Where is Linux on Intel's desktop and laptop roadmap?

by Doc Searls

And what are the real stories on LaGrande, Trusted Computing, Viiv and Intel's DRM support?

Back in November, 2003, I wrote The Real Battle at Comdex: Intellectual Property vs. Internet Protocol, as one in my series of reports for Linux Journal from what turned out to be the last Comdex trade show in Las Vegas. Looking at that piece again gives me a weird kind of deja vu. "I had a brief conversation with John Perry Barlow", I reported. "He said one of his biggest concerns was Intel's new LaGrande technology, which creates a way to embed supply-controlled DRM in what will likely become more than 90% of the world's computers".

Then I excerpted some of a report on what Intel was saying at the time about LaGrande:

LaGrande is all about creating a safer computing environment.

If we are going to enable convergence, if we are going to enable the promise of e-Business, we have to be able to have a more secure environment here. Hardware-based strengthening to this is critical.

LaGrande delivers a hardware-based foundation for security. It includes protected execution, protected memory, and protected storage.

It will be delivered into the marketplace through our processors and our chipsets working together to create a secure hardware environment....

It's a core technology that things like the Microsoft Palladium initiative can take advantage of to build much more stable platforms.

In other words, hardware-based DRM. On Windows.

More background:

So, back to the present.

Right now I'm writing a report on this year's CES and Macworld shows, which took place earlier this month. Both before and during CES, I devoted a lot of curiosity to Intel's latest DRM-friendly platform-building material, a "technology" called Viiv. (That last link goes to the company's flashy BS site. Here is a more informative — though still promotional — product page.)

Two pieces — Is Intel Going Hollywood? and On the Front Lines in Las Vegas — were both written in anticipation of the Viiv announcement. The next piece, What's Intel up to with VIIV? was my live report from the scripted keynote where Intel President and CEO Paul Otellini rolled Viiv out. On hand to help with the keynote were Michael Dell and various Intel spokesmanagers. Conspicuously absent was anybody from the Win side of the 'tel partnership that Viiv would be kinda pointless without.

Several days later, as I had expected, Paul Otellini made a "surprise" appearance at Steve Jobs' Macworld keynote. To the relief of many, it looked like the new Intel-based Macs would be based on the Intel's new Core™ Duo cpus, and not on Viiv. Perhaps this is one reason why news followed that Red Hat intended to bring Linux to the new Apple hardware.

Since CES and Macworld, Viiv buzz has dropped back down to the noise level. A search for Viiv on Technorati shows 50+ posts per day happening several times in December, before hitting almost 350 during CES, then trailing off to the just three posts in English during the last 24 hours.

The last substantive post I found was There's more to Viiv..., posted on January 24 by Dan Ochiva on Millimeter, an active blog covering Hollywood's large production and postproduction industries. Following up on earlier coverage in Millimeter, Ochiva also sourced John Furrier's podcast interview with Intel's Rajeev Puran at Sundance, where Viiv's goods were on prominent display. About Viiv, Furrier says,

The consumer experience is elevated with increased gaming performance levels, a simpler end user set-up experience, a multitude of media options, and enhanced integration between hardware and software to form a simple "one remote" entertainment arena.

How do I get this box into my living room?

John thinks Viiv is cool. To me it's just another trap for OEMs and users — one among countless others rolled out at CES, in keeping with the old consumer electronics lock'em'up tradition. Even Larry Page of Google, in his own keynote at CES, introduced Google Video, a DRM'd search'n'sell system that only runs on Windows. This wasn't long after Larry busted the CE industry for making incompatible power supplies and component connectors.

So now I have some questions that I'm hoping ya'll can help me with. Here they are:

  • What happened to LaGrande? Is it now part of Viiv? Is it moving forward on its own? Is it tied only to Microsoft's Trusted Computing Platform?
  • Is the center of the open-vs.-closed debate moving below operating systems, to hardware? If so, what should we be arguing about?
  • Should we look for Linux-based hardware platforms to start flourishing, once it's clear that the entertaining alternatives from Microsoft and Apple are all not only closed, but incompatible? What positive help could we give Intel (or AMD) on that?
  • What are the other questions we should be asking here?

I'm a natural optimist when it comes to open systems. On the whole, they tend to win out, and to become base infrastructure. But it tends to take a long time.

I don't have a problem with closed and proprietary goods, so long as they aren't part of a base infrastructure that requires them. They should be able to compete and flourish in open and free infrastructural environments (such as the Net), and the markets that grow naturally on them. In other words, do all the DRM you like; just don't make it part of my hardware, my network, or my operating system.

I also have some history, way back, in the chip business. I know how roadmaps work. Companies like Intel have roadmaps that can go out a decade or more. What worries me about technologies like LaGrande and Viiv is that they may be part of a long-term roadmap that is masked by high-gloss marketing BS. I worry that there are roadmaps that close off options for Linux and other free and open technologies, while opening options for the likes of Microsoft and Apple. I am sure there are no anti-Linux roadmaps at Intel (or anywhere outside of Microsoft), but I can easily imagine roadmaps that favor "partners" in ways that could be to Linux's expense.

I want to be clear that we're talking about clients here. Desktops. Laptops. Handhelds. I have no doubt about Intel's pro-Linux orientation around servers and embedded systems.

Let's look forward.

If, five years from now, the only practical way we can watch videos, or listen to music, is on our choice of Apple or Microsoft DRM'd hardware, a huge battle will have been lost. One we should be fighting right now.

On the other hand, it could be that your-choice-of-silo will fail in the market we already have.

Either way we bet, we need to know more than we do right now.

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