OK, I admit it: I haven’t been regularly updating this blog like I intended. Mea culpa.
If you know me at all, you might be surprised at the idea of my having difficulty keeping up a monologue. Ordinarily, I’d agree. I can explain though: not many weeks after I started writing stuff here, I landed a staff position at PC Pro magazine. It’s been a fantastic role for me personally, and I fully intend to remain in it for a long time to come. However, along the way it’s become glaringly apparent that when I spend my days writing about “Computing in the Real World”, I don’t have much time or material to dedicate to a personal blog on the same topic.

But never fear. If you like what you’ve read so far, all I can say is, keep an eye on the PC Pro website in the coming months. There are lots of decisions and arrangements yet to be made, but some exciting wheels are being set in motion. (Well, I’m excited anyway.)


Multiplying viruses

February 27, 2007

I saw another Mitchell & Webb Apple advert at Tottenham Court Road tube station the other morning. This one had Mitchell (in his persona as a PC) proclaiming that “last year there were 114,000 viruses for the PC.”

This seemed a rather wild claim, so I thought I’d look into it. To Apple’s credit, their website does give the source of this figure — but that’s about all the credit they get, as it turns out the source isn’t some independent research body but a computer security company (Sophos) with an obvious interest in playing up the threat. The figure of 114,000 is given as the number of threats against which their software could protect you as at the end of 2005, so I strongly suspect it includes every variant of every virus ever spotted in the wild or in the lab, a very small proportion of which are a threat today. It also, by Sophos’ own airy account, includes “other malware.”

But the way Apple puts it, you’d think that, during 2006, Windows users were subjected to 114,000 separate sorts of attack. Does anyone remember that actually happening? Of course not. Apple’s basic point – that Mac OS X is less vulnerable to viruses and the like than Windows – is a very good one. But it’s a point that could be made in an honest, open way, and instead Apple chooses to weasel around with misleading technicalities and hyperbole. It doesn’t encourage me to buy in.

Wow is… what?

February 26, 2007

Waterloo tube station is festooned today with billboards advertising Windows Vista. It seems that Vista is a great new accessory for your Wow. I have no idea what a Wow is, but so far as I can make out from the adverts, it’s something that Vista can improve, or safeguard, or maybe help you to locate.

And I can buy Vista today? Where’s my wallet?!

As you know, I think Apple’s current marketing campaign makes some pretty shabby claims, but I do at least respect the way it makes a straightforward point. Being addressed as an adult appeals to me a lot more than Microsoft’s shiny fantasies. The Vista campaign suggests to me that either MS don’t credit consumers with enough intelligence to choose an operating system on its actual merits; or they know that if they were to give consumers the information they’d need to make that choice, not many of them would choose to pay for Vista.

And the sad thing is, they’re probably right on both counts.

The disingenuous “genuine”

February 21, 2007

Following on from Friday’s musings over Microsoft’s use of “Unspeak”, here’s the next instalment:

This one actually makes some sense. Not a lot of sense, but since Microsoft have (as we saw earlier) settled on referring to unlicensed software as “counterfeit”, it’s logical that they’d refer to licensed software, bought through their approved channels, as “genuine.”

But genuineness (as it applies to goods) isn’t something that can be bestowed upon or removed from a product by mere licensing: it’s a function of something’s provenance. If I’m running Windows Vista as written and released by Microsoft, it’s the genuine article regardless of whether I paid for it. Conversely, if I write my own window manager and sell it to you as Windows Vista, it will never be the genuine article, even if you go to Microsoft and buy a Vista licence.

As with “counterfeit”, the intention is transparently to falsely imply a substantial difference between licensed and unlicensed software, whereas in reality the distinction is strictly legal. Microsoft further tries to blur the issue with its “Windows Genuine Advantage” scheme — which I’ll talk about next time.

Hello, I’m a straw man

February 20, 2007

I happened across the latest Mitchell & Webb print advert for Apple yesterday. I don’t know how this campaign is playing among the general public, but to me it seems simply dishonest. “I was made for the office,” proclaims David Mitchell, in his persona as a PC: “To do the serious stuff you have to do, like spreadsheets and timesheets and pie charts. . . . I think computers are meant for work, and fun is just a waste of time.” I’m sorry? Sure, the PC was originally made for work back in 1981; but buy a PC today and it will come with multi-channel audio, 3D graphics acceleration and a raft of home productivity applications. It will also support an enormous catalogue of games, very few of which are available for the Mac.

I could be persuaded that I wanted a Mac, if Apple would take an honest look at the issue from my perspective and demonstrate how the benefits of migrating would outweigh the costs. Right now, however, they seem to be telling me that I should buy a Mac because it’s not possible to have fun on a PC. This isn’t persuasive in itself, since I know it’s not true — and that in turn gives me a certain idea of how Apple relates to its customers. No thanks.

I’ve been reading a book entitled Unspeak, by Steven Poole. “Unspeak” is Poole’s term for the use of language which attempts to prejudge or frame an issue in a particular way, particularly “by stealth”, i.e. without the reader / audient realising they’re being manipulated. There’s a website about the phenomenon which I find interesting.

Anyway, it occurred to me that one of the most flagrant [ab]users of “unspeak” is Microsoft. Over the next few weeks, I’ll post some examples of what I mean. Here’s the first one:

Microsoft doesn’t like to talk about “piracy.” They refer to “counterfeit” software instead, as in this extract from the WGA blog:

A colleague and friend of mine was travelling in Brazil recently and during her trip she took a few minutes to see what software was easily available on the streets of Sao Paulo. While Windows Vista was among the counterfeits available it was cheaper (about $5 vs $10 for other software titles) because the vendor said it ‘might expire’. While learning that a counterfeit copy of your product is suddenly cheaper than before might not obviously be a good thing in this case I think it is. The fact that the value of a counterfeit copy is dropping is a sign that the product is harder to counterfeit

(Try to ignore the illogic of the closing statement – it’s obvious what he means.)

Presumably Microsoft’s PR people have concluded that “counterfeit” software sounds less appealing than “pirated” software. And they’re right: a “pirated” copy of Windows is just a copy of Windows that you haven’t paid for – whereas a “counterfeit” copy of Windows isn’t really Windows at all!

(If you doubt this, consider the difference between a stolen Rolex and a counterfeit Rolex. Obviously the analogy isn’t perfect, but it points up that “not paid for” and “counterfeit” are fundamentally very different things.)

It’s a lie, of course. That $5 copy of Windows Vista is obviously a bit-for-bit copy of the Windows Vista install DVD (if it weren’t, why the worry about it expiring?). Stick it in your computer and hit “install” and the result will be exactly the same as if you’d used a £400 shop-bought copy. There’s nothing “counterfeit” about this software: the packaging may be counterfeit, but the software is the real deal. Unlicensed, but real. Nevertheless, Microsoft insists on referring to “counterfeit” software, not as a neutral choice of language but with the deliberate intention of manipulating perceptions of piracy by stealth. That would be unspeak.

Who’s in charge here?

December 18, 2006

Hats off to Microsoft, who this weekend achieved the impressive feat of persuading me to ditch Vista before it’s even been released.

Admittedly, I was using an unlicensed copy. I was interested to see what Microsoft’s new flagship OS is going to do to people’s expectations of a user interface (I think the short answer is “lower them”), so when I heard that the final version had leaked onto the net, I thought I’d treat myself to a preview. I used a temporary activation crack because, although the software went RTM in November, individuals like me can’t actually obtain a legitimate product key until January.

A few weeks later, a “Windows Validation Update” appeared on Windows Update. Did I want to download it? Of course I didn’t – so I unticked the box, closed Windows Update, and thought no more of it. The next time I logged onto my computer, however, I was greeted by a large, obtrusive requester. “This copy of Windows is not genuine,” it insisted. Various OS functions had been disabled, and to get them back I would need to “reactivate” with a valid product key. The update had been installed.

Now, I can’t deny that I was fairly busted with an unlicensed copy of Vista; but the manner in which it happened rings alarm bells. It’s been commented elsewhere that Vista is compromised by design (the “trusted installer” process can be controlled by software, but the user can’t ever elevate himself to the same privilege level), but I didn’t expect Microsoft to be so ready to remotely patch my system. Their ability to do this without the user’s permission has alarming implications for security, privacy and systems integrity.

Unsurprisingly, Vista’s gone from my PC now. Did they really think I’d rush out and buy it just so they’d stop hacking into my machine? It sounds more like a protection racket than a bona fide licensing scheme.