It's all spinning wheels and self-doubt until the first pot of coffee.

Security and the State of the Computer

The majority of people have been disenfranchised by their computer for a long time now. While they've gained capabilities and features, they've come at the cost of the computer becoming even more obtuse rather than more transparent.
Source: DrunkenBlog: Yin & Yang

Just finished reading this very in-depth examination of Microsoft's often besmirched reputation with respect to the security of Windows and Internet Explorer, and it's got me on a roll connecting some notions I've had hovering in my head for years now. (This is a warning in advance that this train of thought might ramble on a bit, and maybe across a series of postings.)

I'm a fully-converted Mac addict now, and while I do whole-heartedly enjoy the apparent immunity from all manner of virii and spyware currently the Windows masses, I would have to admit (if pressed) that it's not entirely explained by the technical superiority of the Mac OS X operating system and the UNIX heritage of its underpinnings. If Apple were to switch places with Microsoft, I'm sure we'd all be complaining about the nasty deluge of malware zombifying OS X boxes owned by unwitting or stupid users everywhere.

The problem isn't entirely caused by deficient operating systems: in part, the problem is caused by over-powered machinery placed in the hands of under-trained users.

Complexity and Security

Complexity breeds bugs and security holes. Right now, we've got general-purpose computers trying to be all things to all people. And this requires a lot of scaffolding and overhead-- an operating system like a bureaucracy, complete with programs to manage programs that manage programs, ad nauseum. Maybe it makes sense today, since we got here by gradual progression, but some day it'll seem as silly and quaint as powdered wigs or public spittoons.

General-purpose computers are inherently insecure, not because of any given operating system, but because they can do anything. That especially includes things you don't want them to do. All one has to do is say the right magic words or make the right bribe to a particular corrupt bureaucrat in the system, and he or she is in. And, once someone's in, oh the things they can do!

The Home Motor

I don't see a bright future for any brand of general-purpose PC, at least not continuing as the main consumer computing product. Ever read about the “Home Motor” offered by Sears-Roebuck back in 1918? You could find it listed in their catalog, a sort of “central processing unit” surrounded by peripherals and add-ons. I first read about this beastie in Donald A. Norman's The Invisible Computer. Do you get any sense of déjà vu here? I bet if you picked up any electronics store circular or catalog, it wouldn't be hard find a page almost identical to the one advertising Sears' Home Motor.

So-- and this is a central point of Norman's book-- someday soon the Home Computer will go the way of the Home Motor. Hell, so will the Office Computer. And the people who figure this out and do sufficiently clever things about it will get rich. Soon it will all invert and the Home Computer will explode: just as the electric motor now sits distributed at the core of a myriad special-purpose tools, so will processors be embedded inside lots of limited-purpose tools. Instead of there being a central computing hub for peripherals, we will be the hub for dozens of computer-driven tools.

To Be Continued

I'm going to post this now, to keep things in readable chunks and before my ranting wanders too far afield. But, I've got more in my head demanding to be let out-- here's hoping it's interesting enough to tell me how ill-informed I am!

Archived Comments

  • Wasn't this part of the idea behind Ellison's Network Computer?
  • I know from personal experience now that UNIX underpinnings do not necessarily mean immunity. My website was recently compromised due to a very small hole in phpBB which led to the installation of several rootkits, warez servers, IRC eggdrop bots, and so on. An OSX system would be just as vulnerable, though granted the default configuration doesn't have any buggy PHP scripts enabled on the default site or anything.
  • Hi Leslie, while I kind of like the idea, I doubt that will happen anytime soon. Just look at where the Mobile-Industry is heading. They are moving from special-narrow-feature-set to wide-feature-set that more and more equal regular PCs. I think what could happen, is what we are starting to see with VCRs, that have streaming capability, and "CD-Players" for your stereo that can be connected to a PC and stream MP3s and radio. So what we might eventually see is more and more electronic gadgets becoming "specialized clients" for a Home-PC. But I don't see the Home-PC completely disappearing, because people won't like to give that "power and control" away, even if 1 out of 3 times they try to use it they end up hurting themselves. An interesting questions is, wether we'll see functionality that was born in the PC move to external "gadgets/clients". "Web/E-Mail" seemed to have been the ideal candidates, and several companies promised and sold the idea, be it integrated in telephones or into TV-sets, but eventually none of those caught on.
  • The commentary at The Register about the "Post PC Era" may interest you: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2004/12/06/post_pc_era/