Malware, Change, And The Whole Damn Thing

Over at samizdata, Perry Metzger (not De Havilland) has a few trenchant observations about stupid people who don’t use condoms when they have unprotected Internet intercourse, or something. (For those who don’t know him, Perry’s writing style is often blunt and dismissive, which is one of the reasons I enjoy reading his stuff. Go figure.) Read it all, including the comments, because a lot of what I say from here may be otherwise incomprehensible.

I’m not going to argue with Perry’s main point about the need to upgrade your computer’s software regularly. From a security standpoint, it makes sense to install the patches which cover the gaping holes in the thing. I also understand that the software companies don’t care to maintain elderly platforms, for the same reasons that Ford no longer maintains Model Ts. (The fact that software changes occur at an exponentially-quicker rate than automotive ones is just the nature of the beast.)

The problem, as noted the the Comments, is that system “upgrades” are not devoted exclusively to security patches anymore. Instead, all sorts of crap is included which at best causes irritating changes in functionality, and at worst undoes a lot of the learning and experience that one has accumulated. I understand why this occurs, but that doesn’t mean I’m at all happy about it. And so far, Microsoft has accommodated us Old Farts by including a “traditional” desktop view for all new Windows operating system versions, so I don’t have to memorize all the silly new pictograms in Windows 7 – infinity. (Note to MS: remove that feature and I’m gone.)

And this is the point. One of the commenters at samizdata made the excellent point that Microsoft (and all software developers, as far as I can see) are more interested in getting new customers, who would be more comfortable with apps, pictograms, symbols and what have you than they would be with the old icons or, gawd forbid, text (all those words and stuff? dude!). That’s stupid, for all sorts of reasons, and here’s why.

I might not be worth much to Microsoft as an existing customer right now; but there was a time when people like me — the early personal-computer adopters — helped build Microsoft into what it is today. When you have a person who like myself has been through all the hardware iterations of the PC, XT, AT, 386x all the way through to the current whatever-it-is-I’m-writing-on-right now, and has likewise been through all the software iterations of DOS 2.0 through Windows 7/8/not-9 [ahem] and 10; when you have a longtime customer group like that, then surely I, and all the countless millions of people like me, deserve just a little accommodation in the Grand Microsoft Marketing Plan? (Okay, you can stop laughing now.)

I know, everything these days falls into the “But what have you done for me lately?” category, but it’s still a basic truism of marketing that it’s ten times easier to get an existing customer to stay with your product than it is to lure a new one away from a competitor. But if you persist in changing your product so that it not only becomes a purely new-customer attractant, but also an existing-customer repellent, then I would suggest that someone in Marketing needs to go back to business school and/or get a swift kick in the teeth to adjust their thinking.

I know that it’s expensive and resource/time-consuming to maintain old products. Of course it is. But I would suggest that it’s also a lot easier than new product development — we old-timers don’t ask for much, because we’re used to working with, by today’s standards, relatively unsophisticated products.

Using the automotive industry one more time: Ford, GM and Chrysler have discovered that there is a huge market for nostalgia models such as the Dodge Charger/Challenger, Ford Shelby Mustang and the like. These new iterations of the venerable hot rods of yore have been improved, of course: better brakes, suspension and so on; they’re still simple and unsophisticated by modern whizzbang standards, but their manufacturers can’t make them quickly enough. Let’s go exotic: a new 2016 LaFerrari costs about $1.5 million; a 1966 275 GTB recently sold for $2.1 million. (I know, that’s mostly a factor of scarcity; at the same time, however, the 2016 model is a hundred times better than its 50-year-old counterpart — and still, someone was prepared to pay good money for it.)

Somewhere is all the above rambling is the seed of an idea for Microsoft. Or maybe, for someone not in Microsoft who can see a niche in the PC market which is similar to the automotive restoration market.

Or maybe I’m just an old fart “shaking his fist at heaven”, as Perry Metzger suggests. Still, I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one who feels this way — in fact, there may be more of us than of them. Software developers — or to be more accurate, software maintainers — might want to take a look at that.



  1. As I’ve noted before, I’ve been a programmer for over 30 years now, I’ve done both development and maintenance. I’ve owned computers since before IBM was in the game (I went to college with a Radio Shack TRS-80 Model 3). My own home computer is surprisingly unsophisticated, it’s a several-years-old Dell laptop running Windows 7. I’ve also done shockingly little tweaking of the system. Why? Because I know it works with the software I need to use for work. It’s reliable. In short it WORKS. That’s vitally important when I’m on-call and a production job fails at 2:00 in the morning, I don’t have time to debug MY computer before I start doing what I’m paid to do.

    I know people for whom operating system reloads are a monthly occurrence because they messed with something they oughtn’t have and screwed something up. I can count the number of o/s reloads I’ve had to do on my home computers on my thumbs.

    Oh, by the way, I currently work on a system that was developed in the mid 1980s, using technology that was far from the state of the art when it was developed. It’s used to track parking tickets for a Very Large Municipality (the name of which rhymes with Do Pork Pity). Again, it WORKS (although the number of programmers who know the technology is dwindling rapidly).

  2. I am somewhat of an old fart when it comes to computers. I did my first program to support a physics lab in 1973. I don’t even want to think how long ago that was.

    What I am seeing is as the new kids get in the gate, they don’t seem to care that anything came before them and if we don’t accept the new, nuts to you.

    I am afraid MS is going that way as well as I have worked with Windows 8 and 10 and you can have them in my book. All the computers I use daily are windows 7 and I hope it stays that way.

    There is some discussion at work about upgrading some stuff to more current copies of software, but the time line seems to be long enough MS will be in windows 17 before we get caught up.

    I just hope I can retire before it gets too strange.

  3. There is a simple solution to backwards compatibility on new systems. Virtual machine technology is long mature. Microsoft should simply provide a tailored virtual machine and allow downloads and inexpensive licenses for any older version the user wishes to run. M’soft still sells the underlying “latest and greatest”, and the old farts can still run Windows 98SE if they desire. Modern hardware and security provided by the new version, familiar user interface in the VM. There is actually a real world need for this… I am an analytical chemist. We run VERY sophisticated and VERY expensive hardware (gas chromatographs, mass spectrometers, nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometers, and on and on). These machines can cost upwards of half a million bucks or more. But when a manufacturer comes out with a new model, they very rarely continue software support for the old model. So the “operating system” for this half million buck machine REQUIRES (for example) Windows 98. Eventually the old PC that ran Windows 98 dies. The new machine won’t run Windows 98 (no drivers).

    The current solution for the above is a niche market of PC machine assemblers who put together and sell “new” old PC hardware that WILL run Windows 98. Analytical labs MUST HAVE new PC hardware to continue to run their very expensive “older” equipment.

    It seems to me that M’soft could make a chunk of extra money by easily accomodating the running of older software on new hardware. Note that I am not talking about “dual-booting”, but actually running the old operating system “inside” the new operating system.

  4. I’m a geezer doing IT work for a small architectural firm. Everything is going the way of the toxic cloud computing paradigm. Almost all our software now is by subscription – AutoCAD, Adobe, etc. You get nickle and dimed to death and you have to download the software upgrades frequently. I am as patient with the process as I can be – To me patience is “quiet despair described as a virtue”.

  5. I…honestly stopped using Windows and went Ubuntu over a decade ago. I don’t miss a damned thing, except for Visio. I’d revisit that if I were to consider ever doing serious Win development work again, but that seems increasingly unlikely as time marches onwards.

    And for the record, Ubuntu, like many Linux distros, gives you the option to automatically patch security only, leaving the balance of your update and upgrade schedule to you.

    On the odd occasion where, for some reason, I *must* run Win, I run it in a VM using Virtualbox.

    More and more, the premise is that bare metal is for hypervisors, rather than OSes.

    Furthermore, as we descend further and further into the choking pit of our living environment’s increasingly digital panopticon, I’m giving serious consideration to subjects such as heavily armored systems like Tails and Qubes, as well generally using privacy enhanced apps like Signal and TOR.

  6. Microsoft painted themselves into a corner decades ago. They built a really, REALLY crap OS, then did everything they possibly could (legal and otherwise) to entrench the platform everywhere possible. Now, over two decades later, they are still married to quite a lot of that crap architecture and unable to escape it for fear of killing the few remaining golden geese that keep parking dump trucks full of cash at their back door.

    It’s not that Microsoft doesn’t have excellent engineers and couldn’t make a decent OS that would work well enough for most people, it’s that they have massive cultural and bureaucratic issues that when combined with the legacy junk, equal software that is barely usable, with no clear direction or incentive to improve it.

    That’s why I use a Mac for all of my desktop/laptop stuff– Apple surely makes their stupid mis-steps, but their golden goose is an OS that, minor ecosystem nitpicks aside, works for just about everyone. That OS sells hardware, lots and lots of hardware, so it behooves them to do whatever is necessary to keep it working.

  7. I ditched Microshit @ home about 2 years ago and installed a Linux MINT distro. It came bundled with a sweet Office package and other stuff for music, etc. My work machine runs Win7 but I let the IT Nazis deal with any problems there.

    Up yours, Bill Gates!

  8. Kim, these people can’t pour piss out of a boot.

    ““Indeed, industrial robots—originally conceived to be isolated—have evolved and are now exposed to corporate networks and the Internet,” write the report’s authors, who examined scans of the Internet and easily found many examples of connected industrial robots. “We were looking for connected robots from the top vendors . . . and found several ones, some of which even provided unrestricted access using anonymous credentials (i.e., the authentication system was disabled).””

  9. These days I run Win 7 Ultimate. When it dies, that’s the end of my MS travails, and I’m going to Linux.

    I did let Win 10 take over an old laptop, just to see how it worked. For a while, it seemed to run pretty well; but at one of the last updates something happened. It now asks for a Username and Password: but it won’t accept the username and password that’s printed right on the laptop (so as not to forget the password, since I seldom use the laptop.) Now I have to figure out how to reset the system; it might be easier just to reformat & start over.

    I’d think more about security if I could just keep the [email protected]#$%! computer going after updates. Probably due to the recent ransomeware threat, both Malwarebytes and Comodo issued updates: they succeeded in cutting me off from all internet activity all the time. Very secure, but not workable. I’ve since turned the Comodo firewall off, it was just too intrusive, and now I’m trying to get Malwarebytes to cooperate. Sigh.

    The old 3×5 card system is looking better all the time (you can put lots of information on a 3×5 card, if you use a typewriter- and you can lock it in a safe for security!) Maybe I’ll go to Ebay & see what an Amiga is going for; they’re probably a lot more secure than most systems these days!

  10. I’m moving towards Linux – currently have a MacBook (many Physics teachers use them, so I was able to work on the same software as others when collaborating). I will be buying my Raspberry Pi kit in a few weeks, after I finish setting up my new workbench in the Ham Shack. I will NOT be replacing the laptop with Apple product when it dies – too expensive, too limited.

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