Sunday, December 04, 2005

Humour in Technical Support Masking a Deadly Problem 

Still trying to fix my Toshiba laptop. (an M45-S331, if you care...but you shouldn't: don't buy a Toshiba laptop!) While flailing around the Toshiba support site, I came across a humorous "Knowledge Base" item. Entitled Virus or Worm Infection on New Machine or After Running Recovery, the Resolution area reads, in part:

Toshiba Recommends that all users make use of the Windows Update link available in the Start Menu of their computer in order to download and install the available updates for the operating system software.

Perhaps a more truthful/accurate paragraph might have resembled
Toshiba punts. You're on your own, suckers! If by some miracle Microsoft happens to have a fix that actually works, you can try their support pages, but rotsa ruck, guys! Bwahahahahahahaaaaaaaaaa.....

OK, perhaps I am being a bit flippant, but really, it is impossible to overstate the seriousness of this problem if a user is actually affected by it. It has been well-known in IT support circles for years that the time to download and install the security patches needed to (minimally) secure Windows against attack greatly exceeds the mean time between when a system is connected to the Internet and the median time to successful exploit.

I can't thiink of a real-world analogy for how serious this is. The closest I can come is if your brand-new car's engine had a 50-50 chance of exploding before you could get the engine started, warmed up and in gear. Think about everything that you keep on your PC. Think about all the sensitive information - passwords, credit card numbers, and so on - that you enter on your PC. Now, imagine some teenager in East Slobodnia - or, more likely, a Chinese Mafia type or an al-Quaeda Cyber Strike Force Team member - having access to all that, and the ability to read and modify anything on your PC at will, completely without your knowledge. Even if you've applied all the security patches and updates that Microsoft has released, and you have a fully-updated anti-virus system, and you have a software firewall like ZoneAlarm. If you run Windows, you will always be vulnerable, because many of the fundamental architectural "building blocks" that make Windows work the way it does were committed to years before Microsoft had ever heard of the Internet.

If you go back and read Bill Gates' (original version of) "The Road Ahead", it's clear that his concept of "Information At Your Fingertips" was something very much llike the Net, but under the centralised control of Microsoft, with no need for the user to trouble his pretty little head with things like "security". The result of all this, of course, was to force every user (usee?) of Windows to become an administrator; to worry about operating system updates and security management and so on, so that the old joke about the Windows user being the one who "talked about everything he had to do to get her work done", while the user of a competing, longer-established system "talked about all the great work she got done".

If it takes you an hour a day to 'manage' your system, to apply patches, make sure your antivirus is up to date and so on, and if it takes you another hour a day to clean up after program crashes and get back to where you were in your work, then you're wasting 25 percent of your work day, from the point of view of your boss or client. How'd you like to get that time back?

"It's no use", I can hear you saying. "Everybody uses Windows." Do you care how the people you work with get to work? Does it matter to you if they drive a Proton, a Mercedes, a Yugo, a bicycle, or they take public transport? No, it doesn't - you only care that they're in the office with you when they should be.

What do you need Windows for? What do you use a PC for? Lots of studies have shown that 90% of office workers spend 90% of their time in four applications: word processing, spreadsheet, email, Web browser. All of those have viable alternatives - whether you're considering an Apple Macintosh or your existing PC with Linux or BSD Unix. Microsoft even makes a version of Office for the Mac - and most people who've used both insist that the Mac version is better than the Windows one. Whether you're on Windows, Mac, Linux, BSD or a dozen other systems, OpenOffice 2.0 can read and write most Word and Excel documents well enough that Microsoft Office users won't even be able to tell the difference - whether they're on Windows or the Mac. And there are other alternatives; one of the nice things about each of the non-Windows systems I've mentioned here is that they reward experimentation and creativity - because they offer solid guarantees that no matter what you do, it's extremely unlikely that you'll accidentally cause any damage to your system. Sure, errant code can lock up the window manager - but a Control-Alt-Backspace later, you discover that nothing has really been damaged. The computer goes from being the centre of attention and fear to just another tool that you use to get your job done.

Now, wouldn't you like to get done more quickly so you can get out of the office on time? If only the commute home was as easy to improve....

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