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)

The 6 Best Ways to Secure Windows

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


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.

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.

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.

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.