Categories
Apple and Mac OS X Computers Linux Ubuntu Windows

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)

Categories
Computers Windows

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.

Categories
Computers Windows

Should you stick with Windows?

This is a follow-up to my previous post about Macs (trying to provide an unbiased view). The question of Mac v. PC (“PC” meaning “Windows PC,” unfortunately; Linux seems to get left out of the picture completely) often comes up for Windows users thinking about whether they should switch to Mac or not. So the natural flip side to that question is: should you stay with Windows? Is it even worth exploring alternatives like Mac or Linux?

Well, obviously if you like Windows and enjoy using it, you should stick with it. But it’s not usually those who enjoy Windows who ask about Mac or Linux. It’s usually the dissatisfied Windows users—the ones who imagine Mac or Linux offer a perfect world of trouble-free computing.

So, to you restless Windows users, I have a few questions for you (answer honestly):

  • Is vast consumer hardware selection important to you, especially for base models (not as much peripherals)? Would the thought of researching hardware compatibility before a purchase make you shudder?
  • Do you use any Windows-only software? (AutoCAD, OneNote)
  • Do you own a Zune?
  • Do you often like to play the latest commercial game on your computer (not on a gaming console)?
  • Do you hate learning new ways of doing things?

If you answered “yes” to any of those questions, I would highly recommend you stay with Windows. If you worry about Windows crashes and security issues, here is what you should do: back up everything, reinstall Windows, set up a limited user account you use all the time, set Windows updates to install automatically, use Firefox with the NoScript extension, educate yourself about social engineering, and stop pirating! Do all that, and you won’t have to deal with (useless) antivirus software, excessive crashing or slowness, and various security compromises.

Now, if you answered “No” to all of those questions, then you may actually be a prime candidate for a switch to Mac or Linux. Windows is not a bad product, despite all the bad-mouthing it gets from some Mac and Linux zealots. Unfortunately, though, it has been shoved down students’ and employees’ throats all over the world to the point where a lot of folks are just crying out for alternatives.

There are various reasons (which I outlined in my last post) you might want to switch to Mac OS X. The biggest one I can think of for considering it as a Windows alternative over Linux is if you have an iPhone or iPod Touch. Apple has made it difficult to get those devices working without iTunes. The ways to get those working in Linux are complicated and often end up obsolete in the face of firmware upgrades.

You might be a prime candidate for Linux, though, if you are a dissatisfied Windows user who avoids iPods altogether (or has an older-model iPod), especially if you don’t have enough money for a Mac and if you primarily email, web browse, lightly word process, organize photos, and listen to music. Linux can do a lot more than that, too, but if you are a professional graphic designer or video editor, you’re probably better off with a Mac.

The best thing about switching to Linux from Windows is that it can be done in slow steps and for free. You can run Linux inside a Windows session (using portable Ubuntu), you can run Linux as a virtual operating system inside Windows (using VirtualBox or VMWare), you can run Linux as a dual-boot with Windows (using Wubi or a traditional repartitioned drive), you can run Linux as a “live” session that doesn’t affect your hard drive at all (just using your RAM and a CD or USB drive), and, of course, you can install Linux right over Windows (though I would recommend that only as a last step).

I’d really like people to get rid of these stupid OS (operating system) wars. Mac isn’t better. Windows isn’t better. Linux isn’t better. There is no better. There is only better for you. It’s all about assessing your needs and your means. If you need Windows-only programs, you’re going to need it (Sorry, but Wine does not work 100%). If you like Windows, use it. If you like Mac OS X, use it. If you like Linux, use it. You actually can use all three (you don’t necessarily have to choose).

At the end of the day, an operating system is only a platform to run applications and manage devices. If your operating system runs the applications you need and manages the devices you own, then you’re set. Switching from Windows to something else isn’t a magic bullet that brings you to computing nirvana. My wife is happy she switched to Mac, and she would never go back to Windows, but she still has problems from time to time. Likewise, I’m happy I switched to Linux, and I would never go back to Windows, but I still have problems from time to time. Computers aren’t magic. They’re wonderful machines that sometimes have problems.

Categories
Linux Windows

Software installation in Linux is difficult

Linux is for geeks only. Software installation in Linux is difficult. It is not for the faint-hearted. Let’s take, for example, installing a simple game of Hearts.

In Linux, you’ll have to download source code and have to compile it from source, and then you’ll run into dependency hell and have to track down all the individual dependencies yourself.

Here are some screenshots to show you just how difficult it is…









See? That was quite difficult, and I would not recommend that for the average user. People just want to click and go. They don’t want to have to run a lot of obscure commands just to play a game of Hearts.

It’s much easier in Windows. In Windows, all you have to do is search for the software you want, download it, click next-next-next-finish, and you’re done.

Let’s take a look at how much easier it is to install software in Windows…





































See how easy that was? These Linux geeks have to stop pretending that Linux is ready for the average user. Windows is ready to go out of the box, and it’s just more user-friendly.

Categories
Apple and Mac OS X Computers Linux Windows

Software freedom does affect the end user

As a follow-up to an older post of mine (“Open Source for Non-Programmers”), I wanted to post a little bit about arbitrary limitations in software.

Thank God even Apple is now leaving behind DRM in its iTunes Music Store (Amazon has been doing so for quite a while with its MP3 store). While the music pirates were still out there pirating, my well-intentioned and law-abiding Windows- and Mac-using friends were constantly frustrated that this computer wasn’t authorized or this song wouldn’t play on that device. DRM was an artificial restriction on how many computers or devices could play a purchased song, and it wasn’t stopping music piracy. It was hurting the people who were trying to play by the rules.

Now the tech news is reporting that Microsoft (in attempt to phase out Windows XP) will release a crippled version of Windows 7 on netbooks that allows you to run only three applications at a time. So if you’re running Firefox, Thunderbird, and Pidgin already, and then you want to open up OpenOffice to write an essay for class, you have to close Firefox first (or Thunderbird or Pidgin). Will DropBox count as an app? Will ScreenPrint32? Will other tray apps? Who knows? This is a nuisance and nothing else. It is a cheap ploy to take advantage of users’ Windows addictions and coerce them into upgrading to the full version of Windows 7.

Of course, as with what happened in the case of DRM, this limitation will be an annoyance to Microsoft’s loyal customers, and it will do nothing to stop pirates. Some Windows customers will buy a netbook with crippled Windows 7 and get frustrated and just install an old copy of Windows XP on it. Others will pirate the full version of Windows 7 and install that without paying for an upgrade. And still others will get frustrated with Windows altogether and go to Android or Ubuntu Linux. (Relatively few people will actually pay for an upgrade.)

When enough people flock to Linux on netbooks, Microsoft will be forced to pull Windows XP off the shelf yet again to stave off the competition.

Linux distros have their limitations, but they aren’t arbitrarily imposed on you by the Linux developers. The limitations all come from proprietary software and hardware vendors. Know why your Broadcom wireless card won’t work on Linux? Broadcom won’t port a driver to Linux or release the driver specs to Linux developers can incorporate it into the Linux kernel. Know why there’s no Adobe Creative Suite for Linux? Adobe doesn’t think there’s enough demand for it to warrant making a port, so it won’t make one for Linux.

Want to know why you can’t run more than three apps at a time in Windows 7 on netbooks? Microsoft won’t let you unless you pay for an upgrade. That’s right. You can’t blame it on some outside vendor. Microsoft, the maker of Windows 7, is saying “We don’t care about the end user or a good user experience. We want to offer you a crippled product in the hopes you’ll pay for the full product.” This is like a car salesperson offering you a discounted car with no front wheel. To get the fourth wheel you have to pay extra. Some discount.

Software freedom isn’t just about hackers wearing out their eyes staring at screens and typing into terminals. It isn’t just about programming and getting into arguments about which text editor is better than the other. Software freedom affects end users too. Because Linux offers freedom (not just free cost), if a distro ever tried to limit you to running only three apps at a time, another distro would just take that limit right off. Or someone would create a script to break that limitation.

There are short-term freedoms and long-term freedoms. The short-term freedom to run Windows-only programs will lead to the curtailing of long-term freedoms to not be limited by what Microsoft says you can and can’t do with the software you’ve purchased.

Categories
Computers Linux Ubuntu Windows

Windows and Linux on netbooks… what stays on?

Right now, there’s a lot of debate among computing enthusiasts about whether Microsoft’s claim of 96% sales on netbooks is true… or meaningful. I tend to believe the percentages, but I don’t think it means what Microsoft seems to imply it means (“We’re better. People prefer us”). I do believe Windows users would rather stick with something familiar than switch to something else, especially if the two are around the same price. I also believe the Linux options on netbooks were badly marketed (and in many cases, badly implemented). It certainly doesn’t help that when you go to HP’s or Dell’s websites and try to order a Linux netbook, you’ll be told HP recommends Windows for everyday computing or Dell recommends Windows Vista Home Premium. Are you really going to tell me sales would have been the same if both the Linux and Windows pages said HP recommends Linux for everyday computing or Dell recommends Ubuntu Linux? Microsoft pays those OEMs money or cuts them deals to have those phrases plastered all over the sites, and with good reason.

Let’s see. I’m a consumer. I can go with Windows, which I’m already familiar with and which Dell recommends, or I can go with… U… bun… tu? which Dell doesn’t appear to recommend? And when I pick the Ubuntu option, Dell says I can “upgrade” to Windows (Windows is clearly better, since it’s an upgrade)? I think I’ll go with Windows. Of course. Why wouldn’t I?

So, yes, I can believe the 96%, but it doesn’t mean consumers were offered a fair choice and decided they liked Windows better and that Linux sucks. It means Microsoft strong-armed its way into the netbook marketplace, just as it always did with other markets. It’s like if we have a race and I bring my fans to the stadium and kick your fans out. Then I jam a cleat into your shin, stick gum on the bottom of your running shoes, and bat your ears just as the gun goes off. Oh, and the officials running the track meet are on my payroll. After I “win” the race, I brag to everybody that you’re slow. It doesn’t mean I’m a faster runner than you. It means I’m a bully and a cheat.

I have to confess I’m even tempted to get a Windows netbook myself, even though I’ve promised myself I won’t buy any more Microsoft products, even if I’m just planning to install Linux right over it. Why? Look at the selection out there! I’ve checked NewEgg, Amazon, just about every vendor I can find, and the Linux selections keep getting slimmer and slimmer. And they also tend to be the older models. If I want to get the best netbook out there right now (in terms of hardware specifications and battery life), it’s about US$349 from Asus and runs Windows XP—it’s one of the newer Eee PCs. If I want to get the best Linux netbook available right now, it’s about US$500 from HP and doesn’t even have a third USB port or VGA out.

The most popular Linux netbook options out run Linpus Linux Lite (crippled Fedora) and a specialized (i.e., crippled) Xandros Linux. The Dell Mini 9 looks okay and gets decent reviews but doesn’t have a hard drive bigger than 16 GB. And the HP Mini Mie also looks great but is really expensive when spec’ed out and still hasn’t fully ironed out its Ubuntu implementation (even though their new interface for Ubuntu looks pretty).

Vendors, are you listening to me? If you can offer the following, I can guarantee you your Linux sales will be gangbusters:

  • Stop recommending Windows on your Linux netbook pages.
  • Offer a Linux netbook under US$400 with 7 or 8 hours of battery life, an actual hard drive with a lot of space, 3 USB ports, a 92%-95%-sized keyboard, and VGA out.
  • Use a Ubuntu variant but make sure the interface is useful and the video playback isn’t choppy

As long as the Linux options are crippled (either on the hardware or software fronts), then, yes, people will keep buying Windows netbooks. Some people may buy the Windows netbooks just to install Linux on them, but if Windows is either the only option, the cheapest option, the option with the best hardware features, or all three of the above, then Windows will continue to outsell Linux on the netbook front.

I’ll close with some excerpts from Amazon reviews:

Asus doesn’t offer the 1000HA with Linux. I don’t know what they’re thinking here. I’m forced to buy yet another Windows license that will never be used

I loaded Ubuntu Linux 8.10 to have a dual-boot system and I must say it runs Linux very well — no problems on the Linux side.

I bought this Windows XP model, just because there is no Linux equivalent of Eee PC 1000HA on sale(Asus, are you listening?).

Installed Easy Peasy linux, based… right out of the box. I did manage to hose windows xp, which is fine, since I’m not interested in running it

Linux was actually faster, and easier to set up (more plug and play, and no questions to answer). It started up each time much faster

I was primarily looking for a netbook with some form of linux installed on it, but I liked the size and battery life of this one so I went ahead and bought it.

I love my Eee PC 701. At some point I want to upgrade it, and I hope at that time there’ll be some decent Linux options out there.

Categories
Computers Windows

Conficker worm – silent is still deadly

I find the “news” coverage of Conficker to be absolutely disgraceful. Is this what passes for journalism?

I want you to imagine that there is a parasite that can invade your body and reside in there indefinitely. Once in your body, it could give you a heart attack, it could poison your blood stream, or it could make your liver fail. Once the parasite was discovered to be in the wild, doctors discovered that you could avoid getting the parasite by simply washing your hands before you ate. They also figured out that the parasite was going to change shape on a certain day. As that day approaches, people who haven’t been washing their hands go into a panic. They don’t know if they have the parasite or not. They start running to quack doctors who say they’ll make sure to protect these people against the worm if the potentially infected individuals just buy a prescription subscription for a special drug. After the parasite changes shape, though, no one’s had a heart attack or failed liver yet. So all the parasite-infected people celebrate that the parasite hasn’t done anything.

What?! Did I miss something?

Yes, the scenario I’ve just described in biological terms is exactly what just happened with the Conficker worm that’s infected an estimated 10 million Windows computers.

Microsoft discovered a flaw in its operating system and patched the flaw back in October 2008. The latest iteration of the Conficker worm, which takes advantage of this flaw, began surfacing around November 2008 and kept infecting Windows computers for months. The experts all knew that on April 1, 2009 the infected computers would have the worm checking for updated instructions from its creators.

Then the panic came in. Oh, no! It’s coming! It’ll be the end of the internet as we know it. I’m turning off my computer that day. If I buy this antivirus software will it protect me? Hide the children! Oh. Nothing happened? It has the power to attack and bring down major websites and government systems or steal personal information but nothing appeared to happen today? Oh. Okay. It was a big joke then. Ha ha. Who cares if I’m infected? I’m just going to go on my merry way.

Uh, no. First of all, Windows users should regularly install Windows updates. This was patched even before it was a real threat. And it doesn’t matter if the world didn’t seem to end today. The Conficker worm has the power to do serious damage, and no one knows when it’ll decide to do that damage or what kind of damage it will decide to do. It doesn’t mean you fly into a panic as if it were Orson Welles’ reading of War of the Worlds. But it doesn’t mean you go on your merry, care-free way either.

Educate yourself. Protect yourself. Be sensible. Conficker is dangerous but instead of flying into blind paranoia, just take practical and level-headed steps to protect your computer and your personal information. Silent can still be deadly, and I’m not just talking about flatulence.

Categories
Apple and Mac OS X Asus Eee PC Computers Linux Ubuntu Windows

Should Linux users hush up about Microsoft?

Someone linked to Good Linux Users Don’t Talk About Microsoft on the Ubuntu Forums. I started to type up a reply, and then it got so long that I figured it was more of a blog entry than a forum post. Besides, who wants to hear about our broken toilet flush, anyway?

Okay, let’s see. So “good Linux” users can’t bash Microsoft, but “bad Linux users” can be bashed as morons? Okay. I don’t really see how that works.

I do agree that if Linux users want others to use Linux (and not all Linux users say they do) they should focus more on what Linux can do than on what Windows can’t do. It’s the same for anything in life, really. You have more respect for a political candidate who says “I’m going to do this, this, and that good things” instead of “My opponent has done this, this, and that bad things.”

But it’s only natural for people to compare two competing alternatives, especially if most of the users of one alternative used to use (or still use) the dominant product. If almost every Toyota owner used to own a Honda, then you bet you’d hear a lot of Honda-bashing from Toyota owners.

I see this a lot with Mac users, too. There are some very vocal anti-Microsoft and anti-Windows Linux users online, but in person all the Linux users I know are pretty level-headed about things (use what works for you, I prefer Linux), and the most vocal anti-Microsoft and anti-Windows sentiment I hear in real (in-person) life is from Mac users who were former Windows users.

It’s the same trick that the bully from elementary school used to use. You put others down to make yourself feel better. Well, if you’re not 100% sure you like your new choice, you may feel tempted to put down your former choice to reassure yourself you made the right new choice. It’s like when people start reminiscing about their exes and then a friend says “Oh, he was such a jerk anyway. You’re so much better without him.” He may, in fact, have been a jerk, but why do you need such assurance that you’re doing better now? It’s because there’s a little part of you that wonders whether you should still be with him. And for every Linux or Mac user who does spend the bulk of her energy putting down Windows, I often wonder if that’s where it’s coming from.

I kind of see both sides of it. On the one hand, there are many deplorable things Microsoft does, and there are many things I don’t like about Windows. It doesn’t make sense to ignore corporate bullying practices, vendor lock-in, or bad default security practices. On the other hand, focusing your energy solely on what “the competition” is doing wrong isn’t a good “sell” for your own “product.” You should spend most of your energy talking about what Linux is good for.

This goes to a larger sociological issue when it comes to operating systems. You see a lot of dumb back-and-forth arguments about “Which is better, Mac or [understood to be Windows] PC?” or “Is Linux ready for the desktop?” Well, obviously no one’s going to come to a unanimous conclusion, because there is none. No one operating system can be everybody’s preference or suit everyone’s needs. And no one operating system needs to.

My wife can love her Mac OS X and that doesn’t bother me. I can love my Ubuntu and not bother others with it. And our friends can use Windows to their heart’s content, and I won’t bother them. As a matter of fact, even though I prefer Ubuntu, I use Windows at work every day, and I divide my home time almost equally between my wife’s Macbook Pro (with Mac OS X) and my own Eee PC (with Ubuntu). So I’m familiar with all three operating systems and can appreciate their respective pros and cons.

If someone says “Do you think Linux is ready for the desktop?” I would probably respond “I don’t think there’s a definite answer to that. It’s better to tell me what your computer habits and budget are, and then I can tell you whether a Mac, a Windows PC, or a Linux PC is best for you.”

The key is really being able to talk intelligently about what works for whom instead of trying to pit operating systems in a battle out of which only one winner can emerge.

Categories
Computers Windows

Do you filter the help you give online?

I’m a moderator on the Ubuntu Forums, and we have a policy about log-in-as-root tutorials (especially logging in as root graphically), which is basically that they’re banned. We don’t let people post instructions for logging in as root graphically. You can read here about the justification for that.

It’s a little odd, though. I’m in favor of the policy, but I also know that if someone does a simple Google search, she can find instructions for logging in as root graphically in Ubuntu. So we’re not, with our policy, preventing people from logging in as root. We’re simply not helping them to do it. Does that matter?

I don’t know if it does, but I still refuse to help people do what I think they shouldn’t be doing. I filter my help. I love helping people out. The internet is a wonderful place, because I help tens, hundreds, possibly even thousands of people I don’t even know by just typing a few sentences.

If, however, I get the impression someone is trying to get me to do her homework for her, I say “Do your own homework.” Of course, I could be inadvertently doing someone else’s homework for her—someone who’s clever enough to rephrase the question instead of copying the homework question verbatim into an online forum. I don’t know if I am.

Likewise, if someone says “I forgot the password to my computer. How do I get in?” I don’t know if that person is a kid who’s trying to find out her parent’s password to get around a parental filter. And I don’t have a foolproof method of thwarting malicious password cracking requests, but I generally tell people how to reset the password instead of telling them how to crack the password (even though I know how you can crack passwords). If you reset a password, you have access, but the person who used to have that password knows you have access, since the old password no longer works. If, however, you crack the password, you could stealthily be using that person’s account without her knowing it.

Do you filter out your help? Or do you figure information is so easy to find that if you don’t tell someone how to crack a password, she’ll just do a Google search and find it herself? Does it matter who pulls the trigger or not if the trigger gets pulled?

Categories
Apple and Mac OS X Computers Linux Ubuntu Windows

The antivirus paranoia culture

Recently, I’ve spent some time looking at the computer section of Yahoo! Answers, and it’s a fascinating place from a sociological perspective. If the questions and answers popular there are indicative of what common attitudes and practices are among Windows and Mac users, then this is how a typical user operates:

  • Install free antivirus software
  • Install Limewire and use it to download copyrighted songs and movies as well as software cracks.
  • Run as administrator all the time (no limited user account).
  • Get infected with a virus or rogue.
  • Ask for suggestions about a better antivirus.
  • Consider that maybe paid antivirus solutions may be more effective than free ones.
  • Consider that Frostwire may be safer than Limewire.
  • Switch antiviruses.
  • Switch P2P application.
  • Get infected again.
  • Try to remove the infection with MalwareBytes.
  • Spend hours trying to remove infections with various other programs.
  • Eventually give up and reformat entire drive without backing up files.
  • Continue cycle.

There also seems to be a popular misconception that Windows’ malware problem has to do primarily with its popularity and not any flaw in security (like running as administrator by default all the time). So when a trojan (which requires user stupidity, not a flaw in the security of the operating system) appears for Mac OS X, the Windows users on Yahoo! Answers say “Aha! See? Macs get viruses too. They’re no more secure than Windows” and the Mac users on Yahoo! Answers say “Oh, no. What antivirus should I use to protect my Mac? I thought Macs were immune to viruses.”

I hope you see the problem here. Antivirus software companies may not be so nefarious as to actually create viruses (though maybe they do—we don’t have any irrefutable evidence either way), but they have definitely created a culture of paranoia and not just healthy fear.

Most computer users are paralyzed when it comes to security. They have no concept whatsoever as to what makes a computer secure or insecure. They just think “If I run ‘the best’ antivirus software, I can do whatever I want and my computer will be safe.”

Yet, I’d be willing to bet that most of these people would be better at spotting a fake valet before handing over the keys to their cars and would know better than to actively seek out burglars to give out their bank ATM cards and PIN codes to.

What can we do to turn around this culture of paranoia and turn it into proper, healthy fear properly channeled through education and good practice?

I used to be part of this culture, back when I was an exclusive Windows user. I got malware of some kind and panicked. And I thought if I just got a “better” antivirus and changed from Internet Explorer to Firefox that my security would be so much better.

It wasn’t until I got more familiar with the worlds of Mac OS X and Ubuntu that I realized privilege separation matters. Yes, it’s theoretically conceivable that malware could infect a limited user account if it were designed that way, but if it did and was detected in a short amount of time, then it could be easily removed. Malware as it is now thrives because it digs deeply into the Windows system files so that booting into safe mode or trying to use system restore to get rid of it isn’t enough. If you use a limited user account, no system files will be affected, and if malware were ever designed to affect a limited user account, you could just delete that account and carry on.

More importantly, the paranoia comes from a total lack of understanding about how computers become infected with malware. They have the same understanding of computer diseases that “doctors” had about human diseases centuries ago. It’s a bad humor. It’s punishment for doing something evil. It’s not germs you actually have to come in contact with.

A lot of malware comes in not through software flaws but through user flaws. Social engineering is a great way to get malware installed because Microsoft, Apple, and Linux developers can do nothing about it through better programming. If you can trick the user into installing “the codec you need to watch this video” or “this pirated version of iWork” or “this cool new software,” then any kind of built-in security goes out the window.

Couldn’t these users who suffer from such paranoia and ignorance save themselves a lot of heartache if they did a few simple things?

  1. Use a limited user account in Windows
  2. Take ten minutes to read up on social engineering and how not to be a victim of it
  3. Back up personal files regularly
  4. Use Norton Ghost or Acronis True Image to image a working installation so a reinstall wouldn’t take so long
  5. Install system security updates

The way a lot of people run their computers, it’s like having rampant unprotected sex and then getting an HIV test every six months. That won’t stop HIV! Get a condom! Computers have condoms too, even though Microsoft doesn’t make them very easy to put on.