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View Full Version : Some people are starting to get it. From the WSJ



Larry P.
12-09-2004, 07:48 PM
December 9, 2004

Security Issues Plague Windows-Based PCs, Impairing Ease of Use

By WALTER S. MOSSBERG

Thirteen years ago, this column was launched with the opening sentence: "Personal computers are just too hard to use, and it's not your fault." Since then, I have periodically stepped back to look at the progress of the technology industry in making computers easier to use.

Obviously, we've come a long way since 1991. Personal computers, software and peripherals are much more stable and far simpler to operate. New products, like digital cameras, PDAs and music players, have come along as welcome additions, often integrating with computers.

But for the vast part of the public whose computers aren't bought and deployed by corporate computer departments, things have gotten much worse lately. For these consumers and small businesses, the burden of using personal computers has grown dramatically heavier in the past couple of years because of the plague of viruses, spyware and other security problems that now afflict the dominant Windows platform.

To cope with this assault from an international criminal class of virus and spyware writers, hackers and sleazy businesses, average users have had to buy and monitor an arsenal of add-on programs. They have been forced to learn far too much about the workings of their PCs. And too many users have had to take drastic steps, like wiping out their hard disks and starting all over.

So instead of being able to view their computers as tools for productivity, research, communication and entertainment, consumers have been forced to devote rising amounts of time and money just to keeping the machines safe. The PC has, in many cases, gone from being a solution to being, at least in part, a problem.

A big reason for this slide backward is the failure of Microsoft to cope adequately with the security crisis. The software giant, which has reaped tens of billions of dollars from its Windows monopoly, first designed the operating system with too little attention to security. Then, it failed to move quickly enough or comprehensively enough to respond to the security problem. As a result, most of the gains in ease of use that the company delivered to users in 2001 with the sleek, stable Windows XP operating system have been reversed.

This year's big move by Microsoft was to release a massive security fix for Windows XP. This patch, called SP2, closed some of the holes in Windows that had been exploited by the criminals. But SP2 didn't include the capability to specifically detect, block or remove viruses, spyware and spam. Its firewall, aimed at barring intruders, is inferior to others on the market. And its built-in "Security Center" does almost nothing to enhance security.

So consumers and small businesses are still on their own, forced to buy programs from security vendors that still insist on designing separate remedies for each type of threat instead of an overall solution that will simply keep outsiders from invading PCs.

To be fair, Microsoft has made some contributions to ease of use in the past couple of years. Its Media Center interface, which allows a computer to be controlled with a remote from across a room, is beautiful and functional. Its new MSN search service can do things Google can't. And its OneNote program for organizing research is terrific.

But the company's dominant Internet Explorer Web browser has fallen way behind smaller rivals in features and functionality. Its free Outlook Express e-mail program hasn't had a major upgrade in years. And it won't have an all-new version of Windows until 2006.

Meanwhile, the company's historic rival, Apple Computer, has been making giant strides in ease of use. The Macintosh, with its OS X operating system, is rock solid. It is elegant, and -- when you do a feature-by-feature price comparison with Windows competitors -- it's surprisingly affordable.

The Mac is also packed with extras that Windows lacks. It has a suite of easy, free, multimedia programs that can't be matched on Windows at any price. It has a better free browser and e-mail program than Windows. It can read and create PDF files without requiring the purchase of any extra software.

Apple upgrades its operating system far more often than Microsoft does. The company's new iMac G5 model is the single best desktop computer I have ever reviewed. And Apple is the only computer company whose business is focused on consumers and small businesses.

Best of all, the current Mac operating system has never been attacked by a successful virus, and almost no spyware can run on it. This is largely because the Mac's small market share presents an unattractive target for digital criminals. But it's partly because the Mac operating system is harder to penetrate. I'm sure there will eventually be viruses that afflict Mac users, but nowhere near the 5,000 new Windows viruses that appeared in just the first six months of this year.

In terms of ease of use, Apple has opened a greater lead over Microsoft than at any time since the late 1980s, when the Mac was pioneering the graphical user interface and Microsoft users were stuck with crude, early versions of Windows.

Microsoft and the PC hardware companies that use Windows need to do much, much more to solve the security crisis and rescue the gains in ease of use they made in the 1990s.

Write to Walter S. Mossberg at mossberg@wsj.com

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[ 12-09-2004, 08:49 PM: Message edited by: Larry P. ]