[an error occurred while processing this directive]
BBC News
watch One-Minute World News
Last Updated: Thursday, 1 February 2007, 09:57 GMT
Vista gives a view of a new world
Internet law professor Michael Geist casts an eye over the fine print in Windows Vista and is concerned at what he finds.

Windows Vista on display, AP
Consumers got their hands on Vista in late January
Vista, the latest version of Microsoft Windows has made its long awaited consumer debut. It incorporates a new, sleek look and such novelties as better search tools and stronger security.

Early reviews have tended to damn the upgrade with faint praise, however, characterising it as the best, most secure version of Windows, yet one that contains few, if any, revolutionary features.

While those reviews have focused chiefly on new functions, for the past few months the legal and technical communities have dug into Vista's "fine print".

Those communities have raised red flags about Vista's legal terms and conditions as well as the technical limitations built in to the software at the insistence of the motion picture industry.

Hard look

The net effect of these concerns may constitute the real Vista revolution as they point to an unprecedented loss of consumer control over their own PCs.

In the name of shielding consumers from computer viruses and protecting copyright owners from potential infringement, Vista seemingly wrestles control of the "user experience" from the user.

Vista's legal fine print includes extensive provisions granting Microsoft the right to regularly check the legitimacy of the software and holds the prospect of deleting certain programs without the user's knowledge.

During the installation process, users "activate" Vista by associating it with a particular computer or device and transmitting certain hardware information directly to Microsoft.

Even after installation, the legal agreement grants Microsoft the right to revalidate the software or to require users to reactivate it should they make changes to their computer components.

Prof Michael Geist (Michael Geist)
For those users frustrated by the software's limitations, Microsoft cautions that "you may not work around any technical limitations in the software".

Michael Geist

In addition, it sets significant limits on the ability to copy or transfer the software, prohibiting anything more than a single backup copy and setting strict limits on transferring the software to different devices or users.

Vista also incorporates Windows Defender, a security program that actively scans computers for "spyware, adware, and other potentially unwanted software". The agreement does not define any of these terms, leaving it to Microsoft to determine what constitutes unwanted software.

Once operational, the agreement warns that Windows Defender will, by default, automatically remove software rated "high" or "severe" even though that may result in other software ceasing to work or mistakenly result in the removal of software that is not unwanted.

For greater certainty, the terms and conditions remove any doubt about who is in control by providing that "this agreement only gives you some rights to use the software. Microsoft reserves all other rights".

For those users frustrated by the software's limitations, Microsoft cautions that "you may not work around any technical limitations in the software".

Those technical limitations have proven to be even more controversial than the legal ones.

Image problem

In December 2006, Peter Gutmann, a computer scientist at the University of Auckland in New Zealand released a paper called "A Cost Analysis of Windows Vista Content Protection".

The paper pieced together the technical fine print behind Vista, unraveling numerous limitations in the new software seemingly installed at the direct request of Hollywood.

Mr Gutmann focused primarily on the restrictions associated with the ability to play high-definition content from the next-generation Blu-Ray and HD-DVD discs (referred to as "premium content"). He noted that Vista intentionally degrades the picture quality of premium content when played on most computer monitors.

Blu-ray discs, Getty
High definition DVDs are starting to become popular
Mr Gutmann's research suggests that consumers will pay more for less with poorer picture quality yet higher costs since Microsoft needed to obtain licenses from third parties in order to access the technology that protects premium content (those license fees were presumably incorporated into Vista's price).

Moreover, he calculated that the technological controls would require considerable consumption of computing power with the system conducting 30 checks each second to ensure that there are no attacks on the security of the premium content.

Microsoft responded to Mr Gutmann's paper earlier this month, maintaining that content owners demanded the premium content restrictions.

Said Microsoft: "If the policies [associated with the premium content] required protections that Windows Vista couldn't support, then the content would not be able to play at all on Windows Vista PCs."

While that may be true, left unsaid is Microsoft's ability to demand a better deal on behalf of its enormous user base or the prospect that users could opt-out of the technical controls.

When Microsoft introduced Windows 95 more than a decade ago, it adopted the Rolling Stones Start Me Up as its theme song. As millions of consumers contemplate the company's latest upgrade, the legal and technological restrictions may leave them singing You Can't Always Get What You Want.

Michael Geist holds the Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law at the University of Ottawa, Faculty of Law.

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific