Good Times

Most people know very little about computers, don’t want to learn about them, and are in fact very intimidated by them. But that doesn’t mean they don’t want to own them. So how do they buy them? Easy — they pick a friend or family member who is “into computers”, and ask that person what they should buy.

If you’re reading this, there’s a good chance you’re such a person — the one friends and family turn to for computer recommendations and advice. I am too — thus, for example, both my parents and mother-in-law have iMacs. The only reason they bought Macs is because I told them that’s what they should buy.

This is not about Macs being “easier” than Wintel boxes. I recommend Macs to family members because they’re what I know best. Because she’s using a Mac, if my mom calls complaining that she “can’t print”, I have a decent chance of being able to talk her through the problem over the phone; I’m not familiar enough with Windows to be able to do that.

You might argue that Mac users are less likely to suffer problems like “I can’t print”. And you’re probably right. But what matters most to the people who make recommendations to friends and family is what they know. Thus, someone who uses and knows Windows will almost inevitably recommend Wintel boxes to their friends and family. And even if those machines are less reliable than comparable Macs, what matters is being able to get your mom off the phone, quickly, when she can’t print. Or can’t eject a CD. Or can’t connect to the Internet. Or can’t send an email. Or whatever.

Assemble a group of intelligent and curious people who are mostly inexperienced with computers. Sit each of them in front of comparable Mac and Wintel boxes and give them a few hours to explore. I’m confident most of them will prefer the Mac. The Mac OS is easier to explore, more intuitive, more consistent. But this isn’t how most people buy computers. They don’t take a day or even a few hours to try different systems. Fear of blowing $1000 or $2000 on a “bad” computer motivates them to buy whatever is recommended by their closest nerd.

Microsoft has always understood this. They’ve achieved an overwhelming monopoly not by targeting an overwhelming majority of the general population, but rather by targeting an overwhelming majority of people who are “into computers”. And so the question isn’t why don’t more people choose Macs, but rather, why don’t more computer nerds choose them?

Why indeed.

Outlook Not So Good

Circa the mid-’90s, the scourge of Internet email wasn’t spam — it was mass-forwarded chain letters. The most infamous and persistent was the “Good Times” email virus hoax. The gist of which was that there was a devastating computer virus being spread via email, always arriving with the subject “Good Times”, and which would damage your computer and propagate simply by your opening the Good Times message for reading. (One variation of the message went so far as to claim the virus could irreparably damage your computer’s processor, by placing it in an “nth-complexity infinite binary loop”.)

What made the Good Times message so annoying wasn’t just that it was a hoax, but that it was such an easily-refuted hoax. Panicked newbies forwarded and re-forwarded the message ad nauseam, but the truth was that not only was there no such thing as the Good Time virus, but that it wasn’t even possible. There was no way for a virus to spread by opening or receiving an email message.

What progress we’ve made in eight years, huh?

Microsoft’s Outlook has been exploited by virus authors so frequently and so effectively that I dare anyone to dispute that it’s the worst email client ever, anywhere. The worst. But yet it is also the most popular.

So what explains this discontinuity, that the worst email client ever made is also the most popular?

The solution is to ask whom Outlook is good for. It’s not good for the world at large, as witnessed the problems caused by each Outlook virus outbreak. (Perhaps Outbreak would be a better name for the product, in fact.) Nor is it good for the lowly user. A personal anecdote will illustrate. Three years ago I worked as a freelancer for a company with several hundred employees. The company ran Exchange as its mail server, and Outlook was the only supported email client. It was standard procedure at this company to log into your telephone voice mail every morning before launching Outlook, to check for company-wide warnings regarding email viruses. And lo, once a month or so, there would be a voice mail message warning everyone not to launch Outlook until we got another voice mail indicating the coast was clear. No one but me saw this situation as absurd.

Outlook and Exchange are very good to one class of people: IT. (Ostensibly an acronym for information technology, IT has instead become corporate-speak for “computers”.) Surely not, you might be thinking, it’s the IT guys who have been up to their elbows these last two weeks, managing the disasters wrought by the Sobig virus.

But that’s exactly it. An Outlook/Exchange installation at a medium or large company requires a decent chunk of IT manpower just to stay afloat. There is no good reason an email system should require so much effort to maintain. You can argue that Exchange and Outlook offer much more than just email. But that’s not an excuse — it’s part of the problem.

Real internet email is based on relatively simple, open, text-based protocols: POP, SMTP, and IMAP. Microsoft Exchange uses overly complicated, proprietary protocols (in addition to optional support for standard ones). Real internet email is safe by default. Microsoft’s email is infamously insecure by default.

Ten years ago, it was obvious that email was the biggest thing in communications since the telephone. There was, to be sure, lots of money to be made in its adoption by large corporations. Qualcomm, for example, put their money on genuine internet email, and purchased Eudora.

IT professionals largely rejected genuine internet email, going with Microsoft instead. They would have you believe that the problems with Outlook/Exchange are inherent, that Exchange is a necessity, that companies could not do without it, that plain old POP/SMTP/IMAP could not suffice.

This, of course, is bullshit. Ninety-nine percent of people use email in only the most trivial fashion imaginable: sending and receiving text messages and file attachments. The rest of Exchange — the calendaring features, etc. — are widely used, but are not needed. The world functioned just fine in the days before you could click a button in an email message to agree to attend a meeting.

While I was never a big fan of Eudora in particular, a Eudora-style email application would work perfectly well in a corporate environment. All the ease-of-use and convenience, none of the viruses/worms/etc.

The crux of the problem isn’t with Windows or Exchange or any particular piece of technology. The problem is the people who choose the technology.

Most corporations now have a CIO (chief information officer), whose clout is directly proportional to the number of people employed in the company’s IT division. More IT staff means a larger budget, and budgets are the rulers used to measure wangs in corporate America.

It is thus in the interests of corporate IT staff to deploy technology that requires a large IT staff for maintenance.

Something’s Gumming Up the Plumbing

Imagine if the plumbing in corporate America worked with the same degree of reliability as their computer infrastructure. This would mean that individual sinks, urinals, and toilets would go out of order on a regular basis. Water from drinking fountains would turn brown, but, hey, that’s just how it is. Every few weeks, teenage pranksters from Hong Kong would overflow every toilet in the building, knocking them out of commission.

In response to these problems, large companies would have large in-house plumbing staffs, led by a CPO (chief plumbing officer) reporting directly to the CEO. New restroom equipment would be chosen by the same plumbing staff that is employed for maintenance, thus providing a nearly irresistible disincentive to choose reliable low-maintenance equipment from other vendors.

In fact, all of the plumbing comes from a single company based in the state of Washington. This company’s plumbing equipment is engineered such that it is extremely difficult to see how it actually works. The corporate plumbers are often equipped with certifications from this manufacturer, but they (the plumbers) in fact understand very little about how toilets and sinks truly work.

This Brazil-like vision of corporate plumbing likely strikes you as a farce — but yet is it not an apt description of the state of corporate computing today? If you believe computing is inordinately and/or inherently more complicated than plumbing, you need to put aside your blue-vs.-white collar prejudices and think about the engineering involved. It seems easier to me to deliver the bytes of an email message from the 82nd floor of the Empire State Building than it does to empty the waste from one of its toilets.

It’s all about expectations. We, as a society, have decided that indoor plumbing should be held to high standards of reliability and maintenance. And somehow we’ve been convinced that indoor computing should not.

It’s that simple. There’s no reason every CEO in America shouldn’t expect the company’s computers to work as well as their toilets. Companies that aren’t in the computer industry shouldn’t need large staffs of full-time IT staff any more than they need large staffs of full-time plumbers.

The course of action I’m advocating here would entail putting large numbers of “IT professionals” out of work. That’s fine, because most of them don’t belong in the industry. Your average plumber knows exactly how a sink works and how water flows from the main to your shower head. Your average corporate IT professional has just as many problems with Outlook email viruses as the front desk receptionist.

The corporate IT field is in large parts comprised of men who are not smart enough to program, but yet wanted a career in computers. They are the fifth wheel of corporate America — serving no practical purpose but their own employment.

Remember at the beginning of this article, when I claimed “most people know very little about computers, don’t want to learn about them, and are in fact very intimidated by them”?

The only difference between “most people” and “most corporate IT professionals” is that the IT guys aren’t intimidated. They’re not afraid to re-install everything from scratch, they’re not afraid to double-click attachments, and they’re not afraid to open the case to install some RAM. But how anything actually works? No clue.

Two Simple Goals

Every company, big or small, should mandate two goals for its computer systems: high reliability and low maintenance. Start from there, and everything else falls into place. (E.g., CIOs should be rewarded for having small staffs, not large ones.)

Some companies already require high reliability and low maintenance, because their computers are essential components of their businesses. If the computers are down for a few days at some companies, it might be merely inconvenient. But at other companies, like, say, weekly magazines such as Time or Newsweek, computer downtime is simply unacceptable.

It’s therefore no surprise that Macintosh computers are much more common in the publishing industry than in corporate America at large. So am I claiming that Apple’s market share suffers because its products are too reliable and require too little maintenance? Well, yes.

This is not to say Macs are the only answer. Or that Macs never need maintenance. Or that you can’t build a reliable, low-maintenance network of computers running Windows. And most especially, this is not to say that there aren’t some very smart people who genuinely prefer to use Windows. The point is simply this: if you insist upon high reliability and low maintenance, solutions other than “all-Microsoft, all-the-time” start to look very good indeed.

And if you don’t insist upon high reliability and low maintenance, why not?

Further Reading

Robert X. Cringely nails it:

Whatever the conventional wisdom or the Microsoft marketing message, Macs aren’t dramatically more expensive to buy and on a Total Cost of Ownership basis they are probably cheaper. Nobody would argue that Macs are harder to use. Clearly, they are easier to use, especially on a network. So what’s the problem? Why do Macs seem to exist only in media outfits? […]

I used to think it came down to nerd ego. Macs were easy to use, so they didn’t get the respect of nerds who measured their testosterone levels by how fluently they could navigate a command line interface. Now, I think differently. Now, I think Macs threaten the livelihood of IT staffs. If you recommend purchasing a computer that requires only half the support of the machine it is replacing, aren’t you putting your job in danger? Exactly.

Ideally, the IT department ought to recommend the best computer for the job, but more often than not, they recommend the best computer for the IT department’s job.

Rob Pegoraro in the Washington Post: “Microsoft Windows: Insecure by Design”:

Jeff Jones, Microsoft’s senior director for “trustworthy computing,” said the company was heeding user requests when XP was designed: “What customers were demanding was network compatibility, application compatibility.”

But they weren’t asking for easily cracked PCs either. Now, Jones said, Microsoft believes it’s better to leave ports shut until users open the ones they need. But any change to this dangerous default configuration will only come in some future update.