Thursday, December 29, 2005

Driving without a license

It's funny, and sad, how Americans can be so resourceful and determined on one hand, and so lazy on the other. I can't be surprised at the level of disdain other cultures have for us, given the "we don't care" attitude we project.

The way we deal with personal computers is an example of this. We scream and holler about viruses, spyware, and spam, yet we're right up there with the worst offenders at its propagation. The expression about "one bad apple spoiling the bushel" doesn't apply here; we're a society of bad apples, with the good apples complaining about their plight.

In this case, I'm talking about the good apples being the minority who know enough about computing and the Internet to practice "safe computing" while the bad apples being the computer users who want to look at their computers the way they look at their telephones and televisions. The good apples are clearly outnumbered, but they are also reluctant to admit that they have little choice but to live with solutions that would keep the bad apples at check.

I've seen countless arguments over who should have the responsibility over keeping the Internet clean. One side wants the ISP to take more control, while the other side resents any efforts the ISP makes to take that control. The fact is, if the ISP only had good apples as clients, the ISP wouldn't need to place restrictions on their Internet use. We know this isn't the case, however, so the ISP should take on some responsibility.

Let's look at the highway analogy a moment. In the early days, anyone who had a car could drive it down any road. As more cars entered the picture, it became clear some rules would be needed to avoid disaster, and so governing bodies applied some basic rules (which only got more complicated as time passed, of course).

Since the car couldn't be made foolproof, the next best thing would be to reduce the number of fools behind the wheel. Drivers were required to get licenses, insuring they knew the basic rules of the road and could no longer use ignorance as an excuse. Those unable to demonstrate the knowledge are not legally allowed to drive. Those too young to make sensible decisions about driving are not allowed to get licenses. Those who disregard the rules eventually lose their licenses, and can no longer legally drive. Professional drivers have a more difficult test, and must follow more difficult rules, but also have some freedom in choosing the capabilities of their vehicles (an amateur driver cannot legally drive a tractor-trailer, for example).

To help keep the road running smoothly, the governing body developed rules for proper behavior, but they also introduced traffic control devices to manage the use of the roads.

There are plenty of problems with the analogy, as there are with just about any analogy, but it should give rise to thought. The lazy populace, the bad apples, get away with their laziness because the powers-that-be allow them to. If we (as a society) drove cars the way we operate PCs on the Internet, we'd find the roads too dangerous to use. Shouldn't we, then, have some mandated restrictions for the protection of the rest of us?

The road needs rules (not just the technical RFCs, but real rules), it needs traffic cops to enforce the rules, and the drivers need licensing to insure safety on the road. The ISPs are well-positioned to be our cops, and those who cry for freedom on the Net should only prove their competence to gain their improved access. Misbehave, and have your license suspended or revoked.

The computer makers will not make foolproof computers, as that makes them liable for the fools who find ways around the protections. So, rather than look at Microsoft, Apple, or the Linux distros for relief, we should be looking at ways to govern the use of the Internet, keeping the bad apples from ruining the bushel for all of us. Make the ISP become responsible for the actions of its subscribers, and you'll see some very dramatic changes in how the Internet is used. License the Internet users, and you'll see a dramatic improvement in the quality of Internet users.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

These Things Won't Go Away

I admit I'm surprised at the lack of feedback after my last blog. I was certain that the Linux fans would crawl out of the woodwork to defend their favorite distro against the thought that they would be forced to play second fiddle to Microsoft on the desktop forever.

I also expected some comments by the staunch Windows advocates, either in agreement, or to show how I was right for the wrong reasons.

Lacking that feedback, I'll apply some of those aforementioned observations to another issue, and offer a principle to explain it:

There have been some very good writings on the subject of PC security (or the lack thereof), and why we'll never get a handle on the problem of viruses, worms, spyware, spam, and the like. If I could remember where I saw them, I'd provide the links, and I encourage readers to share the links if they have them.

My take on it is simply that the average PC owner simply can't be bothered with the effort to secure, and keep secured, his or her PC. It isn't that they don't want to know, but that they simply don't care. Even those who suffer from the slowdowns and other minor effects of infection aren't concerned for it beyond a grumble. I've personally seen cases where computers contain 100s of spyware intrusions and pop-up problems, left uncorrected. The owners often say they don't know why it happens, but they are unwilling to spend the money to have a professional clean it up and they have no interest to learn how to do so themselves, even when told they can do it for free.

I've cleaned those machines, installed preventive measures, and watched the machines get re-infected because the owners fail to perform routine maintenance to keep up with the problem.

I call this "the Laziness Factor" and the application of this is widespread (personally observed in the United States, and may exist elsewhere). That principal reason why Linux can't catch up with Windows on the desktop is the same reason why we'll never keep malware off the home PC. The owner is simply too lazy to do or learn what is needed to maintain the system. In an age where we want our cars to be low maintenance (maintenance-free batteries, high-mileage tune-ups, delayed oil changes), we can't expect the PC owner to want a high-maintenance PC. So, if it doesn't take care of itself automatically, a problem won't get fixed unless the PC stops working entirely. No matter if the cost of later repairs is greater than the cost of regular maintenance; if the repair costs more than a few hundred dollars, the common reaction is to either put it off, or replace the computer. The funny thing is that, with Linux being a lower-maintenance operating system, it still misses out - because the learning curve is just too steep to climb!

How many machines sit at home running the factory defaults? Anti-virus subscriptions expire, and are allowed to run without updates. Machines go for months or years without being scanned. Heck, I've seen Windows machines that have never been defragmented!

Watch for a discussion of solutions in an upcoming blog... if anyone cares to discuss it!

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Linux will never beat Microsoft

I know you've been waiting for me to say something profound. After all, I'm a former pundit, right? That means I should have some earth-shattering opinions, right?

Try this on for size:

Linux doesn't have what it takes to beat Microsoft on the desktop.

Not all that earth-shattering, I suppose, unless I also mention that I'm a big Linux fan. Yep! Got it right here, dual-booting SuSE with Windows 2000 Pro on my notebook. Been playing with it for about two years.

But, see, I'm being realistic. As much as I'd love to see Linux kick MS around, I don't think any distro of Linux has what it takes. And having said that, I'm duty bound to explain.

There isn't any one thing that makes the difference. Oh, if only it were that simple. And it isn't all technical, or it would probably already be done. In fact, it isn't even something entirely in the Community's control. It'll take maneuvering by a bunch of people and some dreadful mistakes by Microsoft to displace Windows.

It can be done. But I wouldn't hold my breath.

It's been said that Linux needs a killer app, or that Linux needs a decent e-mail client. I don't necessarily agree or disagree. The terms "killer" and "decent" are subjective; one person's "killer" app or "decent" e-mail client is another person's "ho-hum" development. Here's the truth:

A killer app can create a market for an operating system, but the operating system goes a long way toward making the killer app. Before Windows, we had DOS, and we had DOS apps. We also had hardcore computer users, and tossed in a group that depended on menus, being totally uninterested in learning/using DOS. Windows came along, but Windows didn't catch on with most computer users of the day until Microsoft provided Microsoft Office (particularly Word and Excel) for Windows. The killer apps, one might say.

Yet, was the advent of Microsoft Office sufficient to switch DOS users to Windows? No, of course not. It required finding other publishers to bring their software to Windows, or reasonably competitive substitutes, so users could give up their DOS applications in favor of the aesthetically nicer Windows.

And even with a growing library of applications, Windows wouldn't have caught on, if it weren't for one more thing.

The manufacturers, who were pushed by Microsoft into putting a copy of Windows on every PC they made.

Now, if you're a new home computer user, clueless to the realities of the world, and you just bought a new computer, are you going to look for an operating system to replace the one the computer came with? Of course not! You'll leave Windows in place, then look for programs that run on your brand new Windows computer.

Is the situation really any different today? The family that has never had a computer before and knows nothing about computers will have the choice between Windows and... Windows! (Apple users are actually in a similar boat, but by choice.) To my knowledge, only Linspire has had the foresight to get their distro of Linux pre-installed on a brand new PC, but you have to work to find those machines.

And even though PCs have been popular appliances for many years now, how many of the principal owners of the in-place home PCs actually know how to use them to their best effect? Not many, as evidenced by the proliferation of viruses and spyware on these machines. Do you think Microsoft wants to correct this shortcoming? Of course not, as knowledgeable users can choose to change, and that isn't in Microsoft's interest.

So Microsoft makes Windows so smart that the home users can remain computer-illiterate. When a Windows user wants to install a new program, what does he or she need to do? Buy a CD containing the new program, set the CD in the tray, close the tray, and follow the prompts that magically appear on the screen. When a Linux user wants to install a new program, what does he or she need to do? If your answer starts with "that depends...", you've demonstrated my point. Can a computer-illiterate comfortably use a Linux PC? Even one running a distro as dumbed-down as Linspire? Only until he or she has to perform any non-menu-based maintenance.

The question isn't one of killer apps, decent e-mail, easy availability, or even cost. The question isn't even ease-of use, although this is the biggest single obstacle in my mind.

No, the question is all of the above. Simply put, there isn't enough reasons for the mass market to justify changing operating systems. Microsoft got there first, got entrenched, and barring some serious errors, will be there for some time to come. The public is in their comfort zone, and the only way for Linux to supplant Microsoft on the desktop is for Linux to become more comfortable than Windows and its successors. Linspire is closest, but comfort is not defined as look and feel. Comfort is a state of mind. Microsoft has achieved it. Linux hasn't, and Linux will play second fiddle to Microsoft until:
  1. Linux is comfortable to use (and maintain) by the computer-illiterates,
  2. Linux is as easy to find, pre-installed, as Windows is today, and
  3. Linux has a sufficient developer-base as to guarantee each person's own subjective killer app is available for easy installation (per #1, above).
I still like Linux. I'm still a huge fan of open source. But there isn't any way Microsoft's monopoly over the desktop can be broken unless these three conditions are met.

I don't see it.

And I'd love to be proven wrong.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Spam: No one said it had to be in English

I haven't written lately (as you can plainly see), in part from being busy, but in part from simply not feeling motivated to do so. This is a benefit of the "who cares" nature of blogging. If this were a true column, I'd feel pressure to write (and burn-out is on its way), but with a blog, no one is paying me to write these thoughts, and having read little feedback, I can't even say anyone is reading these thoughts (one day I'll have to add a hit counter).

So, what have I been up to?

Most of last week was spent making preparations for the career change Bocona wants me to try. I've earned my Accredited Claims Adjuster (ACA) designation, and have applied for my license. This means, in effect, I'm no longer allowed to offer an opinion on insurance matters, unless it is directly related to a claim I'm working. Bully. Not that I've had anything to say about insurance, so far.

But preparing for a career change isn't the same as making one. While the applications have started going out for claims adjuster positions, the resumes are continuing to fly in the PC world. I'm looking at it like a race; let's see which career will come through first.

Meanwhile, a comment on the not-unexpected feedback I got from the last posting. Remember when I offered an only-slightly disguised e-mail address to write to if you know of an IT management position available? Well, I got some replies. Unfortunately, I can't read them... they're in Arabic and Hebrew (I can tell them apart, but can't read either language). Frankly, I'm amazed. What's the sense of sending spam to someone if the recipient can't even read it, much less act on it?

Then again, who said the spammer(s) even bothered to attempt to read my blog. They simply found an easy to translate address and fired away. I wouldn't be surprised if the spammers couldn't even read English. It's not like understanding the blog is relevant to them!

A note to the spammers, potential and otherwise. My e-mail (even the job account) is plenty filtered, between gray lists, firewalls, e-mail client-based spam filtering, etc. It's not worth the effort to add me to your list, so why don't you simply pass my e-mail address over and move along?

And wouldn't we all be surprised if that request actually worked!