devices as considered targets.

Perhaps most ominously for Microsoft and its plans for securing media rights, one questioner stated that Reader 2.0 had already been hacked, opening up Reader-format e-books for copying to more than the allowed four locations. Ramos denied that Reader had been cracked.

Ironically, by that point most of the audience had left, possibly to attend a panel discussion about the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.