Living in a Monoculture

Joseph Bergin

Most of you work on Intel based Personal Computers running Microsoft operating systems, network servers, and even Microsoft end user applications. You are not alone. There are millions of you. There are so many of you that you are like a forest with only one kind of tree, say a Majestic Chestnut. I, on the other hand, work on a Macintosh, so I am like a lowly Beech. Folks like me appear, but only infrequently. My operating system, like my hardware, come from Apple, but my software comes from many sources. Since the latest version of the Macintosh operating system is a variant of UNIX, I have access to a large set of software tools developed over many years and now developed in an open environment in which the source code can be examined and modified.

There are some advantages of living in a monoculture, but perhaps fewer than you think. You form a large market, so many software tools come to you first. Some especially arcane tools run only on your systems. You can exchange documents with one another easily and seamlessly. You can even exchange programs with one another, knowing that if it runs on your system, it will probably run on the next person's as well. You might be surprised to learn that many of the things you think began on the "Wintel" platform actually originated on the Macintosh: MS Word and Excel, for example. Macromedia was once a Macintosh only company. I think Adobe may have been also. AOL originated as a Macintosh alternative.

However, the advantages of your monoculture also breed the seeds of many of your problems. If a virus runs on your neighbor's machine, it probably also runs on yours also. If a program is badly designed, all of you need to live with it. If Intel makes an error in designing floating point arithmetic routines in their microcode, millions of people have buggy spreadsheets.

Worse, if the really big companies in the monoculture decide to employ spyware of various kinds, all of you wind up in massive databases and your relationships can be recorded and tracked. You can be made the target of large marketing schemes over which you have little control, but with which you must deal every working day.

I am immune from much of this. Part of it is just that I'm such a small target than no one bothers. Part of it is the culture on the Macintosh that users won't put up with many of the really bad practices in the Wintel world. For example, most Macintosh applications "work alike". This means that if you are familiar with a few Macintosh applications and buy a new one you will probably be able to use 90% of its functionality without reading any manual. The reason this works is that people that work on Macintosh computers expect and require it, and don't buy other products. Apple has also been good about providing tools in which it is easier to build such software than to go it alone.

Actually, the Wintel world is getting closer to the Macintosh world in this regard. This has been increasingly true since about the time Windows 95 appeared. We used to laugh at the size of manuals for programs on old DOS systems. Some manual sets weighed more than the computer on which the software ran.

Let's suppose that you want to enjoy the advantages of living in a monoculture but want to avoid its problems as much as possible. What can you do?

In a real monoculture forest, when a serious virus or insect pest hits, most but not all trees are destroyed. The ones that remain were either lucky or they had some small variation of makeup (perhaps genetic) that saved them. You can employ this strategy also. This suggests that you don't make your own system as much as possible like everyone else's , but employ variations. For example, Microsoft email client software has proven to be problematical in transmission of viruses. This is partly because of its design, but partly because it is a very large target for the bad guys. Many viruses spread through email by looking for your Outlook address book and spreading themselves to many or all entries in the book. If you don't use Outlook, you become a firewall against the spread of this kind of virus. Eudora, for example is a nice and convenient email client that won't do this, and also won't execute macro instructions, so it is a very safe alternative to Outlook (and Entourage...). It also has a lightning fast find program, which is useful to someone like myself with tens of thousands of old emails online. Eudora also has a nice licensing agreement that suggests that a copy of the program is associated with a person, not a machine, so that if you (like myself) have several machines, even of different kinds) that you work on, you only need one license.

You should always be aware of what is running on your system. This implies that you generally turn off features that cause software to run automatically. Even though I am a Java fanatic and believe that the Java security design is sound, I know that implementations can be buggy, so keep Java turned off in my browser. You should also be aware that in many of the programs in which this is an option, the option can be changed without your knowledge. For example, upgrading can reset the options. So can a trojan horse received by your system.

Another important step you can take is to be sure that you are not a vector for the transmission of viruses. Do not send executable files of any kind as email attachments. Do not accept executables of any kind as email attachments. Inform your correspondents when you get such. This includes .exe files in the Wintel world, of course, but since Microsoft Office components have a very rich macro language embedded, it also includes all documents produced by Office. Use only safe variants for information exchange: RTF, PDF, and text, for example. The Office suite of programs can produce RTF files with just an option selection in the SAVE dialog. PDF can be produced easily by Adobe Acrobat through a simple option in a PRINT dialog or with stand alone tools. Postscript print drivers can produce postscript save files which can be translated to PDF with a universally available program called ghostscript.

Perhaps the most important thing you can do, however, is to insist that the products you buy and use, are appropriate and well designed. Don't buy from vendors who repeatedly produce buggy software--especially when the bugs in the old versions reappear in the new. Especially don't buy from vendors who employ spyware in their products and who otherwise misuse the user-vendor relationship. Insist on your rights to have quality software at a fair price, with reasonable end user licensing agreements.

Note that Microsoft, Adobe, and other companies have been accused of employing spyware: components of software that send information about you and your computer to some central site. They never advertise this, or if they do, try to present it as an advantage to the user, when in fact it is usually used as a marketing tool. When these are discovered, there is usually an uproar and the companies back off quickly. This implies to me that they know that this is improper behavior.

The government seems to be looking at requiring spyware in some programs. As a citizen you should resist this. All forms of spyware are a form of Big Brother with all of the negative consequences. Write to your political representatives about this looming problem.

And in case you are wondering, yes, I do use (and pay for) Microsoft products. It is even said that Microsoft Office Vx on Macintosh OS X is superior to the latest Wintel variant. I can exchange documents with you and you with me, though I do not, because of the macro virus problem, preferring RTF or PDF as safe media for exchange. I grumble about Microsoft Word as a form of bloatware, but use it anyway in spite of the fact that it too often does things to my page that I don't want it to do and can't figure out how to avoid. If this industry didn't rate products on the basis of feature lists, but rather on the basis of quality of implementation, then that problem wouldn't exist, but that is an editorial for another day.

Last Updated: March 31, 2006