THE NEXT STEP IN PERSONAL COMPUTING

Here’s an important one. My mind is buzzing trying to guess the implications of this.

This comes from an e-mail newsletter put out by Windows & .NET magazine, summarizing an exclusive account in Newsweek. It’s your first look at ideas that will profoundly change our computing experience. Many of the concepts here will undoubtedly become part of personal computing, regardless of whether Microsoft is the moving force or not. Other parts of it are the real triumph of the recording industry over consumers, as The Register points out. It is a mixture of good and bad and exciting and scary stuff but one thing is clear – Microsoft is miles ahead of any competitor in thinking about long-term ways to handle Internet problems we’re dealing with today.

“You’ve heard of Microsoft’s Trustworthy Computing and massive corporate remodeling, in which the company has asked all developers, product managers, and even (presumably) executive assistants to rethink everything they do in the context of security. Well, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Secretly, the company has been working on a plan to redesign the PC from the ground up to address the problems of security, privacy, and intellectual-property theft that dog the industry. Inexplicably, the company pulled an Apple and chose to detail its plans solely to “Newsweek,” so we have only that report to work from. But if that magazine’s take on Microsoft’s plan is correct and consumers and businesses buy into the new devices that would result, the PC landscape will soon change forever.

“The plan is code-named Palladium, a reference to a statue of the Greek goddess Athena that residents of ancient Troy believed guarded their city from attack. Palladium involves several hardware and software solutions that will, in part, be implemented in a future Windows version–possibly Longhorn, due in 2004–that will require specific hardware to work. “This isn’t just about solving problems, but expanding new realms of possibilities in the way people live and work with computers,” says Microsoft product manager Mario Juarez. Microsoft designed Palladium around the following ideals:

“- Palladium will tell you who you’re dealing with online and what they’re doing. It will uniquely identify you to your PC and can limit what arrives (and runs on) your computer. Information that comes in from the Internet will be verified before you can access it.

“- Palladium will use encryption to seal data and protect information so that “snoops and thieves are thwarted.” The system will be able to maintain document integrity so that documents can’t be altered without your knowledge.

“- Palladium will stop viruses and worms. The system won’t run unauthorized programs, so it will prevent viruses from trashing your system.

“- Palladium will stop spam before it even reaches your email inbox. Unsolicited mail that you might actually want to receive will be allowed through if it has credentials that meet standards that you’ve defined.

“- Palladium will safeguard privacy. In addition to sealing data on your PC, Palladium will be able to seal data that you send across the Internet through a software agent, which will ensure the data reaches only the proper people. Newsweek reports that the agent has been nicknamed “My Man,” a goof on “.NET My Services,” “My Documents,” and other similar names at Microsoft.

“- Palladium will control information after you send it from your PC. Using Digital Rights Management (DRM) technology, Palladium will let enterprises–and eventually, users–securely distribute music, movies, and other intellectual property over the Internet. Movie studios and the recording industry could use this technology to let their customers exercise fair use rights to copy audio CDs and movies, for example. “It’s a funny thing,” says Bill Gates. “We came at this thinking about music, but then we realized that email and documents were far more interesting domains.” Gates said that Palladium could ensure that email designated as private can’t be forwarded or copied to other people, for example. Or, as Newsweek reports, “you could create Word documents that could be read only in the next week. In all cases, it would be the user, not Microsoft, who sets these policies.”

“Few of the concepts behind Palladium are new, but what makes this system unique and–dare I say it–innovative is Microsoft’s ability to rally the industry and push the technology through to fruition. Leading chip vendors Intel and AMD have signed on to Palladium, although Intel was originally reluctant to join. Major (but as yet unidentified) Microsoft partners in financial services, health care, and government–areas in which security is a prime concern–have likely signed up as well. “I have a hard time imagining that businesses wouldn’t want this,” says Microsoft Group Vice President Jim Allchin. After the enterprise is locked in, Microsoft expects Palladium-compatible applications and services to arrive, thus kicking off the inevitable consumer-oriented push.

“However, the success of Palladium isn’t at all a given. The anti-Microsoft crowd is louder than ever these days, thanks to the company’s drawn-out antitrust battle and mounting security concerns. And Palladium, being a Windows-only technology, would arguably extend Microsoft’s OS dominance even further. Microsoft counters this criticism by explaining that Palladium can be ported to other platforms easily enough. “We don’t blink at the thought of putting Palladium on your Palm, on the telephone, on your wristwatch,” says Palladium software architect Brian Willman. Presumably, Linux and Mac ports would also be considered.

“And how will individuals react to news that their every move will be recorded and analyzed? As the shifting security landscape in the post-9/11 world has proven, people are more accepting of such a change if they perceive security to be better as a result. And although a vocal minority–think Slashdot–will likely find much to complain about, average consumers, IT administrators and decision makers, and other people responsible for actually paying for this technology will probably support it wholeheartedly. I can already imagine the sort of email responses this article will get–after all, “Microsoft security” is an oxymoron of sorts these days–but I also feel an inevitability to Palladium, or something like it. Hang on to your seats, folks–your next PC upgrade might be a completely different beast altogether.”