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Microsoft XP: Extremely Problematic

by Glen Emerson Morris
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Without question, Microsoft XP offers the advertising and marketing industries a potentially valuable set of new features, and the long promised goal of stability, a quality Microsoft operating systems have not previously been known for. Unfortunately, the features come at a cost in security, and create an unneeded dependence on Microsoft that may have serious long-term implications.

Either one of these issues, lack of security or loss of control to Microsoft, would be a serious problem in itself, but combined, and in a post-September 11 economy, they add up to a very problematic situation for businesses on the Windows platform.

To begin with, Microsoft has programmed XP with a number of security features that are designed to protect Microsoft's security, not the user's, and this is resulting in some fatal and previously unheard of consequences. If a user changes hardware configuration more than three times, the XP operating system disables itself until it calls Microsoft via the Internet to ask for "permission" to begin fully functioning again. This feature makes users vulnerable to both Microsoft and a world full of malicious hackers.

All a hacker would have to do to disable a user's computer would be to write a virus that changed the apparent number of hardware changes the XP operating system perceived. A successful attack could leave millions of businesses and home PC users all trying to call Microsoft nearly simultaneously for permission to work again. If Microsoft was hit at the same time, for instance by a denial of service attack or a destructive virus, it could be days before a majority of American businesses were online again.

In recent virus attacks, Microsoft's IIS Web server has proven to be more likely to be infected than most servers, and the damage done is usually greater. The reason for this is that in making the server easy to use, Microsoft made it easy for user input to access the operating system. By default, Microsoft products assume it's OK to execute any command, no matter how destructive, unless there are specific instructions against it. As a result, hackers are constantly finding new ways to gain access to and damage Microsoft servers, and new security patches for IIS servers have to be issued by Microsoft on a weekly basis.

It is highly probable that the number of attacks against business and home computer systems will increase over the next decade, yet Microsoft systems are barely able to deal with the current threat level. How Microsoft systems could withstand a sustained attack financed by a country like China or Iraq is difficult to imagine.

Even worse than the security issue is the degree of control XP users must cede to Microsoft over their system, and their budget. By introducing the concept of a computer operating system that disables itself because of perfectly legal actions by the user, like changing hardware components more than three times, Microsoft is laying the groundwork for on-going and unavoidable charges for using Microsoft software.

There is nothing to keep Microsoft for continuing to increase the number of user actions that disable XP systems. There is also nothing to keep Microsoft from charging for the service of turning a user's computer on again either. Microsoft's new Passport system is just the kind of billing program to automatically bill a customer's bank account each time "service is restored" for their XP computer.

These are tough tactics, but they'd just be business as usual in the computer industry. When the economic downturn came, several computer-related companies, like Microsoft and Oracle, adopted new pricing schemes that attempted to compel customers to continue paying at more or less the same old rates, whether they wanted to or not. Oracle came up with a pricing system that tried to make customers buy more licenses than they actually had servers. Microsoft raised the prices of software upgrades to try to force customers into long term upgrade contracts. Both attempts failed, at least to some degree, but in the long term, these tactics may yet prove effective, especially in Microsoft's case.

In Microsoft's grand vision of its role in the future, Microsoft keeps all your personal data for you, has unlimited access to your bank account, and has the ability to access, explore, and disable your computer at will, among other things. Of course other mega-corporations are after much the same goals, and don't want to give businesses or consumers much choice about it either, and from the available evidence, they seem to be making progress.

Readers who would like to know more about the implications of Microsoft's strategy and tactics should read Dan Gillmor's excellent column in the San Jose Mercury News ( Featured three times a week, Gillmor's column is considered required reading by many managers in Silicon Valley, and for good reason.

The terms of Microsoft's recent settlement with the government indicate that businesses and consumers shouldn't expect the government to protect them from Microsoft. It's up to businesses to understand the implications of accepting and committing to XP and other Microsoft products. It will pay to make informed decisions.

Microsoft XP may be the best argument for the advertising & marketing industries to switch to Linux yet. Linux is well known for its stability, and Linux is also a far more secure operating system than anything Microsoft offers. Unfortunately, many of the key applications our industry needs are not available for Linux yet.

The best strategy for the advertising & marketing industry may be to simply put off upgrading at all for a year or two. There's a good chance that much of the missing Linux software will be available by then. If so, it could make sense to switch. It would be painful, but it might be worth it.

It also might be unavoidable. Businesses need to be able to control expenses, both to be profitable in good times, and to survive in bad times, and businesses always need to be able to lock the store. With XP, businesses aren't going to be sure of doing either.

Copyright 1994 - 2010 by Glen Emerson Morris All Rights Reserved

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