Microsoft, Your Helpful Uncle?
For readers in the US, Memorial Day 2006 is now a thing of the past. The day set aside to honor those who gave their lives in the service of the United States was celebrated by traveling (woohoo, Jefferson City), by sale prices ($14.00 for a 24 pack of Budwieser, choke on that Knoxville), and by the seemingly obligatory gathering of families. On one hand this seems an odd way to honor the memories of people who died in the service of their country, no one ever fought for a thirty-percent-off white sale after all, but reveling in the stuff Americans love to do is a way of honoring supreme sacrifice after a fashion.
As mentioned previously, Memorial Day is time for families to get together, sweat a lot (in Jefferson City anyway) and catch up on the minutiae of each other lives that would generally go unnoticed. The kids run wild through the rapidly dying lawn, a slightly psychopathic Uncle wishes he had some of the now banned Jarts in the hopes someone might get their foot pierced, Mom wonders where the hell her Xanax is and Dad is busy telling anyone who will listen how he managed to shave thirty minutes off a twelve-hour drive by taking an obscure county road with a designation along the lines of county road EE. Barbeque time eventually rolls around, and the half-drunk grownups get to serve the little kids their favorite kind of food.
Without exception, some child will make a culinary mistake at the table. They might ask for too much mustard on their hotdog, or too many onions on their burger. The request is understandable, children think in simplistic terms. If one dollop of ketchup makes the burger better, a child will deduce, a cup of the sickly sweet stuff should make it veritably a meat patty Xanadu.
Adults, of course, know better. We know that if one habanero makes salsa interestingly spicy, forty habaneros aren’t going to make said salsa forty times better. Instead, the salsa will be rendered inedible. But kids need to learn the hard way sometimes. Hence, Dad is usually ready to pass out a case of experience and will waste an entire jar of mayonnaise on his kid’s burger with admonition that he has to eat all of it (sure, at home Dad will feed the kid Pop-Tarts for dinner but in front of the family you have to appear stern). The kid gets the burger, excited by the copious amounts of his favorite condiment, takes one bite and decides, “Crap man, this blows.” Fathers, wishing to appear in control, will refuse the kid another burger. This is the moment most kids will find the goofy, loving Uncle and enlist his aid. The good Uncle will slip the kid another burger, hot dog, whatever, and make the child’s mistake go away.
The question is, will Microsoft be the smiling, forgiving Uncle or the possibly deranged Jart-loving Uncle who would love nothing more than to see the kid forced to actually eat the immensely heart-clogging pile of egg, oil and beef patty?
Careful readers are wondering how we went from Memorial Day fun to Microsoft’s continually delayed Vista. Here’s the connection: The number one thing people seem concerned about when using Windows is security. They complain constantly that they have to run three or four programs just to use the ‘net, that the load of all the spyware checkers, anti virus software and malware blockers slows their very fast machine to a crawl, that their personal data is constantly at risk, etc..
The fear is warranted. Those that would jump into the confines of the ‘net wearing only built in Windows safeguards and no common sense would soon find themselves struggling to keep afloat. This can be readily evidenced by the Denial of Service extortion scheme suffered by Million Dollar Homepage. With 20,000 zombie Windows machines at his beck the extortionist had plenty of firepower and it all came from compromised machines. Clearly, security is a very real issue on the Windows platform.
On the other hand, the security issue isn’t as bad as most would make it seem. Turn on the Firewall, stay off Limewire, don’t visit sites like offshore casinos, those that tout free screen savers, warez dedicated places or sites that describe some sexual perversion in the URL and you’ll likely be fine. Those steps might take all the fun out of the ‘net for some but consider it the of equal swimming in a very well protected pool. It isn’t that you can’t still drown, you’re just a lot less likely to find yourself heading towards the light if a lifeguard is one the scene. Windows users by and large don’t want to practice safe computing, they want Microsoft to put a digital lifeguard anywhere they might need one.
So Microsoft had two choices when it came to security in Vista, tell users what they needed to know (teach them how to swim safely) or give users what they wanted (lifeguards every ten feet). Microsoft has gone the route of the pure ketchup, incidental hot dog solution. Instead of asking users to invest a little time to learn safe behavior they are giving users intrusive, and questionably effective, security. Just like the palate pinings of the child mentioned earlier, while it is what the users thought they wanted, it is something they are going to be hard pressed to stomach.
On one hand the new authentication will possibly make Vista a much safer OS and it is what people have been asking for. On the other hand, as we have seen, just because you think you really need something doesn’t mean you’re going to like it once it is yours. Given the option between installing four or five protective programs that slow your computer to a standstill over the span of five hours or having the flow of you computing life interrupted every sixty seconds most people will opt for the former. You have already experienced this behavior when saying, as you undoubtedly have, “Let’s get this over with.”
It is akin to choosing a root canal for five minutes a day over the course of a month or one marathon three-hour session. You might spend less total time going the five minute a day plan but most people would prefer the misery be confined to a single session. No surprise, you know you are in for a hellish session of chiclet work in one scenario but the other option, the one where the dentist just pops up at any old time for a little of the old drill work, would simply be unacceptable even if it meant a better eating experience in the long run.
So when, and that is an increasingly tenuous “when,” Windows Vista actually ships it will have what people said they wanted. Unfortunately, the cure will be worse than the disease, expect a fix to show up early from a third party that automatically okays the more insipid instances of Vista security questions. The third party fix will, of course, be less than perfect. This will be Microsoft’s moment to decide what kind of Uncle they want to be. Will the increasingly distracted company be the kind Uncle who will give users a service pack that more effectively balances security with annoyance or will the massive company go the way of the masochistic Uncle and delight in the suffering of the users who are getting what they asked for? Since there will be cash at stake the answer is going to be the Uncle everyone loves. The only question is how fast will Microsoft be able to make it go away, to get back to the ‘good old days’ of the horrible computing experience for the unlearned user and the far, far better experience for the marginally interested?
One thing that is certain, is that the security problems won’t ever go away, at least until you have to pass a competency test to authenticate your computer. Realistically, a window could pop open and say:
Warning: This will turn your computer in to an e-mail Zombie
A thought would go through the user’s mind “Zombiez r KEWL,” followed by a momentary pause. Then:
So, will all the authentication be annoying enough to send users scurrying to the Mac en masse? Of course not, for the majority of folks the Mac isn’t even an option. The enhanced security may, however, be sufficient to cause many home users to revert to XP. Microsoft finds itself in a no win situation with Vista and security, too much (and a lot of it unintelligible to the average user) and it simply becomes too annoying to be useful, too little and the efficacy becomes suspect. Just another day in Redmond…