Microsoft’s recent deal with Phoenix Technologies is aimed at “radical simplification to the PC and digital service industry” through enhancements to the Basic Input Output System (BIOS) — the software that connects operating systems with hardware.
Industry observers agreed that the next generation of BIOS, as well as the digital rights management (DRM) technology that accompanies it, could improve reliability, usability, manageability and security — just as Microsoft and Phoenix claim it will. However, there are concerns that Microsoft is strengthening its grip on PC production and private information.
“There is a risk that the relationship [between Microsoft and Phoenix] will further Microsoft lock-in,” Electronic Privacy Information Center deputy counsel Chris Hoofnagle told TechNewsWorld. “With a monopolistic software company, it can be impossible for the market to create products that are consumer friendly.”
In announcing its strategic relationship with Microsoft, San Jose, California-based Phoenix said the companies will work to make device firmware, such as BIOS, more sophisticated and further integrated with the Windows operating system.
Some have speculated it is possible that the Microsoft-Phoenix partnership could make systems that ship with Windows incapable of being converted to use other operating systems, such as Linux.
Microsoft general manager of Windows hardware Tom Phillips said Phoenix’ Core System Software (CSS) marks “a pivotal change for the industry” and will advance the serviceability, deployment and management of servers, desktop machines and mobile devices.
Yankee Group senior analyst Laura DiDio told TechNewsWorld that the deal makes perfect sense, given Microsoft’s aim to get into new markets. DiDio also said that while it represents only a subtle improvement, the move will mean more functionality for Microsoft customers and users.
Describing the deal as a “deep relationship,” Phoenix said in a statement that it is creating a new category of system software — both 32- and 64-bit — that will advance management and security functionality in operating systems.
Phoenix CEO Albert Sisto said both future client and server operating systems will be more reliable, will work better and will be easier to use, benefiting the entire computing industry.
However, critics such as EPIC’s Hoofnagle said the relationship between Microsoft and Phoenix could indicate an initiative to identify and track individual computers based on hardware signatures.
Jockeying for Position
DiDio, who said Microsoft’s motives are always questioned, said the Redmond, Washington-based software company is simply steadying its foundation and extending the capabilities of BIOS to reach new markets.
She sees the deal as part of Microsoft’s larger vision to take computing beyond the PC to television set-top boxes and other digital media. DiDio also said Microsoft competitors now will be under more pressure to secure their own versions of BIOS to avoid being “squashed by the giant.”
“There’s a lot of jockeying for position there,” she said. “That intensifies with this.”
Microsoft and Phoenix said the tighter ties between Windows and CSS will consist of the following improvements: integration of traditional firmware build and debugging tools with Microsoft development tools; a simplified porting model for silicon to speed time to market; management advances, including automation of such systems as rack-mounted blade servers; and serviceability gains, such as improved manufacturer support, integration with Windows recovery tools and manufacturing automation.
Another component of the integration is the inclusion of DRM technology at a more basic system level, which has raised concerns from opponents who claim it will erode the ability to use a computer anonymously.
“[The deal] is actually very troubling from a privacy perspective because it’s one of the critical building blocks of embedding DRM into computers,” Hoofnagle said. “The risk is that in order to enjoy the Internet, one will have to expose a number and provide identity.”