Apple's DRM Move: The Work of a Ulysses?

By Timothy R. Butler | Posted at 8:44 PM

Word came out earlier this week that Apple's Mac OS X on Intel developer kits depend on TCPA, still often known by its old name, Palladium. While Odysseus is long since dead, it is easy to see why Apple may be fearful of piracy as it moves to the x86 platform. The question is: exactly how does this impact the end user? That is not exactly clear just yet.

For several years now, I have been saying it was inevitable: TCPA had to be adopted by both Macs and PCs. If for no other reason than that Microsoft's push toward it will eventually require it; if you need a TCPA chip to talk to Microsoft platforms in the future, even if Apple had remained on the PowerPC, it would have been led into adopting this eventually. No computer is an island, so when the bell of “security” tolls for Windows PCs, it will inevitably toll for others as well.

What happened this week is a bit different than I expected, though. I expected Apple to grudgingly support the Microsoft promoted standard as it became necessary to do so. Instead, we have seen Apple actually position itself to be the first company to popularize actual usage of the chips.

It is far too early to really decide what to make of this. It appears that Apple's Intel-based computers will not require TCPA enabled operating systems to boot, but simply provide a TCPA facility for any system that wants to use it. To the extent that this is true, Apple's usage of the chip appears to be nothing new at all, but simply an integration of the old software key hardware dongle concept that has been in use for years. Presuming this is Apple's primary intent with TCPA, it is hard to complain: certainly, it seems much preferable to have a hardware-based protection mechanism as opposed to software activation schemes like the one employed in Windows XP that can be tripped if the system is upgraded too much and requires phoning home to Microsoft for the system to work. Moreover, as others have noted, if this is the case, the game has not changed at all: Apple's OS is technically only legally usable on Macintosh systems, and non-Apple PowerPC desktop systems that would actually run the OS aren't exactly available all over the place. In other words, essentially what Apple is doing is attempting to make an Intel Mac clone resistant, a very sensible thing to do given Apple's status as primarily a hardware company.

Obviously, if the technology is in place, it seems likely that Apple will use it elsewhere too, or possibly encourage third party use of it. Whether this is bad or not, again, is hard to say just now. If, for example, Apple uses this to keep iTunes Music Store music safe from those who keep breaking into its software-based Fairplay DRM, it seems that the majority of users will benefit from that: given that Apple has some of the friendliest DRM terms available from iTMS, it is best if Apple can insure the integrity of Fairplay and thereby remain on the good graces of the recording industry. If pundits are right that Apple may be soon moving into selling video, the need for reliable DRM becomes even more crucial if Apple is going to get to call the shots with the content providers.

I think few, other than software pirates, will find these possibilities unacceptable. The key to acceptability, which I hope Apple does not violate, is that there is always the freedom to avoid DRM if you wish, and so far it seems Apple is being good about that. Given that their developer systems can run other PC operating systems, that iTunes can play non-DRM protected music and presumably Macs will continue to be able to play non-DRM protected videos and software, the consumer will only be impacted by Apple's copyright protection technology should the users choose to use DRM protected materials instead of readily available non-protected options. That this technology, as Apple is using it, appears to change nothing that you can do with your system makes it a lot less troubling than Microsoft's Palladium initiative of a few years back, which appeared to threaten to require operating system and application software to be “trusted” if it was going to run.

Is Apple's inclusion of a TCPA chip a Trojan horse for something worse, such as a time when the user can only run TCPA enabled software? Perhaps, but given that a software-based rights management implementation could likely do the same almost as well, I would assert Apple would already be doing that, if it really wanted to. Instead, TCPA support does open up the possibility that Macs will be able to continue to communicate with Windows systems, even if Microsoft eventually gets its way and insists that Windows systems can only talk to other “protected” systems.

To assert anything more at this point would require talking to the brother of Palladium's namesake, but Apollo doesn't provide many interviews these days.

Timothy R. Butler is Editor-in-Chief of Open for Business. You can reach him at