In the following article, I refer to the GNU/Linux OS and various FOSS projects under the catch-all name of "Linux". It just scans better. . .

Windows LogoWhat's wrong with Microsoft?

Before I do anything else, let me assure you, this is not an anti-MS rant bashing their monopoly abuses, software patents, anti-competitive behaviour, or anything else.

No, the biggest problem with MS is far worse. It's the users they create.

To explain, let's go back in time a number of years. Let's look at the original computers. They filled whole rooms with huge, chunky hardware and were only really useful for very clever mathematicians. Then along came the microchip and the modem and IBM and Microsoft. Suddenly we had an internet. It was text-based, and you had to be pretty technology-savvy to use it.

And then there was Windows. It had pretty icons and simple menus and it brought computers to the masses. You didn't need years of training to use it, just drag the cursor around with a mouse and click on the icon you wanted. Anybody could do it.

And anybody did. Even now, years later, somebody who's never used a computer before can sit down in front of a Windows PC and get surfing the 'Net without any training or understanding. No matter what your opinion of MS may be, you have to admit, they've got a stunningly easy-to-use GUI.

This has probably been Microsoft's greatest strength through the years. They give you a computer that you can use almost instantly. No knowledge required. It has, however, created their greatest weakness, and caused the whole world many problems.

I first came to the Internet in 1995. Spam was an almost unknown problem back then, but chain letters were quite common. There was one quite common one, which basically said: "Microsoft are tracking this email with clever new software. Forward it to lots of people and they'll pay you for helping them test it!"

The first time I got this mail, I frowned, and looked closer. It was a plain text file with no attachments. Headers were normal. There was no software involved. This thing could not possibly be tracking its movements. I deleted it as junk.

I received it again, and again, and again. I still get it occasionally even now. Why? Because there are people out there who don't know enough to know that the email is a lie. Because they don't know how email works.

They don't know how to tell if there's software attached to a email. They don't know that self-running software in email is something the world has been trying to make impossible for a long time. They don't know that there would be no point in Microsoft checking how an email spreads. All they know is that it costs them nothing to send it "just in case" and they might get some money back if it's genuine. And so it spreads.

Harmless enough, you might think. It just means a few silly chain letters every now and again. Well, here’s where it gets less harmless: More than 80% of all the spam you receive was sent to you from a PC owned by a clueless Windows user. How harmless is that?

I have a reputation amongst friends & colleagues as the guy to ask if you have a computer problem. I get a lot of questions from typical Windows users. Here are some common things I get asked:

This is the level of knowledge I've come to expect from a Windows user. They have a vague idea that antivirus software is a good thing to have, and there their knowledge stops. They'll click on any attachment, download any software, and surf the Web for hours without any protection software at all between them and their broadband-connection to the Net.

Sadly, a lot of the software they unwittingly install and run isn't just viruses any more. No, it's malware: Software that does nasty things behind your back. It may record their keystrokes and send their passwords & credit card information to the scumbags who wrote the software. Or they might just suddenly find their computer runs really slowly.

Why? Because it's too busy flooding the world with spam to worry about their web browsing.

If software gets installed on a Windows PC with administrative rights, it can do absolutely anything. It's called a Zombie PC at this point, because it's really not your PC any more: It's controlled by the cracker, not you. It has two particularly nasty uses:

It's not just the unfortunate unwitting users who are running this garbage that suffer: It's everybody. It's estimated that very soon, there will be more spam mails being sent than genuine email. And it's only possible because spam is sent from unwitting Windows users' home PC's. Thank you, Microsoft.

Windows has been blamed heavily for being a hugely insecure OS. Viruses plague it, malware infests it. The blame isn't entirely down to the OS. It's perfectly possible to use a Windows PC without ever getting hit by malware. I've done it, never had a virus of spyware on one of my computers, and I've used Windows since 3.1. A clued-up user can be perfectly safe using Windows.

But there aren't enough of those users. There are too many people using computers who have no protection installed and a "Click on everything" mindset. They're not just hurting themselves, they're hurting us all. And they're a problem that can't be solved by software.

True story: A friend asked me to help her install something. She'd taken my advice and wasn't running an Administrative account on Windows. The software required Administrative privileges in order to install. I told her she'd have to switch to the Admin account to install it. Offhandedly, I asked her what it was.

"Something I got in an email," she replied vaguely. "I think it’s a game of some sort."

*sigh* I took a look. Malware. Had she been running as Admin, the software would have installed, and her machine been infected. None of the protective measures installed on her PC would have saved her: Admin trumps all.

That's the problem with clueless Windows users for you, in a nutshell: They don't know what they're doing, but they insist on doing it anyway. No matter how good Microsoft make their software, they'll never make it good enough to compensate for users like this, users who'll even switch off their protective software in order to install malware if it's got a good cover story.

The solution? Well, it's happening already. And no, it's not "Everybody use Linux" - The same clueless users who turn off their antivirus to install malware will cheerfully log in as root to do the same thing in Linux.

The only solution is to have less clueless users. There's no way around it.

Fortunately, that's the trend. Computers and the Internet started out as new and strange things, things people had to try and learn about late in life. Old dogs and new tricks. Windows made it big because it made the new tricks so easy.

But since then, people are being born into a Web-aware world. Kids are growing up with computers and the internet. They're learning right from day one how to use a computer. Slowly, clueless users are fading away and clued-up users are replacing them. It's an irreversible trend. Sooner or later, it will triumph.

What happens then? Well, there's the rub. Windows is heavily dependent on it's biggest problem. The only thing it really has going for it is how easy it is to use. MS can point at Linux and say how hard it would be to switch, and people will happily agree. Today.

But what happens in a few years, when the clueless have been replaced by the clued-up? When Linux's increasing ease-of-use meets the decreasing amount of cluelessness? What happens when there's no real barrier to entering the FOSS world and people start comparing OS functionality instead of GUI aesthetics?

It'll be a very interesting time, when computers have careful, well-informed users running them and keeping unwanted software out of them. Think about it: No spam, no malware. . .

No Windows?

Maybe. We shall see!

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