Networking Notes: Unsafe at Any Price

By Michael Hall | Posted April 06, 2007

"When beta testing involves a free download, it's not such a bad thing."
— Michael Hall, "802.11nuh-Uh"

If we want to call that "Hall's Law of When Betas Aren't Such a Bad Thing," we probably ought to come up with a corollary law just for Microsoft of late:

"When beta testing involves buying software that's supposed to keep you from losing data or time from malware, it seems like it might be kind of a bad thing when that software doesn't work very well at all and even erases data you'd like to keep, like, say, your e-mail."

Let's back up a few steps so I can take a moment to say that this year has been exceptionally hard on me.

On the one hand, we've got one of my least favorite industries of all: The anti-virus/security software industry (aka "the fear industry"). In terms of bandwidth lost, these companies are probably a close second to the spam and worm traffic they're frequently pumping out press releases and "top 10 malware lists" about so they can warn us malware is eating all our bandwidth.

On the other hand, we've got one of the most frustrating companies of all, Microsoft, entering a product in the security software field, which has caused some security software vendors to squawk, cluck and mutter about pesky predatory monopolies. Mac developers have been known to liken themselves to sharecroppers, waiting for Apple to like something they do well enough to take their market away in the blink of a Jobs keynote. Companies laboring in Microsoft's shadow are no different, except they've got a few decades worth of documentation of Microsoft's habit of not only kicking sharecroppers off its land, but finding them at their next farm, burning their barn and salting the earth.

Still, this is the anti-virus industry doing the complaining: the same people who routinely write software designed to scare us out of our wits even when nothing's wrong: the same people who market stuff to your boss on the grounds that you're probably a lazy good-for-nothing who will cost the U.S. economy untold millions for watching a March Madness highlight reel on YouTube.

We could say they're like the boy who cried wolf, but they're more like the wolf who cried wolf.

So my initial response was, even to my own surprise, remarkably pro-Microsoft. Redmond getting into the business of securing and protecting its own software from a malware culture it enabled for decades is long overdue. I even remembering hearing about OneCare coming along and thinking "Hey, if anyone could write a decent anti-virus package for Windows, it'd have to be Microsoft, right? Who knows Windows better?" And for the security companies who'd be getting their business model trashed? Cry me a river.

That was stupid, and I have been getting reminders of my stupidity every few weeks for months now. It wasn't stupid because I was wrong about anti-virus peddlers. It was stupid because a.) I believed Microsoft can write a decent anything on its first go, and b.) I believed Microsoft knows Windows well enough to protect its users.

We're all familiar with Microsoft's habit of entering a market with weak software and slowly but surely improving until people will use it even if it doesn't come with their computer. Internet Explorer? Check. Windows itself? I remember the first few years of Windows and that's a big, fat CHECK, and you could even argue that Windows ME was a half-baked plot to guarantee we'd fall into XP's arms sobbing. Bob? Oh, right. Bob even managed to offend Microsoft itself.

Anti-virus software, however, is something where you should prefer to start from a relatively sound foundation. Maybe you don't care if a new entry is the best if it solves other problems, but you want to know it can stop more malware than, say, the bottom third of the market. OneCare finished dead last in a recent comparison, to which the product's manager says "You will see our results gradually and steadily increase until they are on par with the other majors in this arena. And soon after, they will need to catch up to us!"

The big question that assertion leaves unanswered is "Who in the world wants to pay good money for something that doesn't do its job as well as other products in the same market, when the price of failure is losing data, having your identity stolen or having your computer turned into a zombie on a botnet?"

Granted, the security software industry can be annoying, and it builds products that eat system resources like I can snarf up a bag of Raisinettes, but it's larger and more reputable players have been around for a while, building things we generally trust will work, and not writing software that, say, hides or even deletes all your e-mail. Oh, did I mention that? That was the second thing I had to note about OneCare:

Microsoft took two weeks to fix a bug in which the software would quarantine or even delete your Outlook mail stores if it detected an infected message. Microsoft developers insist the users are hallucinating the part about deletions.

In the meantime, forum moderators issued the sort of bland "help" we've all come to expect from large companies. When, that is, they weren't encouraging people who lost mail to cheer up already:

"I know it won't make you feel any better, but you're all really helping to make OneCare a better program for everyone, including yourself."

If Chevy's Corvair team had issued a press release saying just that in 1965, "Unsafe at Any Speed" probably wouldn't have sold near as many copies and Ralph Nader wouldn't be around today to run spoiler presidential campaigns. It didn't, though, because when most companies make products that don't do what they promise, or even make you less safe than when you weren't using them, they don't tell people "Just keep buying it, because we can only get better and your loss is everyone else's gain."

The other bright side Microsoft's been encouraging us to examine is its upcoming beta release of OneCare 2.0, which will surely fix many "issues" (developer-speak for "mistakes," "bugs," "malfunctions" or "exposed electrical wires dangling over a wading pool") even as it presents an implicit demand for help to find yet more problems to deal with.

Know what? I think we're all better off taking a pass on that one, even if it just involves a free download.

Adapted from PracticallyNetworked.com, part of the EarthWeb.com Network.

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