Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Starting With a Clean Sheet

The technology news today talks about Microsoft delaying its planned introduction of the next-generation Windows until 2007. The delay of Vista makes me feel pretty much behind the curve, as I loaf along reasonably happily on Windows 2000.


UpgradingI say reasonably happily, as it’s a constant challenge to keep upgraded with this or that patch and fingers constantly crossed that my firewall is up to battling the flames of hackers worldwide. Fire extinguisher at my side, I struggle as you struggle, trusting to luck and upgrades to keep me productive, if not relaxed.


I wonder sometimes if Windows hasn’t become something akin to the tax code—so complicated and so reliant on historic versions of its year-by-year upgraded self that it’s beyond any fix. Wouldn’t it be nice to think that delaying Vista until January meant it would be solid as a rock instead of holier than Swiss cheese?


But somehow I doubt it.


MicrosoftgatesHackers are not smarter than Microsoft’s programmers, they’re just better motivated. Windows, with 97.46% of the world market, doesn’t have much reason to strip down to its underwear and reconfigure. Enormous amounts of money have been lost, due to what can only be called arrogant negligence. It would be interesting to me to see someone introduce a class-action suit against MS, charging money damages for the developer’s unrelenting unwillingness to fix the broken Windows before the burglar sneaked into our homes and businesses.


Not likely.


Botnets are the latest threat to peace of mind. Hackers out there riding the spam range, entice us ordinary folks with a chance at this or that goodie and whammo, the trap is sprung. We’ve become a bot. Each "bot" is actually a computer rather than an individual and, if it’s yours, specialized software has been installed that allows Hacker-Harry to commandeer many of its functions. You won’t notice anything being downloaded or installed, but it is.


Upgrade1You personally are not necessarily the target, but you’ve unknowingly become a partner in crime. Hackers use your PC or laptop to network whatever they’re up to and you’ve become a honeycomb of a sort, to store all that nectar. The world is but a field of flowers. Keylogger programs are the latest and most menacing criminal activity for which your HP or IBM may be the home hive.


Once a keylogging program is running, everything typed (keyed) on the infected computer is collected, letter by letter, number by number, without the user’s knowledge. Worthwhile and profitable things are stored away elsewhere, like social security numbers, access usernames and passwords, bank account and credit card numbers, balances and PIN codes.


Christmas comes to Hacker-Harry and your unsuspecting computer is Santa Claus.


Which, of course, would not be possible if it were not for the incredible vulnerability of Microsoft Windows, Internet Explorer and Outlook Express. Apparently, no one at Microsoft recognized the threats early in the development of these various tools and now they are too complex and layered to actually dig down and fix. Microsoft seems to feel the arrogant, yet effective answer to that enormous problem is to wait for the burglar to break in and then fix the Windows.


It would be nice if someone were out there, both willing and capable of designing an operating system from a clean sheet.


GooglefoundersFrom time to time pundits mention Google. I have succumbed to this choice myself, in giddy exuberance over Google’s aparent interest in their users' well-being. They have the money and reputation to take a shot at it and the world would dearly love to have some choice other than Microsoft. A competitor to guard the safety of our personal and business information (not to mention bank accounts) in an increasingly hacked environment.


Another sometimes mentioned fix is to get away from PC’s entirely. Each of us would merely access some great mainframe in the sky for power, storage and programs.


My admittedly naive belief is that the reason we fail individually in our protection against break-ins and spam is our lack of expertise, interest and time. We are not cops, we depend upon cops to keep us safe and enforce the rules. Perhaps a dozen or so mega-providers would police this increasingly wild computer-west. Allow us access to the computer-generated portions of our lives for a fee. And please take over the chore and responsibility for providing safety.


Like gated-computer-communities. An idea whose time has come.


That would turn the income stream for computer access on its head. No more operating system licenses. Good bye to our individual choices of Mozilla Firefox over Internet Explorer, Thunderbird over Outlook. Apple could continue to be Apple and, like France being France, no one would care. Their 1.4% world share isn’t even a zit on the face of computing, but their loyal followers seem to thrive on abuse and will no doubt hang in there.


We would buy simple, lightweight, extremely portable, handsomely designed (and cheap) access instruments. Does that make sense? Is it possible? Is there a business model there? The income stream would be license-based, as it is now, but operating power would be essentially rented. So, for (who knows?) $6.95 a month, you’d have access to enormous power, speed and security from any one of a number of providers.


You need PhotoShop or Dreamweaver for your work, you pay a fee for access to the license, rather than buying the program. Pirating stopped in its tracks. It would be fascinating to see how the business plans all settled out and what true competition might bring to the market, to say nothing of chain-sawing the hacker forests.


So, whether a real competitor to Microsoft or a ‘third-way’ access, either would be a huge relief to our collective vulnerability. Something surely must be done. Internet commerce is suspect, spammers and jammers are out of control and we’re none of us comfortable. The omnipotence of Microsoft has provided the opportunity for Hacker-Harry to make victims of us all.


We desperately need a clean sheet of paper.
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See Taking My Country Personally on my personal web site.