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Last Updated: Friday, 13 February, 2004, 11:38 GMT
Microsoft leak exposes computing ignorance
The coverage of Microsoft's woes has shown just how little people really know about computing, argues technology analyst Bill Thompson, and it is starting to worry him.

It's been a horrid week for Microsoft, and I hope that even those of us who don't approve of the company's business methods will feel some sympathy for them in this time of torment.

Windows XP
The leak affects only some version of Windows
First they announce that there is a big hole in Windows and that everyone should update their computers to avoid being hacked; then large chunks of the source code for Windows NT and 2000 are found circulating on the net.

What next - shock reports that Bill Gates has been secretly writing Linux programs?

We shouldn't get either of the problems out of perspective. The bug was certainly serious, but it doesn't look like it has actually been exploited in the wild, and the publicity campaign should ensure that pretty much everyone who wants to patch their system will have done so.

And having Windows code out in the open may help malicious hackers find more programming errors to exploit, but it isn't that great a risk. After all, the many known bugs were found without access to the source code.

I think, too, that we can discount the conspiracy theories already circulating on Slashdot and other geek websites.

It's unlikely that Microsoft released the code deliberately so that in a few years time they can claim it has been stolen for use in the Linux kernel, and I doubt that even the most Machiavellian corporate PR person would suggest releasing code so that the thieves could be blamed when new worms and viruses emerge.

Resources and skill

A lot of good people work at Microsoft, and a lot of them do an excellent job. While it's wrong to give them all the credit for the personal computer revolution - and revolution it surely is - Microsoft certainly did a lot to make computing the ubiquitous resource it is today.

And as the market for operating systems becomes more competitive, with both GNU/Linux and Mac OS showing that a desktop system doesn't need to be bloated or buggy, Microsoft might even clean up their act.

Bill Thompson
The source is the set of instructions given to the computer that, when executed, cause the behaviour we see on screen
They have the resources and the technical skill to be a major player in a more open market instead of the monopoly player they aspire to be.

However for me one of the most interesting - and rather depressing - aspects of the week's coverage was that it revealed just how little most people know, or are assumed to know, about the way computers and programs really work.

In the coverage of the release of the Windows source code we've seen journalists try to describe what it is that has been posted to websites around the net, but those who didn't descend into cliché seemed only able to use the most misleading metaphors.

Perhaps the most common is to describe the source code as a "blueprint", presumably because we've all seen movies in which architects pore over blueprints of buildings under attack, or because middle-class readers all have the blueprints of their extensions carefully filed away.

But source code isn't the blueprint: it is the thing itself. The source is the set of instructions given to the computer that, when executed, cause the behaviour we see on screen.

These instructions have to be converted from the programming language in which they are written, like C or Java or C++ into a binary equivalent that the computer can understand, but that process is not analogous to building a house from blueprints - it's more like translating a book from one language into another.

Processors everywhere

Similarly, the discussions of the bug in Windows were remarkable for their failure to establish exactly what it was that had gone wrong.

While telling people that there was a buffer overflow in the dynamic link library which implements the abstract syntax notation used for inter-process communication might have been over the top, it is at least accurate.

But writers, recognising just how little the general population knows or cares about how computers work, had to resort to complex explanations, inaccurate simplifications or misleading analogies.

It is time we did something about this. Among its many other responsibilities, media regulator Ofcom has been told to promote media literacy among the UK population.

Learning how to 'read' a TV programme, or deconstruct an advert or a website, is recognised as an important skill, part of being a full member of society.

As we become increasingly dependent on computers, with processors embedded in every domestic device and software making many of the key decisions in our lives, from when the traffic lights change to red to whether our plane will fly into the ground or land safely, it is surely important that we promote computer literacy too.

I don't mean teaching everyone to code or build websites. I mean the same degree of understanding of how computers work as we now expect from people who want a driving license.

Then we can look forward to headlines in the newspapers or online that say "Buffer overflow in Windows ASN.1 library: patch now", instead of the vague reports we were forced to endure this week.


Bill Thompson is a regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Go Digital.



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