Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Friday 1/9/2006 Friday rant? Here's one. Dialogue boxes that appear when you least need them.
Written by Rupert Goodwins, Contributor

Friday 1/9/2006

Friday rant? Here's one. Dialogue boxes that appear when you least need them. The worst offender by far is Windows XP: for reasons that thoroughly escape me, I can no longer shut down my laptop or my server without going through an entire morass of little clickies. Processes I've never heard of are apparently not responding, and do I want to wait for them to recover or do I, y'know, actually want to turn the computer off? Then Windows is "saving my settings" — even though I've changed no settings, nor are there enough settings on the entire machine to justify 30 seconds of frantic disk activity. At least the thing switches off afterwards. It's deadly to think you've shut down your computer and dash away before making sure, only to come back hours later to find it beeping on the last gasp of its flat battery while still waiting for you to confirm you wanted to close down Adobe Acrobat Reader.

There is one product that's worse than XP — and it's not Ubuntu, which does have its faults. Ubuntu is famed for its addiction to sudo, which is its attempt to get around the privileges paradox. This says that for safety's sake, you can't give yourself enough power to change too much of the computer's configuration, at least not for daily use. That way, if you get hacked or download some dodgy software, it can only do as much damage as you can — ie, not very much.

But you do need enough power to install new software and make some changes, otherwise the computer's not really useable. Sudo is an override that gives you those powers for one command only, meaning that when it's done you revert to being an ordinary user. Hardened Unix and Linux users, who are habituated to logging in with ultimate power, hate having to type sudo before doing whatever it is they want to do, but it's become second nature to me.

No, the real stinker is Vista, a recent beta of which has made its way into my life. Now, Windows has always dealt with the privileges paradox by ignoring it. It's simply impossible to run Windows as anything other than administrator level, unless you're locked into some particularly joyless set of do-nothing applications, so it's always defaulted to giving the user the keys to the kingdom. That's one of the reasons that Windows has been such fertile ground for malware, of course, and one of the things that Vista intends to fix.

It fixes this by adding more dialogue boxes than you find in the complete works of Shakespeare. Every damn time you try to do something a little bit interesting, up pops another warning. Are you sure? Were you the person who asked me to do this? Please confirm it is your intention. Within about five minutes of this, you know not nor care whether it's you, Ivan Tuhackualotski, the Nigerian National Lotto Board or the King of Siam behind the boxes — you're clicking on OK like a laboratory pigeon pecking the button for the electrode pleasure surge. Anything. Just make them go away. Please.

Wrong. Wrong wrong wrong wrong. For security to work, it has to be usable.

Never mind. Perhaps they'll fix it by the time it comes out, or maybe enough people will have died by then for the Goodwins Thaumaturgical Data Team to have funded my retirement on some far-away beach.

Either outcome is acceptable.

Editorial standards