Tuesday, January 30. 2007
Microsoft Vista has been launched.
Prognostications aside, I do have some actual advice for clients and casual readers. Perhaps surprisingly, that advice is neither to buy it or not buy it--everyone will have their own reasons for the decision. No, my advice is simply: know what those reasons are. Don't make an uninformed, unplanned migration.
Take the opportunity to review your choices. Read the fine print. Consider what business functions are motivating the change.
There are far too many instances where a small business will go out and buy a new computer, post major release, with a new operating system on it and bring it in and expect it to just plug into their existing system and run just like all the others, with no understanding of the complexities and potential difficulties they are opening up in terms of security, management, and interoperability. That's when my phone rings, and the charges start piling up... temporary hacks are put in place, workarounds are cobbled together, and all of them unnecessary with a real, considered migration plan. So if you're going to do it, plan for it, is my advice.
And if you can at all, if there is no compelling business justification somewhere in your calculations, wait. Let your competition find all the bugs and experience the growing pains. Let Microsoft get a service pack out the door and let your hardware pool replenish in the coming months as part of natural upgrade cycles rather than a large up-front expenditure to raise compatibility in the organization.
While you're waiting, think hard about your alternatives. Weigh the costs. Get (gasp) some professional advice. Own your decisions--don't get sucked into them.
Monday, January 29. 2007
Just a quick link to a list of other links Mary Jo Foley has posted which present some quick considerations for people considering Vista upgrades in the near term. There are always a few gotchas with any new product like this; best to know what they are even if you ultimately decide they're of no consequence.
Wednesday, January 24. 2007
Of all the various things that gall me about Microsoft and their products I think that the "Genuine Advantage" program is probably the worst. This program, amazingly poorly named, is in fact the main thrust of their anti-piracy effort and consists primarily of a gate-keeper program installed on every individual PC with the Windows operating system which monitors and verifies the integrity of the Microsoft software installed (so far--there's nothing preventing the scope from widening at some unspecified future date) and--with XP--delivers a series of messages and options to correct the issue (which Ed Bott has painstakingly chronicled here). With Windows Vista, Microsoft has stated that certain features and functions of the software will be disabled outright on a failed WGA check, and it's rather widely expected that eventually a complete system shutdown will result (in fact, Microsoft has explicitly stated this as recently as October--it's not clear if this represents a more aggressive approach than previously implied or if activation and validation are separate in their eyes) which will render your expensive and powerful computer down into a machine that can be used for only one task: sending Microsoft money to unlock it.
It's bad enough that the program works that way in the first place--given that intentional, user-initiated piracy at the OS level is fairly unusual and that most violations are inadvertent--but that the company has the chutzpah to claim that this is all for their customer's "advantage" is sticking in craws other than my own lately.
And yesterday, the queen of all things Microsoft, Mary Jo Foley, posted an article on the NewSpeak approach Microsoft is taking in its attempt to portray WGA in a favorable light. More interesting than that information, which after all is no less than you would expect, are some of the statistics she has turned up and an intriguing study report--paid for by Microsoft--studying the Genuine Advantage program (you can tell they commissioned the report from the first sentence, which couldn't have been crafted to be any more appealing to put-upon Microsoft executives: "There is no more pervasive or pernicious problem plaguing the software industry than that of counterfeit or pirated software operating systems and applications." Those poor threatened software barons).
According to the report, more than half of small businesses surveyed had at least some instances of counterfeit or pirated software in their organization at some point. This number becomes even more interesting when you consider that, at least in my experience, most small businesses have no idea and no way of discovering whether or not they have illegitimate software in their organization. So that's 55% of a small subset of organizations with the technical ability to discover such breaches in the first place.
As one would expect, the report oversells the benefits of running legally obtained software--in fact, absent such programs as Genuine Advantage, there is generally strong financial benefit to running pirated software. Prosecution is rare, malfunction is no more prevalent than in the original software, and of course the software cost is far lower. This may be unpalatable and unfashionable to come out and say, but let's be honest--digital media counterfeiting is an economic boon to the consumer. Which is obvious, when you think about it; if it were truly otherwise, as Microsoft would have you believe, they would never have needed to institute Genuine Advantage or its ilk in the first place.
I'm not advocating piracy or begrudging Microsoft's efforts to turn a solid profit from their wares. But Genuine Advantage is really the opposite of an advantage, and it's probably going to have some unintended consequences, significant ones if the numbers are correct.
Mary Jo reports that only 22% of current WGA participants have been found to be running illegitimate software, and that fewer than one percent of those are false positives (that is, the software is legitimate but found illegitimate for unspecified and incorrect technical reasons). So that's a lot fewer than 55%, but when you apply the percentage to the wider customer base, it's a big, big number. And as Dave Berlind points out (and as Ed Bott has in his previously cited article) dealing with these failures from the customer perspective is no small matter. You're looking a huge expenditure of time, effort, and money to deal with these issues. As Ed and Dave say, and as Microsoft no doubt hopes, the easiest resolution is just to pony up the money to immediately purchase a legitimate license key. But that's an expensive and morally unpalatable option for a business that believes they have already purchased such a key.
I've discussed before what the only real solution will be for the small business: rigorously ensuring licensing compliance. In fact, that is one of the key recommendations in the Yankee Group report. But that in itself is quite an expensive proposition--tracking installations, modifications, updates, either requires a lot of paperwork or specialized software (and often both) and I believe that most small businesses simply can't afford it. It's as if the complexities of Sarbanes-Oxley accounting compliance were suddenly pushed down onto businesses of any size. Another Yankee Group recommendation is to understand the licensing contracts, which further illustrates the gap; they suggest businesses run it past corporate counsel, as if everyone simply has a lawyer versed in the complexities of End User License Agreements (EULAs) tucked away in an office down the hall. Large corporations have the expertise and infrastructure in place already to ensure compliance--they'll deploy licensing servers and use their automated management systems to handle it with minimal additional overhead. SMBs don't generally have that infrastructure or staff with the knowledge to deploy it. To do so may well simply cost more than they can afford; in many cases, certainly more than the savings of the efficiencies that the software provides them in the first place.
If that in fact proves to be the case, then Microsoft is actually pushing a fairly significant (and growing) segment of its market toward other solutions. And this may be a boon for those businesses. It will force them to sit down and analyze the actual costs and savings of their IT infrastructure, and to reflect on their processes and weigh them against the alternatives--alternatives which I believe, in many cases, to be more compelling than the current status quo.
More likely, however, is that the impacts will cause such hue and cry that Microsoft will back off or alter their Genuine Advantage program to allow more leniency in certain respects.
You are bound to get into discussions in this field about platform preference--that is, what applications or hardware or operating systems are really the best. If you work in the field long enough and have broad enough experience, I believe that you eventually realize that there is no such thing, that you can accomplish almost any task effectively with almost any platform, and most such judgments are a matter of personal preference. But the debates go on, with sometimes religious fervor, and one of the most popular is Apple versus Microsoft. This has been thrown into high gear again now with the impending wide release of Vista, Microsoft's new operating system which bears a striking resemblance to Apple's existing OS X.
I'm relatively agnostic about this in terms of business use, but I'm typing this up right now on my Mac Powerbook, and it's because I have come over the years to view Windows as a chore rather than a convenience. There are a host of technical reasons, but those have all been enumerated broadly and many are debatable under the terms I have sketched out above--that is, they are not wholly relevant to the ultimate effectiveness of the platform for business tasks. But I'll tell you what my preferences tell me, the things that rarely make the debates and are overlooked by all parties.
I go back and forth between OS X and Linux (Debian/Gnome) and Windows XP all day long, and I'll tell you exactly what it is that is most infuriating about XP--and it's going to sound minor and nit-picky, but it's absolutely illustrative of the differences between the systems and what truly makes OS X superior--and it's something that I haven't found improved in the beta versions of Vista I have tested. It's feedback and focus change.
Feedback: on what is running and what it's doing. If I start an application on Windows, and it happens to be a slow starter, I have no idea what's going on during the process. As a long-time Windows user and IT professional, I have trained myself to simply be patient and wait to see what happens. Or I can check the task list and see what's going on, because I know how. What does a less experienced user do? They double-click the icon again, and eventually they have ten copies of the program running (which, since it was such a dog that it started slow in the first place, REALLY zaps system resources and slows things down further). On OS X, this never happens. I launch a program, and it starts bouncing in the dock (task bar equivalent, for you Windows users), letting me know that it got the message, I want it to start, it's working on it and will be joining me on the desktop in just a moment.
It's not just that Windows gives no feedback (in fact, it gives too much), it's that the feedback that it does give is extraordinarily poor. I start up a new Dell machine out of the box, the thing is popping irrelevant messages at me from the task bar for five minutes before I can sit down and actually get some work done. Do you know you have unused icons on the desktop? I get that two or three times and I have a grand total of two icons on my primary desktop. What makes Windows think I don't know what they are and want them there? Someone mentioned once the big problem with Windows, and Microsoft applications in general, is that they assume they know what's best for you, and sometimes all the repetitive nagging sure makes it seem like a know-it-all older sibling.
The redundant dialog boxes are almost legendary--my favorites are the ones that ask you five times for confirmation, then ultimately refuse to do what it was you were trying. Or keeps prompting you about the same thing it's not going to do repeatedly--just ran across one of those at a client site: open the document and get two pop-ups immediately, one on top saying "The command cannot be performed because a dialog box is open." and the dialog box itself (obscured by that one) complaining about macros with expired signature, and how it's not going to enable them. Click okay on that, and it pops another one up, telling you that it has, in fact, disabled them. Close out, and before it quits, you get another one, confirming again that yes, in fact, those macros that you couldn't use were disabled. Gosh. I would never have known. And every one of those prompts a focus change, breaking my work flow.
Focus is the concept that a single active program is accepting input from the keyboard/mouse at any give time--the top window, usually. Focus change is when one program loses the focus and another gains it. This is part of normal operation in any operating system--how Windows handles it makes it inefficient and annoying. OS X generally uses the same, relatively unobtrusive bouncing icon in the dock as it does for launch feedback, and even that happens less frequently.
Focus change happens automatically and unpredictably in Windows. Any Windows application can demand the focus at any point, or the operating system can grab it back, and that is what leads to the common and tremendous annoyance of typing along in Word or putting a URL into IE when suddenly a dialog box whips up with a question and you lose half your sentence and all of your own focus. And it's often for stupid reasons--I hate losing half a URL I'm typing in because Firefox completed a download in the middle of it and popped a notification up down on the taskbar. Worse, if you don't notice and halt input quickly enough, you may find that you have accidentally responded to the dialog somehow, perhaps without even having had a chance to read it, and initiated some dire process you had never intended. The closest I have seen to this behavior in OS X is when the iCal application puts up an appointment reminder--the dialog box splashes to the top of the desktop, but crucially different is the fact that the focus remains in the application you are working with! Keep typing, and you won't lose a word--deal with the reminder at your leisure.
All of this slows me down tremendously in Windows, as I feel I have to keep half an eye on the operating system to make sure it's not screwing me over, instead of simply allowing me to hammer things out at my own pace (as I'm doing now on OS X). My observation of the average user is that they either learn to do the same thing, or spend a lot of time recovering from mishaps (no doubt the reason they called me in the first place). One of the most common reactions is to treat the computer as a sort of arcane magic, the processes of which must be invoked in precise and careful ways, lest they go terribly awry and spray lightning and disorder about the office. The user memorizes a way to get the PC to a comfortable place--often by turning it on, walking away for a time, coming back and carefully clicking through all the startup popups on the task bar, then starting their handful of applications in some pre-determined order established by previous trial and error, which they can then use comfortably and with little fear of subsequent interruption... so long as they are careful not to stray from the established path!
That's fine as far as it goes, but it both destroys the real power of a personal computer, which is its flexibility, and cripples workers who feel they are owned by the tool rather than the other way around. The lack of comfort level has direct impact on IT support costs; I get all sorts of calls where the answer is simple and simply arrived at through basic experimentation (close and re-open the app, restart the computer) but the user is frightened to try such things because they are scared of the computer. I don't get those calls from OS X users.
I won't pretend that this is definitive or scientific, but it are these observations and experiences that lead me to my preference, and I believe that if more people took a step back and looked at their experience with Windows, they'd find similar coping mechanisms, which are all terribly inefficient. Perhaps the easiest way to highlight it is to work with OS X for a time... many people find the transition very difficult at first, simply because it's foreign and un-intuitive to anyone who has trained themselves around Windows idiosyncrasies, but in my experience people who stick with it a few weeks rarely go back out of preference.
Information Week has a pair of good articles up debating both sides of the comparison: Pro-Mac and Pro-PC. And Walt Mossberg at the Wall Street Journal weighs in with his judgment that Vista is respectable, but not ground-breaking--and points out that the next version of OS X is due out this spring. It might be worth waiting for a look before shelling out for Vista and you can make your own call on which is superior.
Monday, January 22. 2007
In case you were wondering, yes, you have been getting more spam lately. On the systems I monitor, over the course of approximately the last six months, I've been watching the intercepted spam rates climb from just under fifty percent of all messages to approaching ninety percent. And that is just what's getting caught by the filters; in fact, the rate of un-intercepted spam is also increasing as spammers have found ways to circumvent the most common filtering methods and so as well as there being more in the system, you are actually also seeing more of it as well.
Bob Sullivan at MSNBC points out the reason for this and the techniques that are achieving it; the reason, in short, is money, and the technique is a combination of malware-created botnets and brute force.
In addition to the standard Viagra and porn ads, a new category of spam has sprung up--penny stock pitches. And unlike the previous types of spam ads, where you always wondered if anyone actually bothered to respond to the message, with these we can graphically see the response by tracking the stock price on the public market--which generally receives a solid push coinciding with the spam. The leverage of that push is what drives the spammer's profit and so long as it pays, they're going to keep pumping it out.
So we know that it works, but the question then is, why can't we stop it at the mail server? The reason for that is an old, old hole in the system, which is images. Computers are terrible at image recognition--spammers, instead of presenting you with text ads (which the computer could easily parse and throw in the trash bin based on simple keywords like "buy today" or "stock is going to explode!") they create a picture with the same text in it. But the computer can't "recognize" the picture contents, at least not without a lot more horsepower than most of us have today, and so it passes it along for your perusal.
There is an easy solution for this but most people balk at it--blocking messages with pictures in them. Because when you think about it, e-mail isn't really a visual communications format--why are pictures there in the first place?
Well, aside from the latest joke of the day, they are largely there at the behest of marketers and branding consultants. The advent of HTML-based e-mail (HTML being the same language used to create websites, and which offers far more powerful formatting and display features than plain text) suddenly made e-mail a new candidate for the same people who obsess about company letterhead to tinker with. But in the process, it became vulnerable to this type of spam as well as a whole host of other virus-delivery and privacy-eradicating techniques.
Microsoft, the major distributor of e-mail client programs in the world (their Outlook and Outlook Express [now just Windows Mail in Vista]) are, to their credit, trying to do something about this by changing the display render engine in the next versions away from the HTML based Internet Explorer to a better suited Word format, but inevitably people are up in arms about it. But although this may help address persistent e-mail security issues, I doubt it will make a dent in the spam problem. I think the only way to do that, in the near term, is for people to stop accepting messages with images in them. And I imagine, within the next six months, people will increasingly become desperate enough to do just that. And possibly to block HTML based e-mail in the bargain--heck, it already is worthless on the increasingly popular handheld mail devices such as the Blackberry, and it's only ever been there to try to sell you something--which is all that spam is in the first place.
With sites like flickr now freely available and easy to use, there's no real requirement--or even any particular convenience--to use e-mail to forward pictures along anymore, and all the marketing types who live or die by the corporate logo embedded in the base of the standard company e-mail form can go back to tinkering with the letterhead again.
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