Microsoft fights for your digital rights

Microsoft last week aired plans to help users secure corporate documents with digital rights management technology. It’s a move observers say should bring awareness to the technology, but hardly would signal the start of widespread adoption.

Corporate acceptance of DRM still must endure growing pains and overcome issues such as deployment and ease-of-use barriers; establishing trust networks; cost and infrastructure requirements; and the fact that only certain users could benefit from the technology.

Those factors have kept things quiet despite the introduction of products from vendors such as Authentica, Adobe, Liquid Machines and IBM, which is recasting its Electronic Media Management System for the WebSphere platform. Microsoft says it hopes to make noise in this market with its forthcoming Windows Server 2003 and Office 2003, which will work together to support DRM through the company’s new Windows Right Management Services technology.

The market might be ripe because companies are committing more intellectual assets to digital media, as well as dealing with federal regulations such as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPPA) governing document confidentiality.

The ability to restrict who can see, forward, copy or print data based on a set of managed rights embedded in a file has become an intriguing idea. But the technology has to be easy to use or it will fall into the same quagmire that once stifled secure e-mail, experts say.

“A lot of people tell us they have been thinking of protecting content, but it has not translated into sales,” says Ray Wagner, research director for information strategies at Gartner. The market is so small that Gartner does not measure it.

“Microsoft should raise visibility of the market,” Wagner says. “The question is: ‘Is there a general marketplace?'”

That answer has been “no,” although DRM is in use today in tens of thousands of e-books, including some using technology from Microsoft called Digital Asset Server. And companies such as publisher Jane’s Information Group and programmable logic device manufacturer Xilinx use DRM technology to protect data and price catalogs they publish electronically.

One thing that has kept DRM down is deployment demands that foreshadow high costs.

“DRM is a huge infrastructure play to roll out,” says Joshua Duhl, an IDC analyst. “You have servers, clients and the need to create an entire trusted system.”

Microsoft won’t necessarily make that easier, and brings along its own adoption issues, he says.

“Microsoft’s solution is only for Microsoft, not for Macintosh, Linux or Unix,” he says. And Duhl says Microsoft’s support of the Extensible Rights Markup Language won’t bring interoperability.

But some experts say that Microsoft could make DRM less expensive. For the first time it will be available to companies that upgrade both Windows servers and Office applications.

“This looks like something we could take advantage of, especially for distributing documents to off-campus clinics in light of HIPAA regulations,” says Jeff Allred, manager of network services for the Duke University Cancer Center in Durham, N.C. “We’ve been hoping Microsoft would do something.”