When Did It Stop Being My Computer?

by Adrian McCarthy

I'm not quite sure when it happened, but it did. My computer ceased belonging to me. Sure, I still own the 2000 bucks worth of hardware. Unfortunatley, $2000 machines depreciate faster than you can boot Windows, so while I still own the box, it's not really worth anything.

No big deal. It's data and software packages that make my machine tick. Of course, I've never owned software that I didn't write myself. Commerical software is always licensed. Still, I paid for those licenses, and, in exchange the programs used to at least make an effort to do something for me.

That has changed. Software ad copy insists that applications will do wonderous things for the user. What they don't say is that they have other masters as well: advertisers, marketing departments, data miners. And these co-users are often a higher priority than the poor fool who bought the package in order to get something done (or at least to kill some 3-D zombies).

First came the virus, and, therefore, the virus checker. A necessary evil we've all endured (and paid for) for years. We'd never knowingly invite a virus or worm onto our machine, but they sneak in there. Most virus checkers now proactively use your Internet connection to get updates. I suppose that's important. Newer versions not only keep your virus signature files up-to-date, but they also find it useful to update the scanners themselves. Oh, and they update the automatic update programs, too. That's understandable. Bad guys are out there trying to get their virtual paws on our machines, so it's vital to keep our protection up-to-date.

But it's no longer virus authors who are trying to take control of our machines. Seemingly legitimate software companies are now pushing spyware that secretly track you and report back to the corporate mothership. Pop in a music CD, and your media player of choice might go online without your permission and download a song list for that disc. Is this a feature, or is it a ruse to build a marketing (or license-enforcement) database of CDs you own (or borrow, or ...)? Is that cool portfolio tracking tool you got for “free” really sizing up your financial life for an advertising firm? Maybe.

You may consider such behavior despicable violations or harmless shenanigans. More likely you're somewhere in the middle: concerned that secretive data gathering is eating up your valuable bandwidth. Perhaps you care enough to purchase a spyware scanner and leak-proof firewall and deploy them beside your virus scanner in the battle against the bad guys. Of course, these applications really want to do everything they can to help you in your mission to keep your data private, including periodic updates beyond your control. Do you see a pattern yet?

Then there's the Web. Do you care about tracking? Are flashing banners and pop-up ads making reading more difficult than attention deficit disorder? Does it bother you that pages which pose as reference material are trying to slip software onto your machine? Or, as with spyware, are you just trying to get the most out of your bandwidth? The obvious next step is to buy a surfing proxy that filters the ads, selectively blocks the cookies, and freezes the distracting animations. Then maybe you can read that latest health news story before DoubleClick serves you an ad for Abbreva and makes a note in your medical history.

The proxy programs are necessary, because the browsers don't work for us. That's why they're free. They may advertise tons of privacy features, but they are too damn stingy with information for you to make use of those features. Stingy browsers give you options to prompt you about cookies, scripts, and ActiveX controls, but, when they ask, they refuse to tell you anything about that particular item.

A stingy browser offers a vague prompt with no clue as the consequences.

Wouldn't something like “Do you want to run Adobe Acrobat Reader in order to view this PDF document?” be that hard to implement? Most of the ActiveX controls that try to run on my machine lock up the operating system, but Acrobat Reader doesn't. I'd like to know which ones I can say yes to without risking a reboot.

And what do we get if we try to stop unauthorized software from running on our machine? Harassment!

Internet Explorer continues to interrupt your work after you've already answered it's question.

Was another modal dialog box really necessary here. Couldn't that information have been offered when we were faced with the original question?

Of course, you're stuck with the evil stingy browser because the alternative installs a men's restroom logo in your system tray that you cannot seem to remove. Even if you like the little yellow man, your alternative access application can't parse a cascaded style sheet without locking up your machine.

I'll try not to belabor the email point. Surprise, surprise, nobody likes spam. Three point nine billion dollars a year in lost productivity, bandwidth, and server capacity. With their nasty little tricks, they find you. And they won't go away once they do. OK, maybe you've been really careful with your address and only five percent of your messages are junk. Just wait. Maybe it'll take another year, but that address will be useless. You won't be able to find a legitimate message in your overflowing inbox. Another part of your PC lifestyle will be taken from you.

Many of the common email packages don't help either. Outlook likes to show you messages in its Preview Pane, but that can invoke the HTML renderer which faithfully returns the bugs and beacons that the shotgun listmakers have placed in their messages to identify live targets.

If you're savvy enough to turn off the preview pane you might occasionally be faced with a subject line that might be unsolicited advertisement or it might be a greeting from your old high school girlfriend — you remember, the one that became a lingerie model and just had her messy divorce splashed across the front of all of the supermarket tabloids. If Outlook would just show the real address instead of (or in addition to) the “friendly” one, then you'd be able to determine in an instant if you're Mr. MassMarketingTarget or Mr. Rebound. Alas, Outlook is stingy with the information it has right at its fingertips. Do you select Message Properties and try to read the headers, or do you risk opening the message and letting the mass-mailers know they've reached an active account? Maybe you could view the message source like you used to do in Outlook Express. Let me know if you can still find that option.

My ISP recently installed software that scans email messages and marks suspected spam messages in the header. Finally, software that's working for us! Unfortunately, the spammers are figuring out how to defeat such scanners. A few months ago, the scanner was at least 99% effective with no false positives. Now it's down to about 75%, and the quarterly invoice from my own ISP gets flagged as spam!

OK, I guess I belabored the email point a little. So I'll be quick about the operating systems. You know the ones I'm talking about. Operating systems that constantly update themselves, forcing you to accept the latest bugs and make configuration testing nearly impossible. Operating systems that pop up focus grabbing dialogs when you're staring outside, touch-typing the last three paragraphs your soon-to-be award winning novel (the last word of which was solemnly and the OS interpretted the y as an affirmative answer to the question “Do you want to exit all applications without saving and reboot my computer so you can take advantage of the latest security patches that were just automatically installed without your consent?”).

So my hardware is worthless and my software is about as trustworthy as the get-rich-quick offers flooding my inbox. I've still got my data. Right? My tax returns, my digital photos, my screenplay, and my high score on Space Cadet 3D Pinball. I'll always have those, right? Maybe.

One of the latest causes for consternation among PC users is built-in license enforcement, (a.k.a. Product Activation). Windows XP will key itself to your machine's hardware profile. Try to make a copy on another machine which is sufficiently different, and the software will stop you from running. OK, that's fair. But things can go wrong with that. Disconnect from the network for too long, and the OS may shutdown. Make too many upgrades to your PC, and it might look like another machine. And while it's not likely that Microsoft will go out of business anytime soon, what happens if their server goes down?

Popular tax preparation software TurboTax is now shipping with the same functionality. My question is what happens if three years after I file I need to print another copy of my return and I now own a newer machine? Intuit PR folks assure us that we will be able to re-register our copy on our new machine. What they don't tell us is what kind of hoops we'll have to jump through to do it. I probably won't feel like calling technical support while I've got an IRS auditer breathing down my neck. And what if Intuit is no longer in business then?

So once upon a time I owned a PC. I had a fast processor and a big disk and scads of RAM. I had scores of software licenses and, using those packages, I accumulated a wealth of data. Now I own a worthless box. Among the scores of programs installed on my machine, six packages (a virus scanner, a spyware detector, a firewall, a surfing proxy, a spam filter, and a deleted data eraser) are there simply to give me some sense of control over my own machine. Of course, each of those packages requires my attention (and money) on a regular basis. The remaining packages are all suspect. Many key ones seem to owe more allegiance to their marketing managers than to the license holder. Some seem to threaten to sever access to my personal data.

Perhaps it's a coincidence or perhaps it was a conscious effort by the software industry to distract us from our evaporating ownership, but there's been a huge shift toward customization and personalization. If you can customize your software, you can make it feel like yours. Right? Today's packages are filled with glitz and customization options of dubious value. I'm not saying there's anything inherently wrong with color schemes or skins or desktop themes. But these are no substitute for having real control — real ownership — of our machines.

But these highly customizable packages merely tease us with the illusion of control.

Most days, your stingy browser opens to the web site you've designated as your home page; some days, however, there's a long delay and you find yourself faced with a browser update website. After being tricked into applying the update by an ominous security warning, you find that those blasted Links and Media folders in your Favorites menu have returned for the seventeeth time. Why? Because the browser works for the advertisers, not for the customer. So why let the customer remove the folders if they're just going to be restored. Why tease them with a sense of control and ownership only to frustrate them later? Will that really help the advertisers?

After viewing a joke emailed to me as a harmless PowerPoint slide show, all of the text on my machine appeared fuzzy and hard to read. PowerPoint had turned on the font smoothing option and failed to restore the setting after it finished. Font smoothing is harder to read on my monitor, so I had intentionally disabled it. PowerPoint, thinking it knows what's good for me, flipped it back. Is this a user option or not?

So the software companies have taken control of our machines, and they haven't fooled us with personalization. Therefore, I propose that we turn software licenses on their heads.

Users — not software companies — are now the ones with something to license: their hardware and their data. Programs want to run. They want to serve their masters (read makers). But they need hardware to run on. They need personal data to mine. When you install a new program, it should have to accept your license. Your license could grant the desperate programs rights to use a certain percentage of your CPU cycles and bandwidth. Your license could grant them limited rights to your data for demographic analysis.

Maybe then our $2000 space heaters would be worth something again.

© 2003 by Adrian McCarthy. All rights reserved. Opinions expressed are those of the author. Last updated 3-FEB-2003.