There is a worried look in many an IT support person's eyes today. Microsoft has bought Winternals, the company behind the Sysinternals free utilities on which many people depend. Will these utilities continue to be developed? For now, says Mark Russinovich, programming folk hero and one of the two men behind the company. But then? The FAQ that Microsoft has posted regarding the acquisition doesn't mention this most frequently asked question of all; I suspect I'm not alone in grabbing everything I can from the site before the living hell of Windows Genuine Advantage gets going. One tool in particular, TCPView, is in daily use here just to keep an eye on what's making contact with what over the Web.
It's good news for Russinovich, of course, who, for helping millions of people sort out the hideously under-documented internals of Windows, deserves to have a statue erected. However much he got for the move, it wasn't enough. But we're losing a very valuable independent mind — Russinovich was the person who analysed and broke the Sony rootkit story. Although he and Microsoft have always been friendly, he was more than able to say when the company had got things wrong and to offer ideas to work around the problems. When Vista comes out, it'll be riddled with all manner of "security"-related features, through which Microsoft maintains or increases its monitoring and control of computers and the software that runs on them, and one of the people best equipped to watch such things on our behalf will now have his hands tied. That's bad news for us.
And why now? Again, it has to be connected with Vista, currently slouching towards its Christmastide release. Microsoft has always been poor to the point of lackadaisical in the provision of low-level support tools for its operating system: when things go wrong, the chances of working out what happened using just the utilities provided are slim indeed, no matter how knowledgeable you are about what goes on under the bonnet.
If Vista is going to come with a proper set of administrative diagnostic tools, then that's very good — but it's rather late in the day to be thinking of that. Unless, of course, Russinovich and co have been developing this already and Microsoft liked what it saw so much it decided to buy the company. The other thought is that there's some low-level Vista madness that's in need of genius healing, and the job lot was too tempting to pass up.
Whatever the reason and whatever the outcome, a little bit of diversity has been lost from the Windows technology world. Here's hoping that the dreaded effect Microsoft normally has on acquired companies and their products — rendering both invisible — holds off on this one. We can't afford it.