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All about PlayReady 3.0, Microsoft's secret plan to lock down 4K movies to your PC

Mark Hachman | April 27, 2015
It's movie night, 2016. A crop of teens streams through the kitchen, snagging chips and drinks as they head downstairs to watch the latest blockbuster on the new 4K monitor. There's excited chatter as the movie begins to play, then--

It's movie night, 2016. A crop of teens streams through the kitchen, snagging chips and drinks as they head downstairs to watch the latest blockbuster on the new 4K monitor. There's excited chatter as the movie begins to play, then —

"Dad?! What's going on? Why do we have to watch this movie in crappy standard-def?"

The name of the movie might as well be Digital Rights Management: The New Nightmare. It stars Microsoft, which is working with chip vendors Intel, AMD, Nvidia, and Qualcomm to protect Hollywood's movies from piracy as they travel through your PC. The technology it's promoting is called PlayReady 3.0.

Microsoft is also dangling promises for consumers: Buy a Windows 10 system with PlayReady, Microsoft says, and you'll be able to view Hollywood's latest movies in all their 4K glory. Without Microsoft's hardware DRM technology — pay attention, those of you with older PCs — you may only be able to view a lower-quality version of the film.

Yeah, it's complicated. Read on to learn more about the DRM technology that could change how you stream movies to your PC. 

No PlayReady 3.0, no 4K?

Make no mistake, movie piracy is a problem. Hollywood studios take many steps to protect their content, but any weak link in the chain can lead to a security breach. In September, 2010, for instance, the HDCP key securing Blu-ray content from the player to the display was cracked, allowing pirates to record "encrypted" movies and re-encode and copy them however they wished.

Older generations of PCs used software-based DRM technology. The new hardware-based technology will know who you are, what rights your PC has, and won't ever allow your PC to unlock the content so it can be ripped.

How PlayReady 3.0 does it remains a mystery, though. "PlayReady content keys and the unencrypted compressed and uncompressed video samples are never available outside of the device's Trusted Execution Environment (TEE) and secure video pipeline," a Microsoft spokeswoman wrote in an email. But when Microsoft laid out some of its PlayReady 3.0 plans last month at the Windows Hardware Engineering Conference in Shenzhen, China, it stopped recording the session just as PlayReady 3.0 was being discussed in detail.

The benefits for the consumer are equally murky. Nishanth Lingamneni, a senior program manager in the Windows customer and partner engagement team, made the case that PlayReady 3.0 PCs (and therefore, their users) could be trusted with exclusive Hollywood content. 

"If you'd like to have early-window releases — if a movie is playing in a movie theater right now, and you would like to have access to it on your Windows PC...they might make it available on some Windows PCs that have the higher bar for content protection," Lingamneni said. "Or, if you want to support 4K quality video, or UHD-quality video, which is protected content on Windows, that demands a higher bar. And that bar is defined by hardware-based content protection."

 

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