Where is this dreamland in which Windows “just works”?

First of all, I have to say it is not my intention to bash Windows. I am not a Windows hater. I actually like Windows. I use it at work every weekday, and I have found ways to have a generally pleasant experience with it. I like Mac OS X better than Windows, though, and I like Ubuntu Linux better than Mac OS X. I actually am quite a firm believer in using the operating system that works best for you and that all the major platforms have pros and cons.

What I can’t stand is Windows power users having a bad experience trying to migrate to Ubuntu (or some other Linux distribution) and then proclaiming “This is why Windows will always dominate the desktop” or “This is why Linux isn’t ready for the masses.” This in these contexts meaning that they had some problem using a peripheral or getting their wireless to work or whatever. I don’t get it. Really. I don’t understand where the logic in this proclamation is. Such a conclusion comes from several flawed assumptions:

  1. Windows always works.
  2. People choose Windows because it always works.
  3. If Linux always worked, the masses would suddenly flock to Linux.
  4. The problem I had with Linux is a problem everyone would have in Linux.

The truth is that if you work in tech support (I don’t officially, but I have unofficially in my last two jobs), you know that there are problems (many problems) on both Windows and Mac OS X. Windows has been the dominant platform at both my current and previous workplaces, and every single day there are Windows problems abounding—cryptic error messages, printer driver conflicts, wireless drivers preventing laptops from going into standby, blue screens of death, rogue viruses, and frozen applications. Believe me, our official tech support guy doesn’t just sit around twiddling his thumbs. He is busy.

Oddly enough, when people have these constant Windows problems, they don’t decide Windows “isn’t ready for the masses.” They just stick with it. Maybe they’ll say “I hate computers.” Maybe some smug Mac user (who also has problems of a different sort but somehow turns a blind eye to them) will say “I hate PCs” (and by PC they mean Windows PC). Oh, but the second a Windows power user tries Linux and encounters one or two problems, suddenly Windows is this always-working utopia. “I’d never have this problem in Windows.” Sure, buddy. Let me tell you about problems.

Last week, a friend of mine wanted to create a playlist of songs to put on her iPhone for a party she was throwing. Here are the problems she encountered:

  • The iPhone wouldn’t update because it couldn’t connect to the iTunes server
  • After it appeared to start the update, iTunes estimated the update download to take 54 minutes.
  • When the download failed after a half hour, she gave up on getting updated firmware on her iPhone altogether.
  • After installing the Amazon MP3 Installer, the download of the purchased MP3 failed midway through and would not complete or offer a useful error message after clicking retry.
  • The iTunes store worked better for purchasing music but cost more ($1.29 per song instead of $.99 per song)—not really a technical problem but still annoying.
  • She couldn’t sync the songs in her playlist to the iPhone, since the iPhone had been authorized on too many computers already, so she had to call Apple to get them to deauthorize her other computers so she could authorize her current computer.

So that’s “just working”? These are not the only problems she’s had on a Windows computer, and she’s had multiple computers. More importantly, she could not solve all these problems on her own, but she needed me to walk her through almost every step of the way. Is this pretty typical? Yes, actually. As I said before, I’m not even the real tech support guy at work, but people still ask me for help with their Windows problems every single day of the week. It could be Microsoft Word inserting some stupid line that can’t be erased or deleted. It could be Firefox not accepting cookies for website even when you’ve enabled them in Tools > Options. It could be the printer icon not allowing you to delete an errored out print job.

If there were really an operating system that offered you a flawless experience that didn’t require you to be your own tech support or for you to find outside tech support, then a lot of people would be out of jobs. Help desks everywhere would be laying off employees by the tens of thousands.

So does Linux have problems? Sure. It has a lot of problems. But those problems are not the primary (or even secondary or tertiary) reason most people use Windows. Windows’ dominance has mainly to do with inertia, marketing, brand-name recognition, and a near-monopoly on preinstallations. Why should I have to state this obvious fact? Because again and again Windows power users perpetuate this nonsense—because they have spent years or even decades perfecting the art of making Windows a bearable experience—that there are no problems in Windows and that any problem in Linux must be the reason Linux for desktops/laptops/netbooks isn’t more popular than it is.

Further Reading
Linux-for-the-masses narratives
Macs are computers, not magic (part 2)

Can eReaders replace books?

Several years ago (possibly even before the turn of the millennium), my brother told me that books would soon be a thing of the past and that everyone would be reading eBooks. Is it possible? Could eReaders and eBooks replace paperbacks and hardcovers the way cars replaced the horse and buggy, the way portable audio players (iPods, for those of you who don’t know alternatives to Apple exist) have replaced CDs and tapes, and the way email has replaced letters?

I use the word replace rather loosely, of course. In some rural areas, horses and buggies are still around. CDs are still available for purchase in stores, and some used music stores have old tapes, which people will still purchase occasionally. And the post office still delivers letters, mostly from businesses to other businesses. Nevertheless, the primary way for even the most affluent of people to read books is still to read paperback or hardcover books. I know no one who owns a Kindle. The first Kindle I ever saw I saw only once from far away on a bus. I haven’t seen horse-buggy combos outside of Pennsylvania, most people I know use portable audio players, and almost all communication I get from family and friends is electronic.

Will we give up our books for eBooks? I may end up regretting these words in ten years, but I don’t think I ever will. Yes, I’ve heard the Kindle can store hundreds of books. Yes, I’ve heard it doesn’t have a backlight, so it won’t be a strain on your eyes. Still, I don’t believe I’ll ever use an eBook Reader in place of reading real books. Of course, back in the mid-1990s I didn’t think I would ever email instead of writing letters to friends.

I wasn’t around when cars started replacing other modes of transportation, but I do very much remember switching from records to tapes to CDs and, eventually, to MP3s. I do have a bit of nostalgia for exchanging mix tapes with my friends, and I love the sound of a crisp record being gentle stroked by a turntable’s needle. All the letters people wrote me back in high school I have kept and will probably at some point, unlike the emails they’ve sent me over the years, re-read them. Why won’t I give up books for eBooks?

A few reasons:

  • Even though I like having hundreds of songs at my fingertips in a small device (because I can actually listen to many of them, if not all, in a week), rarely do I read more than two books at a time—usually only one.
  • When I have an electronic device, I have to make sure it’s charged, make sure it doesn’t get damaged. I have to take care of it. Now—I don’t throw any of my books against the wall, spill pizza sauce on them, or rip the pages out, but I like that I can just throw them in a bag, read them in the bath, and even leave them around (without worry they’ll be stolen).
  • The idea that Amazon can remotely erase an eBook I bought is ridiculous (as came out in the whole 1984 scandal recently). No book store is ever going to break into my apartment and take a book back that I bought just because they realized they didn’t have the rights to sell that book to me in the first place.

Go ahead, Amazon (or Sony), try to make me eat my words! I think the only way I’d switch to eReaders is if everyone else does and the only bookstores still left around are used book stores…

A professional musician switches from Mac to Ubuntu Linux?

I just read Linux Music Workflow: Switching from Mac OS X to Ubuntu with Kim Cascone, and I have to say I’m shocked, especially after reading Kim Cascone’s Wikipedia entry. Kim is a serious musician, not just some schmoe dinking around in his basement.

I’ve been a full-time Ubuntu user for a little over four years now, having switched from Windows XP. My wife switched around the same time but from Windows to Mac, as she uses Mac for serious graphic design work.

Even though I get annoyed when anti-Linux trolls make it sound as if no one could use Linux just because Linux isn’t great for certain niche commercial applications (AutoCAD, Adobe CS, certain graphics-intensive video games), I have to concede that Linux is not for everyone. And if someone had come up to me yesterday and said, “Hey I’m a professional musician who uses a computer full-time for audio stuff. Should I use Linux?” I would probably laugh in her face and tell her to go with Mac OS X.

Even though I don’t use Linux for serious audio work, I’ve seen enough of the Linux audio mess of Pulse Audio, OSS, and ALSA to know it can be an obstacle for someone seeking to use Linux primarily for audio work. After reading that blog post, though, I have to say I’m pleasantly surprised.

And I also think that, even though there is a myth of meritocracy in the software world, arguing about how freedom is important isn’t going to win over the general public. If open source is really a better development model, it will create better software. There shouldn’t be a choice between functionality and ideology. If the ideology of freedom being better is true, then it should produce the best functionality eventually. And maybe it is slowly getting there.

I don’t subscribe to the notion that if Ubuntu (or some other Linux distro) fixes all its usability issues that all of a sudden hundreds of millions of Windows users (and Mac users?) will just download .iso files, burn them to CD, boot from CD, and install and configure a new operating system themselves. But why have extra obstacles?

Keep on bringing the improvements, Linux communities. This is definitely a cool development.

The 6 Best Ways to Secure Windows

Introduction
Step 1. Install Windows updates automatically
Step 2. Make your primary account a limited user account
Step 3. Use Firefox with the NoScript extension
Step 4. Read up on social engineering and how to avoid being the victim of it
Step 5. Do not pirate software, music, or movies
Step 6. Avoid all “antivirus” or “security suite” software

Introduction

Out of the top three consumer-oriented software platforms (Windows, Mac OS X, various Linux distributions), Windows is my least favorite operating system, but I’m no Windows hater. A lot of times I hear Mac and Linux users saying they switched because they were tired of viruses and malware in Windows.

While it’s true that Mac OS X and most Linux distros make it easy to keep your operating system secure with their default settings, you can make Windows just as secure, and that’s what this six-step guide is for.

If you follow these instructions carefully, you should pretty much never get malware (spyware, adware, viruses, trojans, rogue viruses, worms) in Windows.

The screenshots use Windows 7, but the same principles apply to Windows Vista and Windows XP as well. The steps may just be slightly different (especially for Windows XP). If you’re still using Windows 98, pay for an upgrade to Windows 7; or if you’re too cheap for that, just switch to Linux. There’s almost nothing Windows 98 can do that Linux can’t, and Windows 98 no longer receives security updates (it also has no limited user accounts).

You can click on the screenshot thumbnails if you want to see larger versions.

Step 1. Install Windows updates automatically

In early 2009, there was a lot of paranoia about the Conficker worm, which was supposedly going to do scary things and which had already infected 10 million computers. Which users had to worry about Conficker? The Windows users who did not install Windows updates. A full month before that iteration of Conficker became active, Microsoft had already released a patch for the flaw Conficker exploited.

Windows Updates can be just annoying prompts to install a new version of “Windows Genuine Advantage.” More often than not, though, they are actual security updates that patch flaws and security holes in the Windows operating system. It is a good idea to set these updates to install regularly.


Go to the Start Menu > Control Panel > System and Security


Then under Windows Update, select Turn automatic updating on or off


Make sure updates are set to install automatically. Then click OK.

Step 2. Make your primary account a limited user account

Have you ever had your Windows installation infected so thoroughly (registry, dlls, startup programs, other system files) that it was apparent it would take less time to reinstall Windows than it would to try to clean out all the malware that destroyed Windows? Are you kicking yourself because the infection came through one or two clicks of the mouse?

Well, that’s because Windows, by default, makes the primary user a full system administrator. In newer versions (Windows Vista and Windows 7), there is something called User Account Control. It’s that annoying “Are you sure? Are you sure?” prompt you get that you end up conditioning yourself to always click “Yes” to.

By using primarily a limited user account, you can feel free to click on what you want and not worry about infecting system files. When you want to finally install software, you can do so by temporarily authenticating as the administrator account.

First, we’re going to create a new administrator account.


Under System and Security in the Control Panel, select User Accounts and Family Safety and then Add or remove user accounts


This is that annoying User Account Control prompt I was talking about before. Click Yes.


Click Create a new account and then make sure the new account is going to be an Administrator account and click Create Account.

With the soon-to-be-regular account called Susan, I’m going to be naming the new administrator account SuperSusan so I know it’s a special account I shouldn’t be using on a regular basis.

And, by the way, even Microsoft recommends you use a standard (or limited) user account. You can click on Why is a standard account recommended? for more details about that.


Now click on the newly-created administrator account name and then select Create password


Make sure your password for this new account is significantly complicated. It should contain no dictionary words or personally identifiable information (birthdays, social security numbers). It should have numbers, lowercase letters, uppercase letters, and punctuation in it, though.

So you don’t forget your password, go ahead and write it down on a sticky note somewhere near your computer. The greatest threat to your security is an online threat, not another family member. Besides, anyone with physical access to your computer and a little know-how can easily reset your password, anyway.

When you’re done, click Create password


Log out of your normal user account and log in as the new administrator account. It is not enough to switch users in this case. Make sure you properly log off.


Go to Start Menu > Control Panel > User Accounts and Family Safety > User Accounts


Click on Manage another account


Click Yes and then select your normal user account


Click Change the account type, select Standard user (also known as a “limited user”), and then click Change Account Type.


Log out of the administrator account and log back into your normal (now standard or limited) user account. You should never have to log in as the administrator directly again.

Step 3. Use Firefox with the NoScript extension

I see a lot of confused Windows users wondering which web browser is “the safest.” Is it Opera? Is it Chrome? Is it Firefox? Internet Explorer? Safari?

The truth is that if you use any modern web browser with its default settings, they’re all about the same in terms of safety. They all have pop-up blockers that block 95% of pop-ups. They all have warnings about potential spoofing websites. They all get regular security updates when flaws are discovered, and every browser has flaws. There is no perpetually invincible web browser.

If you use Firefox in combination with the NoScript extension, that’s about as secure as you’re going to get, though, since NoScript by default blocks JavaScript, Flash, and just about everything else interactive on websites unless you explicitly whitelist specific sites.

Think of your computer as an exclusive nightclub. Do you think it’s easier to secure your party by having a bouncer outside the club who screens all incoming guests, or by allowing anyone inside the club and then having bouncers inside trying to drag people out? Well, NoScript is your bouncer outsider. It’ll block everything, and then it’s up to you to let trusted websites in on a case-by-case basis.


To install NoScript, in Firefox, go to Tools > Add-ons and then click on Get Add-ons and then Browse All Add-ons


You’ll be taken to the Mozilla add-ons website. Search for noscript.


Once you’ve found it, click on Add to Firefox and then Install Now (after a three-second delay, the button will appear as clickable).


You’ll be prompted to restart Firefox to activate the NoScript extension. Go ahead and restart Firefox.


Now you’re web browser is as secure as possible. Of course, this may seem annoying at first.

Convenience and security are always at odds. It may be convenient to have thousands of dollars of cash on you at all times, because it’s always easily accessible, but if you get mugged or pickpocketed then all of your money is gone. It’s slightly less convenient to keep most of your money in a bank, but it’s a lot safer in the bank (and also insured up to a certain amount, in case the bank gets robbed).

For the first two weeks you use NoScript, it may seem pointless. It may seem as if you’re just whitelisting every single site you visit. Don’t give up. After a while, you’ll realize you’ve whitelisted just about every site you do visit regularly, and then you can spend a lot less time whitelisting (or keeping blacklisted) potentially shady websites you stumble upon on a less regular basis.

Step 4. Read up on social engineering and how to avoid being the victim of it

Have you ever heard the term trojan virus, gotten scared, and thought “I hope I never get one of those”?

Well, the good news is that you don’t ever have to get a trojan. Trojans don’t just happen. You choose to install them yourself. Trojans are becoming increasingly the most popular kind of malware, and they can thrive on any operating sytem (Windows, Mac, Linux), because they exploit a security flaw the operating systems cannot patch—the user.

That’s you. You are potentially the biggest security hole for your computing experience.

Trojans and phishing scams rely on something called social engineering, which is just a fancy term for tricking someone into lowering security guards.

It can be someone calling up and pretending to be your IT support department in order to get your password. It can be someone pretending to be your bank to get your private personal information. It can be a pop-up window pretending to be an antivirus scanner that’s found malware on your computer (and if you pay the scammers $50, they’ll remove the non-existent malware for you… or actually install real malware now that you’ve been tricked into installing it).

You wouldn’t hand your car keys over to fake valet. Don’t hand over the keys to your computer to a fake… anything (fake pirated commercial program, fake warning about malware, fake credit card company request for information verification).


Do yourself a favor. The absolute most important step to take in securing your computer is making yourself an educated user. Google the term social engineering and read the first ten results of that search thoroughly.

Step 5. Do not pirate software, music, or movies

I’m not saying if you pirate software, music, and movies that you will definitely contract malware, but by not pirating all that stuff, you lower your chances significantly of installing a trojan or some other kind of malware.

If you’re hard up for cash, the best way to look for trustworthy free stuff is to look for open source stuff.

The website Open Source Windows has lots of great free (and malware-free) software. No pop-ups. No trial periods. No scams. No activation keys. No exhorbitant costs.

You can also find some more-obscure open source projects at Source Forge.


Here’s an example of installing an open source instant messaging client.


Note that for the script that automatically starts downloading the file (without manually clicking the download link), you’ll have to whitelist the site from the NoScript icon. You’ll also have to do this the first time you watch a video at YouTube or Hulu or the first time you try to book airline tickets on a site like Expedia or Priceline.


Once you’ve saved the file to your downloads folder, in order to install it—now that you’re a standard (or limited) user—you’ll have to right-click the file and select Run as administrator


You’ll then be prompted for the super-user or administrator’s password you set earlier. Enter that and you can continue.

In addition to open source software, there are also writings, pictures, and music released under freer-than-traditional-copyright licenses. You can find more information about this at Creative Commons.

There’s also free (and legal) music at Jamendo. Really, though, if you need commercial music, Amazon’s MP3 store has reasonable prices, and even several hundred free sample tracks.

Step 6. Avoid all “antivirus” or “security suite” software

Although this doesn’t directly make your Windows installation more secure, it is a good idea for several reasons:

  • If you already have solid security in place, pretend security (Norton, McAfee, AVG, Avast, MalwareBytes, Kapersky, etc.) just takes up extra hard drive space and sometimes extra system resources. This means you have less storage space for your actual files (music, movies, documents, pictures). It can also mean your computer doesn’t run as fast as it would otherwise.
  • So-called antivirus and antispyware programs encourage complacency. Rather than being proactive about security by locking down the system and educating the user on how to avoid social engineering–based attacks, these placebos make people think they’re “protected” while wasting space, resources, and possibly money.
  • If you constantly rely on these security suites to protect you, you’re more likely to fall for rogue viruses pretending to be antivirus scans.
  • There are two ways antimalware tries to protect you—by keeping a list of known offenders and comparing files to that known list, and by trying to guess what might be an offending file or application. The list of known offenders can never keep up with actual new offenders. And guesses lead to a lot of false positives, making users unnecessarily paranoid (about tracking cookies, for example).

Of course there are always folks who will say “But I want to just run it just in case….” In this case, there is no just in case. If you follow all five of the previous steps carefully, antivirus will do nothing to protect you. And if you refuse to follow all five of the previous steps carefully, antivirus will also do nothing to protect you.

It would be like a soldier suiting up with heavy armor and kevlar and then adding a razor-thin layer of tissue to the top as “just in case” protection against bullets. If you have armor and kevlar, that’s the best protection you have against bullets. The tissue won’t be offering additional protection. And if you don’t have the armor and kevlar, again the tissue won’t offer additional protection.

The armor and kevlar in this analogy are the first five steps in this tutorial. The tissue is “antivirus” software, security suites, and all that other garbage that offers you no protection.

Hopefully you’ve found this tutorial helpful. As you can see, security woes are no reason to switch away from Windows. If you have a genuine interest in exploring Mac OS X or Linux, though, I think you’ll find them both rewarding computing experiences in their own respective ways.

Google Chrome OS isn’t Linux?

Add one more to the tech journalism hall of shame.

From PC World‘s “Google’s Chrome OS May Fail Even as It Changes Computing Forever”:

First, Google will compete with another operating system, Linux, that has tried fruitlessly to replace Windows on consumer PCs. The Linux camp will give it another go with a Linux variant called Moblin that has the backing of Intel and is headed for netbooks soon. (No specific partners or dates have been announced.) Dell says it prefers Moblin to Chrome OS.

Hey, Tom Spring—Google Chrome OS is Linux, just as much as Intel’s Moblin is, just as much as Ubuntu is. Linux is a short-hand many people use to designate any operating system that uses the GNU/Linux kernel… and Google Chrome OS uses the Linux kernel!

Maybe this mistake is a good thing.

If even tech “journalists” think Google Chrome OS isn’t Linux, then maybe people will give Chrome a chance because of the Google brand and not be afraid that Linux is only for geeks. After all, no one ever said you had to be a geek to use TiVo.

If Chrome OS is successful, Linux’s “year of the desktop” may not even be recognized as such, because most people (not even supposed journalists) won’t even realize Chrome is Linux. Of course, I don’t buy that Google is directly competing with Microsoft. Yes, Chrome OS is an operating system. Yes, if it’s successful, it will take some marketshare away from Windows. But cloud computing can be only so successful in the near future. Not everyone has broadband internet. Not everyone wants confidential documents on someone else’s servers. Not everyone wants to migrate away from her current platform. Not all applications have “cloud” counterparts.

If Google is successful in taking over the netbook market, it’ll be a huge blow to Microsoft, but people will still be using their Windows desktops and Windows laptops for heavy gaming, for niche business applications, for graphic design (if they aren’t using Macs).

Windows does not need to be totally overthrown, though. Any gain in marketshare for Linux will mean more hardware support for Linux users, which means ultimately more freedom and choice for even those Linux users who use non–Chrome OS distros.