Monday, July 25, 2005

How bad can operating systems get?

This weekend we bought Leigh a new laptop. It's your basic inexpensive laptop from HP.

From a hardware perspective, it is pretty amazing what you can get in a laptop for $650 these days: a fast processor, lots of RAM, a big hard disk, high-speed wireless networking, a nice screen, a DVD-RW drive, etc.

Plus it comes with a hardware warrantee, including 14-days "if anything goes wrong" protection and a 1-year parts and labor warrantee. The basic message is, "if we have sold you hardware that does not function properly, it is our fault, and we will fix the problem for you."

The same is not true of the operating system, and you see that when you open HP's "Getting Started" guide. What starts on page 3 is the "Protect your notebook" section. It really is quite sad.

Part one of the "Protect your notebook" section talks about viruses. It opens with this encouraging sentence: "When you use your notebook for e-mail, network or Internet access, you expose the notebook to computer viruses. Computer viruses can disable your operating system, applications or utilities, or cause them to function abnormally." The reason for this vulnerability is a poorly designed operating system. And, unlike the hardware, if something goes wrong it is YOUR problem, not the manufacturer's. To protect the operating system, you must purchase and install another piece of virus checking software, and then keep updating it every day. Even if you spend all of that time and money, things can still go wrong. If so, too bad for you. Neither Microsoft or the virus software company will take any responsibility or do anything to help you.

Part two of the "Protect your notebook" section talks about protecting your system files. These files are essential to the operating system, but the operating system does not protect them at all. Therefore you have to keep track of them yourself. If you ever screw up, your operating system and all of its data can be irretrievably destroyed. The manual advises, "It is recommended that you manually set a restore point before you add or extensively modify hardware or software. Also, you should create restore points periodically, whenever the system is performing optimally." Optimal performance, apparently, is a rare event.

Next up in the "Protect your notebook" section, it talks about protecting your privacy. The manual says, "When you use your notebook for e-mail, network or Internet access, it is possible for unauthorized persons to obtain information about your notebook and your data." Imagine if your bank said, "When you use this bank for normal banking stuff, it is possible for unauthorized persons to obtain information about your account and your data." The bank would be sued into oblivion. Not so with the operating system – it is so poorly designed that it is an open book. And that is YOUR problem. You have to "keep your operating system updated" and you must "use a firewall" to try to guard against these problems with the operating system.

Next up in the "Protect your notebook" section is a discussion about turning your notebook off properly. The operating system is so poorly designed that even the simple act of turning off your notebook (or, heaven forbid, the power goes off or the battery dies) can destroy the operating system. You are supposed to use a "standard Windows Shutdown Procedure." One would imagine, in a normal world, that the operating system would be able to handle something as common as "turning off the machine" or "experiencing a power failure" with complete indifference. But no, you can actually harm the machine by turning it off unexpectedly.

So let's say that you are willing to use the Windows Shutdown Procedure. Even this is so unreliable that the manual feels the need to address its unreliability. It says, "If your notebook does not respond (to the Windows Shutdown Procedure), try the following shutdown procedures." Then if THAT doesn't work, you are supposed to give up, cross your fingers and "press and hold the power/standby button for 5 seconds."

Note that the manual does not talk about backing up your data or spyware – two other aberrations that will waste a tremendous amount of your time as well because the operating system is so unreliable.

Then, if that is not enough, nearly the entire back half of the manual is devoted to an appendix called "System Recovery". It has sections like, "Repairing and reinstalling applications", "Repairing the operating system", "Reinstalling the operating system", Reinstalling device drivers and other software" and "Updating reinstalled software". In other words, even if you try to do everything asked of you in the "Protecting your notebook" section, shit will still happen and you will probably need to erase your hard drive and start over. In the process you will lose all of your applications, settings and data.

It is unbelievable that, in the 21st century, our operating systems are this fragile, and that it is so easy to completely destroy the operating system through no fault of your own. Just using your computer in normal ways opens you to a dozen serious vulnerabilities.

See also:

The windows mantra: "Reboot. Reformat. Reinstall."

That will fix almost anything...(w/the OS anyway)
I don't agree with this view. I think OS's are complex by necessity - show me a simple OS on a complex computer! The reason Mac is largely free from these problems is that, due to their miniscule market share (5%), they aren't targeted by creators of viruses and spyware.

XP is A LOT more stable and functional than previous MS OS's. Yes you still have to occasionally reboot. I have never had to reinstall any of the 10+ XP machines in my office during the past 2+ years.
Part of this problem comes because people always choose the most common operating system.

YOU should look into the Mac OS X. It is by far a superior operating system over Windows XP.
Buy a Mac.

Over the last 3 years, I've replaced the PCs in my household with Macs, and it truly has brought the joy of computing back into my life.

With Windows, I used to spend a lot of time degunking, problem solving, etc.…, not so much on my box, but my wife's. Since going with Mac OS X, there is no fretting over viruses, spyware, adware, malware, etc.… Not that Macs are free of problems, no machine + software can ever be, but I estimate I save on average of at least 10-15 hours per month.

The claim that Mac is free from problems because of the small market share is not valid — OS X is a more solid networking OS because it is, under the hood, another UNIX variant, an OS designed around a networking model, as opposed to being slapped on in the evolution of a single user OS. While there will always be potential for problems because of human stupidity, the architecture of *nix precludes a great deal of micheviousness inherent in Windows. You have to be logged in as root to do real damage to yourself in the *nix world.

XP is improving, but even by Microsoft developer admission, it is deficient in many features to OS X. I have had this discussion with MS developers and QA people who confess that Longhorn (or whatever it is being called now) was to try to "catch up" to OS X.

With improvements to Windows platform, Windows still gets gunked up after heavy usage, and I found the only way to remedy things was a complete reformat and reinstall of programs. On a journalized system like OS X, defragging is not necessary, and my 3 year old powerbook runs like a charm, just as it did at initial purchase time.
Buy a Mac. While that may present a set of issues(i.e. a single mouse button, a learning curve if you've been on XP for years, less market share, etc.), it's a superior experience to what you're getting with MS technology. I can't wait until OS X is on Intel hardware. Gonna be wonderful!
Forgive me for going off topic, but I wanted to take this opportunity to thank Marshall for his HowStuffWorks article on starting a blog. I used your tips and began mine recently. Please check it out. I also do a lot of research and really appreciate HowStuffWorks. Thanks.

>>…single button mouse…

Bleh, I'm using a 3 button mouse now, and have a eight button mouse I use on desktop (actually a powerbook plugged into a 23 inch flat panel) at home.

There is a little learning curve, but from what I have observed, it only takes a few days for someone to get up to speed, and I have noted that people spend far more time working/playing with their computer after switching to OS X. Now, that might not be such a good thing, but it does illustrate the frustration with Windows OS.

Biggest problem and roadblock would be if you need some specialized software that was offered on Windows only (as for standard software - music, email, web, desktop publishing, graphics, etc..., Mac offerings are just as good if not superior, and you can run MS Office on a Mac too).

My laptop dual boots into either Linux or XP. I only go into XP to play a couple of games. No virus problems, no reboots required, etc.
Hold up... I don't think my vehicles came with a driver's manual. I don't expect GMC or Toyota to explain how to drive and to breakdown the rules of the road.

The same applies to operating systems. Being a software engineer, I cherish the fact that the computer is nothing more than a tool, no different (although bit more complex) than a hammer, washing machine, or a car. They all serve a purpose, yet it is up to the user to implement the tool properly.

I think of it like this. If I buy a car, and plan to drive it in the snow, I better buy some snow tires. If I buy a computer and attach it to a network or to the Internet, I better make sure I'm protected.

The Holy Grail of an operating system is one that will be intelligent enough to fix itself. Until we have cars that drive themselves and washing machines that know my darks from my whites, I'm going to continue to read the manual and spend the few extra bucks for the snow tires.

I think you're missing the point. Marshall isn't talking about theh 'tool' that is the computer, he's talking about the operating system that makes the tool (un)usable by humans.

And you're using automobiles as an anology to support your arguments? Come on dude!

What if your car came with a warning that said "under normal operating conditions, your steering wheel may fail to function." Or, what if your car just exploded for no apparent reason on a casual drive to work?

In either case, there would lawsuits, a nationwide recall, and consumer advocates on TV news all lobbying for the manufacturer to address the issue.

Why isn't there a fuss from anyone over the unreliability of operating systems? Does someone have to actually die from an OS bug?

Come to think of it, I wonder how many people have already perished from operating system crashes worldwide?
It is especially easy to understand that kind of thing in the software market. The ideal thing would be to go at the (see our) right speed (which sometime won't make thing advance). You want to create an Operating System. Then people want you to create a firewall, antivirus, protect them against running format or sticking their p*n*s inside the floppy slot (i.e. you need a fufme), it has to end somewhere! About the shutdown process -- the same thing happen with memory card with video games or the old NES cart. If you don't save or use the correct procedure, you [might] lose your work. ;-)

The thing is that other Operating System can also be insecure. You are allowed to make them insecure (same as you can probably make a Windows insecure). How many "hax0rer" have rooted Linux box for example? There is probably still a lot of kid doing this!

I don’t know much about RAID. But cannot it be done on software and hardware level? (As probably everything that can be software, can be done in hardware in theory)

I guess the ideal would be to make everything modular. If the firewall doesn't work, then it doesn't break the rest. There is probably a big load of part done that way in Windows (but the firewall is NOT the Operating System), however haven't they opted for a monolithic architecture. I may not understand all their choice, nor do I claim to ;-)

I guess all those manual stuff are do for either to protect their ass, or to try to help the people less familiar (as we all have been) with computer / operating system / etc.

I believe there is even Camping Car manual that said to not use Hot Coffee in it, because they have been sued for a story with Hot Coffee.

Computer is now a mainstream tool and not everyone would like to have a learning curve of years. They want to click on, and use it.

There is probably a lot of thing that could be potentially dangerous (even your bank account) around us. You think no-one can catch your wireless phone’s conversation? ;-)
I still say get a Mac....
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