The Fascinating Story of DRM, Part Four: Can You Live Without It?

In my last article, I explained some of the problems millions of users have had with the most popular productivity applications.

Microsoft and Adobe are trying to get users to buy SaaS (software as a service) products. I figure they see two upsides to that. One, they project they’ll make more money from Office 365 and Creative Cloud over the long term than from conventional Office and Creative Suite. Secondly, they can operate DRM from their servers, and implement new DRM software over time when older versions are cracked. Which, like the first reason, leads Microsoft and Adobe to believe that they’ll make more money.

More money than the added ongoing expense of having extra servers? Only time will tell. But Google operates an amazing number of servers and data centers, and they seem to be pretty profitable.

In the second article, I mentioned how major video game publishers such as Electronic Arts, Activision, and Valve are also trying to get users to buy products that require connectivity to their servers, even for single player games. Especially for games against AI that’s written in the code in a HDD-installed application, that “always on” necessity is for DRM, whether or not they’ll admit it.

But due to bugs, insufficient server capacity, or sometimes both, Microsoft, Adobe, EA, and Activision/Blizzard have all had incidents where users couldn’t use the applications they’ve purchased legitimately. When it affects gamers, there are a lot of pissed off customers. When it affects other corporations, many millions of dollars of productivity is lost. DRM is supposed to keep pirates away, not paying customers. As availability is a component of the CIA triad, when software can’t be used in the way it’s supposed to be usable, it’s an information security problem. Even when it affects something as seemingly superfluous as video games.

It gets even worse. Sony Music admitted that the XCP DRM on some music CDs released in 2005 was rootkit spyware malware. As much as P2P piracy is a problem in the music industry, the bad publicity and possible litigation wasn’t worth it. Putting certain music CDs in a Windows PC, just to enjoy them in the way that Sony Music allowed, made those Windows PCs immensely more vulnerable to information security attacks. The likely North Korean attack on Sony Pictures’ networks was far from the first major security problem the huge Sony conglomerate has had!

Older DRM technolgies, like Nintendo’s 10NES chip, weren’t particularly problematic to consumers. Some, like the copy protection method Broderbund used in Carmen Sandiego games, were even kind of charming. But as computer technology evolves and becomes more complex, DRM measures seem to be causing more problems than they’re worth.

If you run a business, or if you use technology as a consumer, what can you do? There are actually many excellent, perfectly legal alternatives to DRM software, as the Free Software Foundation’s Defective By Design campaign highlights. Free software, as in FOSS (free and opensource software), not propriatery freeware, offers many of the best alternatives for most of the things you can do with computers and mobile devices, for both business and pleasure. Let’s look at some!

Productivity

As a journalist and researcher, I require a word processor to do my work for a living. I don’t like Microsoft Word, nor do I like any other component of the Microsoft Office suite. Even if I were to get a conventional version of Microsoft Office that can work without network connectivity (Microsoft Office 2013 as opposed to Office 365), I think every version after 2003 has gotten progressively worse. There has been a lot of malware over the years that has targetted Office, especially Outlook macros. Beyond information security, the GUI changes and new features have worsened Microsoft’s product, in my opinion. As a computing professional, I can learn functionality differences between different versions of applications very quickly. But that doesn’t mean that I like them. Plus, I use Linux operating systems only. I’m running Kubuntu on my multiboot desktop right now. If I was to use Microsoft Office, I’d have to run it in the Wine emulation layer. What’s the point? The .doc and .docx file formats have long ago become the industry standard. But that’s perfectly fine by me.

For my everyday work, I use the LibreOffice suite. I use LibreOffice Writer the most frequently. It’s a fork of the old OpenOffice suite.

Obviously, LibreOffice Writer is the word processor. LibreOffice Calc is for spreadsheets and charts, LibreOffice Impress is for slideshows, LibreOffice Draw is for graphics, and LibreOffice Math is for… math!

If you don’t work with Linux as I do, there are also versions of the LibreOffice suite for Windows and Mac OS X. By default, LibreOffice applications will save files in FOSS file formats such as .odt. As the people I send my work to use Microsoft Word, I save my files in .doc format. It’s easy, and there are no compatibility problems between the competing applicatons.

Learn more about LibreOffice and download here.

There’s a surefire way to avoid Microsoft Outlook macro vulnerabilities, and the strange bugs that Microsoft lets appear here and there. Use a FOSS email client. Slypheed is one of the best out there.

Slypheed has an excellent, intuitive GUI. For those who prefer it, keyboard shortcuts can also be used for almost everything.

Slypheed is remarkably stable, a lot more stable than the overwhelming majority of email clients out there. If you keep tens of thousands of messages in your inbox and on your hard drive, Slypheed still runs really smoothly. You could use it intensively for years without crashing.

For those of us who are security minded, Slypheed easily supports many security features, such as SSL/TLSv1 encryption for POP3, IMAP4, and NNTP.

As IPv6 ever so gradually replaces IPv4, Sylpheed supports both by default. The plugin selection is also impressive.

There are native versions for Windows XP/Vista/7/8 and Mac OS X, in addition to Linux.

Learn more about Slypheed and download here.

Media

More and more graphic designers, web developers, and video editors migrating from Adobe products, as Adobe’s Creative Cloud is problematic every time there are problems on their data center end. It’s not that difficult, because there are lots of excellent FOSS alternatives.

GIMP is the most popular Photoshop substitute.

Blender has excellent developer support, with too many extensions to name. Available extensions allow Blender to support AfterEffects, the Unreal Engine, and DirectX amongst many other industry standards.

Watch out, Adobe!

Native versions of Blender are available for Linux, Mac OS X, and Windows.

Learn more about Blender and download here.

As far as playing audio and video are concerned, VLC has everything you need.

VLC can play almost every format, both static and streaming. The tip of the iceberg of supported formats include DVD video, UDP unicast and multicast streaming, MPEG, AVI, MP4, OGG, MP3, WMV, MOV, HTTP streaming, CD audio, and FLV Flash.

The library of available codecs is constantly growing, and all of VLC’s code is free and opensource.

There are native versions of VLC for Windows, Mac OS X, Android, iOS, and a variety of Linux and BSD/Unix OSes.

Learn more about VLC and download here.

Games

The games on GOG.com are commercial and propriatery. Nonetheless, GOG.com’s massive and ever growing collection are all completely DRM-free.

GOG.com’s offerings are available for Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux. Many of their titles come from some of the biggest game developers and publishers in the world, such as Ubisoft, Remedy, BioWare, EA, Firaxis, and Activision. Some of their over 900 games include the Ultima series, the Tomb Raider series, Neverwinter Nights, SimCity 4, Alan Wake, Far Cry, Baldur’s Gate, Rayman, and Sid Meier games.

Visit GOG.com here.

The Free Game Alliance is maintained by the developers of five of the best constantly developed FOSS games out there.

MegaGlest is a 3D realtime strategy game, available for Linux, Windows, Mac OS X and FreeBSD. Play as one of seven factions- Romans, Persians, Tech, Egyptians, Indians, Magic, or Norsemen.

Planeshift is an MMORPG. The clients and servers are all completely FOSS, and its immense world is always updated and growing. Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux are all natively supported.

Rigs of Rods is a vehicle simulator with unique soft-body physics. There are versions for Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux.

Battle for Wesnoth is a high fantasy turn-based strategy game with over 200 unit types. It runs in Windows, Mac OS X, Linux, FreeBSD, Solaris and more.

Xonotic is an arena FPS that keeps getting better and better. What started as a Quake mod has gotten much more sophisticated over time. Play it in Windows, Mac OS X, or Linux.

Visit the Free Game Alliance here.

So, it is possible to do all of your work and play completely DRM-free. The answer usually involves choosing FOSS.

If you wanted to go even further, Linux OSes are now better than ever, and there are distros for all imaginable computing purposes!

If more and more of us choose DRM-free software, we can change the software development industry for the better. In addition to not having crippled availabilty, FOSS code can be audited, debugged, and improved upon without being employed by a developer and without reverse engineering. In many ways, avoiding DRM and choosing FOSS can make your computing more secure and reliable.

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