Monday, July 25, 2005

Operating systems

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. Neigher 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 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:



At 3:08 PM, Anonymous Jeff Korpa said...

Marshall, it looks like you're not alone:

"If you look at Windows and Linux, both are based on 25-year-old technology. Windows is sort of a GUI version of the Mac's operating system, and Linux is of course Unix, which stems from 1968. These are both old clunkers."

- Ethernet inventor Bob Metcalfe


At 7:09 PM, Blogger John Peterson said...

Maybe an iBook would be worth the extra $500. Far fewer problems with virus/spyware. With only five years of OS legacy (vs. ~20 for Windows) there's generally less to go wrong.

For cheap systems there's Linux (e.g. Linspire) but the consistancy & ease of use isn't there.

At 9:05 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ubuntu with an IBM x21 ThinkPad works great depending on what you want to do.

Agreed all are old - but then basically not much is new in computer science since the 60s.

At 11:14 AM, Blogger E. Bruce Shankle III said...

Get a Mac. You'll be happier.

At 12:11 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Doesn't this go against the "Robotic Nation" thesis? We can't even make software robots to recognize and prevent computer crashes.

At 10:37 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Heh. We'd have to completely rewrite absolutely every piece of software from scratch to fix the problems with modern operating systems. I don't think this is really feasible anymore, as millions of lines of code of such complexity being rewritten from scratch would pose its own little "issues"; even open-sourcing like Linux so anyone can fix it probably wouldn't work because I doubt that anyone would be able to fully grasp the programming and fix it fully. Besides, the corporations would never let free OS's take over the role of highly lucrative proprietary software...

I think that we also need to worry about how resource-intense modern OS's are getting... why does WinXP require gigabytes of hard drive and hundreds of megahertz of processor time to do essentially the same thing as the earlier Windows, which besides only requiring a few tens of MB and running comfortably on a 486, was also a whole lot more stable to boot! There are a few plusses with the newer OSs that could not be had with older ones, but overall, I don't view the last ten years of "progress" as really much progress at all, especially to the layman.

Perhaps the solution lies in programming taking a more natural form that isn't so strict in the layout of the code, or even one that undergoes a process akin to natural selection, and letting random changes followed by selection of the best optimise the programs. This would require its own programs to run it of course, but probably a lot simpler than any OS has been, and it would require massive amounts of raw computing power to try out combinations- power that will become available within a few years.

I personally don't have much hope of this problem being fixed, at least not in the forseeable future. Too much money would have to be put into completely rebuilding computing from the very beginning.

As for the Robotic nation hypothesis previously mentioned, it still applies. I have no doubt that corporations will try to roboticise the world even with such faulty software, a robot that only works half the time is still cheaper than a real person. The airplanes will fly themselves, but each one will need several software technicians to keep the damn thing in the air... The world has a rather bleak future of being a place where all the menial tasks, and most of the rewarding ones are done by robots, and the 8 billion human residents are all computer repairpeople to keep the things running semi-efficiently...

I saw a CIBC bank ATM showing the blue screen of death the other day. It's perhaps a valuable insight into what's to come...

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At 8:29 PM, Anonymous Mike said...

Operating software wasn't always this unreliable. Microsoft can probably take much of the blame for the current situation. It created a culture of shipping poorly designed and inadequately tested software as soon as possible in order to rake in the profit and its de facto monopoly allows it to get away with this. Others have followed suit. Until Microsoft's monopoly is broken we are unlikely to see much of an improvement.

At 4:41 PM, Blogger Roland said...

Interesting idea from a guy called David Gelertner:

Computers today are based on an analogy with filing cabinets, which is flawed because filing cabinets cannot interact with you but computers can. Instead, computers should follow the passage of time, as a "Lifestream".

When you make a document, it's stored at the time you created it. You can find it again instantly with indexed searching.

To make a diary entry you put a note on your lifestream in the past. To make a calender entry you put something on your lifestream in the future. To send an email you drag something onto someone else's lifestream.

The idea is to do away with finicky icons, lists and file structures, and in fact do away with the whole Windows and Mac fixed GUI idea which we only use because we don't know an alternative.

Hmmm ... the idea has some flaws but I'm sure we'll move to more organic, effortless kinds of user interfaces in the future. As they say, if you're rich enough you don't have to think about money; in the future, we'll have so much technology that we won't need to think about technology!

At 4:42 PM, Blogger Roland said...

I saw a CIBC bank ATM showing the blue screen of death the other day. It's perhaps a valuable insight into what's to come...

As Jaron Lanier said, if software remains as crummy as it is we'll become a planet of help desks!

At 3:03 AM, Blogger Braxton Perry said...

Operating systems can be smaller and more modular.

Most operating system problems come when someone pts something cute on their system.

Ohh look isn't weatherbug cute.. I hate weatherbug.

AS/400 client access from IBM is also death and destruction on system stability. Hopefuly IBM has worked on not overwriting standard dll's.

Have user and admin accounts. Do not let users install software unless they are smart enough to be admins.

Do that one simple thing and watch system reliability go up exponentially.

Funny thing is I lost that job because I didn't "look busy" as compared to a peer in another department who was continually rebuilding systems because she didn't lock machines down.

No good deed goes unpunished.

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