Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Wednesday 9/8/2006 Heard of cows? Of course you've heard of cows.

Wednesday 9/8/2006

Heard of cows? Of course you've heard of cows. You'll also know that cowpox was the first disease to be used in vaccination — vacca being Latin for cow — because injecting people with cowpox conferred immunity to smallpox. As cowpox gives you red blisters while smallpox kills you, this was considered worth knowing. From that, the entire science and practice of vaccination grew, removing untold suffering and misery from the planet.

Now we know a lot about all this. One of the key ideas is herd immunity, where you don't have to immunise everybody, just enough to prevent a particular disease from being able to spread. You do need to get a high percentage of a group, but when you're there the disease will die out. Providing the immunity is evenly distributed, there'll be no reservoir: get nine out of 10 people jabbed, and 10 out of 10 people will benefit. Conversely, if you don't hit herd immunity you'll never be rid of the problem.

That's one of the reasons why it's so teeth-grindingly frustrating when ill-informed parents refuse to get their kids immunised because of sensationalist, unscientific scares about side-effects. That raises the risk for everyone. And it's also the reason Microsoft is being so daft about some of the implications of Windows Genuine Advantage, or WGA.

WGA is designed — let's be charitable — to encourage people to buy legitimate copies of the operating system. You do that, you can register. You register, the Microsoft monolith will dispatch updates and extras to you by way of recognising your shining spotlessness. Another way of looking at that is that Microsoft is withholding important features from the sinful, putting them at a Genuine Disadvantage — but they're bad people. They deserve to be punished. It's up to Microsoft. That may be true for things such as upgrades to Media Player and Internet Explorer, both of which are going to be reserved as treats for the faithful. But when Microsoft decides to include anti-spyware software in the program, as it is with Windows Defender, it's punishing everybody.

Even if you don't agree that the existence of spyware is the mark of a poorly designed operating system — a stance that is at the least arguable, and in the historical case of Windows pretty undeniable — the removal of it from the world is something that aids the public good. Although spyware doesn't spread itself autonomously, unlike true viruses, it does depend on having a large susceptible market to be commercially viable. If it has that base, then more versions are going to be developed — and some of those will get past Windows Defender.

By denying security to the non-registered Windows user base, Microsoft is in the position of withholding clean water from the peasants on the grounds that only the knights deserve to be healthy. Guess what: the knights will die too.

I thoroughly approve. Windows Genuine Advantage is going to drive more people to open source than any initiative Novell or Mark Shuttleworth could think up. What's not to love?

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