The Devil's Advocate: Technology wimps hiding behind Windows

Tired of having sand kicked in your face by virus writers, spammers and hackers?
Written by Martin Brampton, Contributor

Tired of having sand kicked in your face by virus writers, spammers and hackers?

IT departments are worried about viruses, spam and hackers, in that order. At the same time, we hear that Microsoft is pulling out of Internet Explorer development for the Apple. Two seemingly unconnected news items. But perhaps there is a significant connection. One reason viruses are such a menace is that most people are running more or less the same operating system. It is some version of Windows, probably fairly recent. It is not inherently secure, and as material is passed from person to person, it usually finds itself in a familiar environment. This is ideal for the propagation of hostile software, such as viruses. Putting it like that suggests the connection. To continue the biological analogy from the virus to the computer population, we seem to be steadily moving to a situation where the gene pool for operating software is dangerously small. We know from experience with both humans and animals that populations that lack genetic variation are highly vulnerable to infectious diseases, many caused by viruses. The browser situation has now precisely reversed the values that created the world wide web. Originally, the whole motivation for the web was a perceived need to permit the electronic publication of scientific papers that contained text and illustrations. Knowing that universities had a wide variety of computer systems, with large variations in software, Tim Berners-Lee and others designed the web to be independent of any particular hardware or software. Many browsers were created, some for specific platforms, others that were ported across several different platforms. The standards were developed independently of any single group of software developers. The original idea was extremely powerful, and drove the development of the web. However, first Netscape and then Microsoft grabbed control of the standards by making extensions beyond the publicly agreed standards. That was certainly not wholly bad, as it accelerated the technical development of new browser capabilities. It was damaging, though, to the publicly owned standards process. Now, we have a situation where Microsoft has around 95 per cent of the browser “market”. It is hard to see what is to stop the company from progressively dominating one software market after another. Past monopolies have been brought under control by government action. The current US administration looks unlikely to provide such action, and currently the European Union seems reluctant to challenge the US on the issue. And so, we have to live with a situation that lacks diversity. Widespread standardisation may have some benefits, but it does provide the ideal environment for viruses and hackers. Spam might seem like a different case, but it is strongly linked. Restrictions imposed by ISPs have made it desirable for the spammers to avoid using their own systems as the source of mass mailings. So most spammers rely on hackers to take control of some innocent party’s computer in order to instigate bulk mailings. One of the most significant risks for the broadband user is remote use of the connected computer. This could form the basis of a distributed denial of service attack, or it could simply be used for transmitting email whose source will almost certainly be faked. Either case can cause the broadband user immense difficulties, as they are liable to be identified as the cause of a significant problem, so blacklisted and isolated. If governments will not act to maintain a multiplicity of competing products, then what can we do to sustain a genuinely free market in critical areas of software? It is a difficult problem, that most people are not willing to face. Most find it easier to go along with the multitude. For example, finding an alternative browser that works across a broad range of web sites is pretty difficult. It seems as if we may need to be very patient. Monopolies have typically collapsed of their own accord eventually. There is a loss of energy and imagination brought about by the comfortable world of the solitary supplier. Eventually, the monopolist usually fails to adapt to the changing world and is shaken out of its monopoly. But that can take a very long time.
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