Mailbag: May 2, 2010

This week in the mailbag:

Form Over Function
Windows 7 De-Activation?
Office 2010 32-Bit vs. 64-Bit
Thinking Outside the Box with the Problem Steps Recorder
Is Windows Safer Than Linux or Mac OS X?

Have a question? I can't guarantee an answer, but I'll try. Drop me a note! (And let me know if you'd prefer not to have your name published.)

Form Over Function

In a blog post criticizing Microsoft for standing still on PR and letting Apple and Google dominate the tech news, I mentioned the following:

And if you're looking to copy Apple's success--and you are--then at least do it right. It's not about the products at all. What Apple does right is marketing. It's form over function, plain and simple. How else could the world be so excited over an unnecessary over-sized iPod touch? Because it's from Apple, that's how. And the press markets it for them, and makes people believe that this is somehow a big deal. It's a self-replicating back-patting, buddy system, plain and simple.

Naturally, since this seems like a criticism of Apple, people responded negatively. But as I explained in the comments section:

The iPad is not "amazing." It's just marketed very well, both by Apple and its culpable partners in mainstream media. The iPad is "decent" or "good." This is what I mean by "form over function." It's not that they aren't good products, its that style/marketing/fluff always comes first.

End of story, right? Not exactly. Seeing this slight against Apple, Bryan S. wrote the following via email:

If the sentence below (from your recent blog post) is seriously the advice you would give to Microsoft regarding how to match Apple's success, you must really hate the Redmond:

"It's not about the products at all. What Apple does right is marketing. It's form over function, plain and simple."

That's just catastrophically wrong. You might as well claim vaccines cause autism while you're at it. The iPhone and iPod didn't turn industries upside down because Apple ran commercials; they succeeded because they were far, far better than competing products. If you believe these things were just marketing hype and excessive "fanboy-ism", you're naive.

And Apple would love nothing more than for Microsoft to take advice from naive pundits.

I can't stand the lack of thinking here. This is typical of the "discussion" on Mac advocacy sites and is the attitude of the Apple-focused people who used to camp out in my blog comments section before I started moderating it. Thus, my reaction is a bit harsh. But these bullies need to understand that others can think for themselves. And that we are not all card-carrying lemmings in the Apple army, sorry.

My response:

You misunderstand. Apple is very much about form over function. But this doesn't equate to "form, not function." It's form first, then function. That is indeed Apple's MO, and all you have to do is watch any Apple keynote video to see the product unveilings, the endless slides of different product views, and the coy "we made an advertisement, would you like to see it?" bits to understand exactly where it is that the company is coming from. Apple is all about marketing and image.

That said, their products are generally excellent, and well-made. I've never claimed otherwise.

Naive? I disagree, but there's also a word for people who routinely don't understand the world around them and yet feel the need to broadcast it: "ignorant." And while it seems like an ugly word, it's actually just an apt description of those who can't see beyond what huge corporations want them to see and then feel the need to parrot it to others. In this blog post you're citing, I'm criticizing Microsoft, not Apple. Think about it.

My point is, it's OK to be excited about technology, and it's OK to criticize products and companies too. But people who feel the need to constantly berate others who disagree with their insular world views are not good people, sorry. One of the routine criticisms I get from the Apple camp is, well, it is the SuperSite for WINDOWS after all. I mean, how could this clown possibly be non-biased?

Hm. As I see it, my audience is the 96 percent of the world's population (and 93 percent of the US population, according to NPD) that uses Windows, or as we might think of this statistically, "everyone." I don't serve Microsoft, or any other huge corporation. I write for people. Many of them are tech enthusiasts, yes, and smart people have strong opinions. But one of those adult moments you can have is to simply agree to disagree.

I write about Apple because it matters. And in some cases--the iPod and iPhone--their products aren't just great, they're also very popular. Thus they hit that same mass-media audience I'm referencing above. That the vast majority of iPod and iPhone users do so with Windows, not the Mac, is a fact that is also lost on these Apple guys. And while it's amusing to see all the www.mac[whatever].com sites cover iPod and iPhone stuff, when you think about it, it makes more sense for the Windows guys to cover these products. After all, that's our audience, not theirs, and unlike the Mac guys, I and others like me are more familiar with Windows and can thus help actual people trying to figure out why Apple engineers these products in such a way that they actually work better with a minority computer system they don't own.

Sorry, that's just the way it is.

Windows 7 De-Activation?

Derek N. touches on a fairly common question:

Is there any way of moving Windows activation data from one PC to another? If you?ve ever purchased and activated Adobe Acrobat (not the Reader) you?ll see if you went to uninstall it, it would offer to remove the activation data from the PC that you?re on in order to port it to another one at a later date. This strikes me as a useful feature.

There's no way to explicitly "de-activate" a Windows 7 install, but Microsoft does support this. If you purchased a retail version of Windows 7 only, you can reinstall it on a second PC. Try to activate normally, and if/when it fails, you will need to do a manual activation (phone-based). Explain to the person that you are moving the license to a new PC and are (or already have) wiped out the first one. They will provide you with an activation code and that product key will move to the new PC, allowing for future electronic activations.

I agree that they should do this like Adobe does, though the sheer volume of Windows installs probably plays a role in why they do not.


Office 2010 32-Bit vs. 64-Bit

Yoram S. was downloading Office 2010 from TechNet Plus and noticed the following note:

Microsoft strongly recommends the use of 32-bit (x86) versions of Office 2010, Project 2010, and Visio 2010 applications as the default option for all platforms.

His question, then, is simple:

Why would Microsoft recommend 32-bit applications for a 64-bit platforms?

Unless you have fairly dramatic spreadsheet needs, there is almost no reason to choose a 64-bit version of Office 2010. In fact, if you use Outlook, I don't recommend it at all: The 64-bit version of Outlook is not compatible with any existing Outlook add-ons. This could be an issue for other apps in the 64-bit version of the suite as well, though I'm not clear on what that market is like.

I'll be writing a bit about this in Part 2 of my Office 2010 review, which should be available by the time you read this.

Thinking Outside the Box with the Problem Steps Recorder

A few weeks ago, I mentioned the Problem Steps Recorder as my Windows 7 Feature of the Week on the Windows Weekly podcast. (And you can read my complete write-up about this feature here.) Robert W. writes in with a tip about using this interesting new feature in a decidedly different way:

Just a thought, when listening to your podcast # 151 you talked about Problem Steps Recorder. I thought of another use for it. Say you have someone that you help out with their computer stuff, say a parent. And they are constantly asking how to do a task on the computer. You could record the process and send it to them so that the next time they want to do that task they just have to look at the recording. Just a thought.

That's fantastic, and a great idea. Thanks!

Is Windows Safer Than Linux or Mac OS X?

There's this recurring theme about Windows security and how it relates to security on competing platforms like Linux and Mac OS X, and it came up again in the past week in two different ways. First, eEye Digital Security co-founder Marc Maiffret was interviewed and discussed (correctly) how Microsoft does a much better job with security than does, say, Apple or Adobe. And then a ZD blogger, Jason Perlow, announced his "inevitable" switch to Linux ... because of Windows malware. These are both interesting issues, in and of themselves. But neither addresses the central question: Is Windows more or less secure than its competitors?

First, let's look at Marc Maiffret's comments.

When you look at Microsoft today they do more to secure their software than anyone. They're the model for how to do it. They're not perfect; there's room for improvement. But they are definitely doing more than anybody else in the industry, I would say.

From an internal process in how they go about auditing their code and securing software from a technical perspective, they have one of the best models. The area they still have room for improvement is around time lines of how long it takes for them to fix things. We see time and time again when somebody responsibly reports a security problem to Microsoft it takes many, many months, if not upwards of a year, to get these things resolved. Should there be some new zero day critical emergency, we see they are able to get something out within a couple of weeks. You look at companies like Adobe and they are where Microsoft was 10 years ago.

Adobe, and even Apple, is a good example. They are starting to get black eyes with people saying Adobe is a bigger worry than Microsoft is at the moment, which I agree with. As those things are happening, Adobe and Apple and other companies are starting to pay attention and care more. But a year ago, it was still very much a marketing thing. People from both companies treated it as a marketing problem. They didn't have good technical structures behind the scenes. Now they are staffing up and hiring industry notables like Window Snyder [ex-Microsoft security employee recently hired by Apple]. They've really only begun in the last six months or so taking security seriously and understanding that it impacts their business in a serious way.

It's even a little scarier with Apple because they try to market themselves as more secure than the PC, that you don't have to worry about viruses, etc. Anytime there's been a hacking contest, within a few hours someone's found a new Apple vulnerability. If they were taking it seriously, they wouldn't claim to be more secure than Microsoft because they are very much not. And the Apple community is pretty ignorant to the risks that are out there as it relates to Apple. The reason we don't see more attacks out there compared to Microsoft is because their market share isn't near what Microsoft's is.

To be clear, the guy knows what he's talking about, and he's right: No other company--not Adobe, and certainly not Apple--has an infrastructure like Microsoft's Trustworthy Computing Initiative in place. But that doesn't mean Windows (a Microsoft product) is somehow more secure than the competition. It just means that Microsoft responds to security threats in a better fashion that does the competition. And they do.

For exhibit two, we present poor Jason Perlow. In a blog post this week, he writes:

It was simply a matter of time before Linux became my primary operating system. My most recent malware incident was the final straw that sent me into the safe haven of Ubuntu.

My FaceBook account was somehow compromised, causing untold amounts of my friends to receive a spammed invite to some sort of diet seminar scam event and then having to endure the embarrassment that accompanied it.

Then I proceeded to sweep malware from my various Windows systems in my house ? my primary Windows 7 testing workstation, my wife?s Windows 7 office PC, my Windows XP virtual machines, and our shared recreational Windows 7 laptop.

Using Windows and Microsoft software is something I cannot get away from. I still need to use Office and any number of Windows programs in my personal and professional life. However, I?m no longer willing to babysit all my my systems due to the constant threat of malware.

For those Windows things I still absolutely need that Linux doesn?t do, I use VirtualBox and Windows XP running in a virtual machine.

Now there's a solution for the mainstream public, eh?

When you read this post, and his endless descriptions of his computing setup, his hardware and software environments, and so on, the disease this guy has is clearly revealed: He's an overly technical guy with way too much time on his hands who overthinks everything. On the good news front, he doesn't write for a mainstream publication, he writes a tech blog. So the impact here will be minimal. But his way of doing things is wrong, and it's certainly not something for others to duplicate. This is not good advice, not for the mainstream public, and not for anyone else for that matter.

But it does beg the question: Aside from Mr. Perlow's crazy overreaction, does this episode say anything at all about the security of Windows?

No, I don't think it does.

Every single one of my PCs, including those used by my wife and kids--none of whom are in any way technically sophisticated--is configured as it comes out of the box. All we've done is taken the very basic steps of using Microsoft Security Essentials and allowing Windows to install critical security patches as they come out. None of my PCs are ever compromised, and I regularly check my kids' PCs in particular to make sure that's always the case.

So does my own experience say anything at all about the security of Windows?

No, I don't think it does. It just suggests that I don't over-think things and my PCs just work. Cause and effect? Maybe. Maybe not.

So. You may or may not be wondering what I think about all this. Is Windows more or less secure than the competition?

I believe that Windows is technically less secure than the UNIX-based competition (Linux, Mac OS X). But I also believe that this is a subtle distinction at best and that human behavior plays a much bigger role in real-world security than do the technical differences between these systems. I believe that systems like Linux and Mac OS X are hacked less because they are used less, and that this plays a major role in how a user should approach security on the systems in question. That is, on Mac OS X, I'd never bother even installing anti-virus. But on Windows, you should. My experience suggests doing so--and having some common sense--is enough.

End of story.

More next week...