AUDIO/VIDEO QUALITY ON WINDOWS VISTA: Microsoft responds to critics, but judging from the comments, the critics aren’t satisfied.

I’m in no hurry to upgrade, especially after reading this (I don’t like the whole gadgets-as-tyrants paradigm), but what’s interesting about Vista’s reduced quality for protected commercial content is that it appears it will make the quality of unprotected amateur video, etc., noticeably better than the big-media stuff with copy protection. My big worry about Vista was that its copy-protection schemes would make producing my own content harder. Maybe they will, I’m not sure, but it seems pretty clear that the end result of all this copy protection will actually be a quality advantage, from the viewer’s perspective, on the part of unprotected content. Now you’ll be able to tell the “professional” product because it looks worse than amateur products. That’s hilarious. And with things like Sony’s new HD network that’s open to amateur content, this may make a big difference in what people watch, especially as I note that once you get an HDTV you become much more sensitive to issues of video quality. So perhaps all the fancy HDTVs people are buying will be showing homemade video because it looks better. Maybe this is all a clever Microsoft plan to take Hollywood down, all while appearing to do its bidding . . . .

UPDATE: Reader David Aldridge emails:

Your point that user-generated content will be the only true HD content available on Windows Vista is interesting, but I think misses the larger issue: the stark demarcation that will arise between legal vs. pirated movies. On Windows Vista, the only way to get true HD movie and TV content from your $2000 home-theater PC will be to download illegal pirated content!

I cannot believe Microsoft/Hollywood haven’t seen this coming – it’s not like pirated movie downloads are an unknown problem; they’re ~35% of all internet traffic. HD content is an increasing portion of that. Blu-Ray and HDDVD protection schemes are likely to be completely broken in a matter of months, and once that happens, the various crippled features in Vista will only affect one type of user – the law-abiding ones who would never pirate a movie. Those users will suffer, while the pirates will party on. What’s the point, Microsoft?

I think it’s all an insidiously clever plan.

ANOTHER UPDATE: More thoughts here:

From my point of view and, I think, that of many other consumers, the issue isn’t whether the delivered resolution is better than a standard DVD. It’s whether the delivered resolution is what we expect it to be when the format promises an HD image.

Yes. It may be that to Microsoft a less-than-HD image can still provide “a great user experience,” but as always the question is “compared to what?” Compared to true HD, not so great — and that’s the comparison people will be making. Meanwhile, reader Charlie Nixon emails:

Though I’ve been reading your site for years, this is the first time I’ve ever felt compelled to write in. I’ve got a lot of experience with all type of Digital Media players. I’ve used most of the Media Center software out there, and except for the xbox media center (xbmc), Microsoft’s Media Center is definitely the best out there. This harping about DRM is just classic Microsoft-bashing. People are going to want view protected HD content through their computers. Microsoft is constrained by the law to follow the DRM restrictions associated with the HD technologies. They don’t go one step beyond what’s required by the blu-ray or HD-DVD or Cablecard spec. What was Microsoft supposed to do? Not offer HD playback? Allow illegal playback of content? Somehow “force” content producers to back down from DRM? None of those scenarios are reasonable or likely.The fact is DRM is here to stay. Instead of hysterically insisting that all media be DRM-free, perhaps we should focus on building a consensus of what a reasonable DRM scheme would look like.

Content creators dictate the DRM schemes. Our lawmakers are responsible for passing anti-consumer laws. Consumers should take responsibility for buying DRM-laced content. Player manufacturers (Microsoft) are simply hamstrung by a confluence of the law and consumer demands. Consumers who don’t like the DRM included with Windows Vista have a cheap, trivially easy solution: don’t buy media that requires DRM. (For additional points, write them and let them know why you’re boycotting their products.) The content companies are the “bad guys” here, not the player manufacturers.

Er, okay, but then don’t call it a “great user experience.” And, actually, if Microsoft didn’t support HD content because of crippling DRM, it might well have influence.