Globe and Mail article on viruses and system software updates

Posted by Pierre Igot in: Technology
August 22nd, 2003 • 4:02 pm

Sandy McMurray has a good article on computer viruses in the August 20 issue of Canada’s Globe and Mail — and should be lauded for mentioning Macintosh computers.

McMurray makes the very valid point that part of the problem is that, for various reasons, people don’t apply the system software updates that their computer recommends for them. This means that they also fail to apply critical security updates, and therefore leave their computers vulnerable to virus attacks. In that respect, Mac users are not really in a position to criticize their Windows counterparts, because Mac OS X’s software UPDATE feature is just as insufficient as the one in Windows. They are just extremely lucky that the people who design viruses are generally not interested in developing Mac viruses, because the impact of the installed base of computers worldwide would be minimal.

The problem is, of course, that this is only part of the equation. It is still unacceptable that Windows and other Microsoft applications have some many holes that need to be plugged. You cannot blame the user for this. You also cannot blame the user for the fact that Microsoft has designed its software in a way that makes it so vulnerable to virus attacks. Only Microsoft engineers could have come up with the idea that HAVING a feature that automatically executes an email attachment when the user opens the corresponding email message to read it would be a cool thing. It’s just too stupid for words.

While Mac OS X does have some kind of potentially dangerous system-wide scriptability (with AppleScript), the fact of the matter is that, unless the user specifically customizes his email environment to do things such as automatically opening an email attachment when receiving or viewing a message, it won’t happen. In its default configuration, Mac OS X is a much safer environment than Windows is. Since so many computer users always leave their system in a configuration that is pretty close to the default, this explains a lot. Think of all the automatic things that Microsoft Word does for you after you first install and launch the software. They all need to be disabled manually by the user — unless he actually likes them. This is simply the wrong approach. And Microsoft engineers are to blame for it.

Another point that McMurray fails to note is that one of the main reasons why people refuse to install new system updates right away is that they are afraid that the updates will break their system. Too many people have been burnt by system software updates that introduce more new problems than they actually fix. Apple’s system software updates are not exception. Personally, I never install a new Mac OS X system UPDATE on the day it is released. I wait for a least a few days, until enough less cautious people have installed the UPDATE and reported on potential problems. But this assumes that I keep informed on all these things, which I do because, well, I am a bit of a nerd, and I also provide technical support services for a living, so I have to keep up-to-date.

As well, system updates are often large files that take a long time to download if all you have is a dial-up connection. People might not have the time to download the file right away, and then they’ll forget to do it at a later time.

Because of all these considerations, you simply cannot expect every user to automatically install every new system UPDATE as soon as it is released. Forcing them to install them is not really a solution either. Imagine a user who is forced to install a system UPDATE and then realizes that this system UPDATE breaks some essential part of his computer environment. I know I would be furious.

Apple has been doing a fairly good job lately of releasing security-related system updates separately as fairly small file downloads. But even these small, highly specific updates sometimes manage to cause new problems once they are installed. If users are actually forced to experience such situations instead of HAVING the freedom of installing the UPDATE when they see fit, they will turn against the company who provided them with the mandatory update. Will software companies be willing to take the risk of alienating users?

Comments are closed.

Leave a Reply

Comments are closed.