Can You Beat Them And Join Them? Microsoft Finally Feels Insecure

There is a war brewing, on these shores and abroad, that threatens our most basic need for security and autonomy. On one side is a tremendous superpower wielding political might with all the subtlety of a Cosa Nostra henchman. Squaring off against this formidable behemoth is a similarly large collective whose processes, shrouded in mystery and tightly guarded tradition, befuddle the wisest among us. The regimes described are not the United States and China, though this melodramatic exposition would certainly suit them equally well.

Our combatants are the ubiquitous Microsoft of Redmond and the community of "hostile coders" that take advantage of Mr. Softyis, well.... soft spots. The security holes in various Windows incarnations are wide enough to pass an EP-3E surveillance aircraft, and this fact has been a minor source of pride for the Mac community.

Those lucky enough to work with Macs amid the Wintelligentsia will remember the "ILOVEYOU" and "Anna Kournikova" Outlook assaults, and hopefully each of you kept the gloating to a minimum. Other Mac users live in blissful ignorance, residing in those isolated Cupertopian fields where only G4is grow and iBooks dangle off orchard branches , having never confronted the handywork of crafty macro viral hackers. A tip of the cap to you, my heroes.

Now Microsoft (Nasdaq ticker: BILL?) decides to get with the program, announcing Tuesday at the RSA Data Security Conference in San Francisco that the imminent release of Windows XP will be eminently secure. "The idea is, if you are a normal home user, to be able to turn on your PC, not do anything else, and you will be safe and secure," comments Steve Lipner, manager of Redmondis security response center.

Lest you think this is another golden opportunity to rub salt in the security wound, I will spare the obvious reminders of a certain operating system that largely solved this and other thorny issues (like Y2K?) about 16 years ago. Everyone knows this is Microsoftis trick knee, so why kick it?

The more important facet of this initiative is the homage it pays to Unix, rapidly being acknowledged in broader media outlets as one of the few great ideas to come out of the 1970is. "(Windows XP) is based on the Windows NT code base -- itis a real operating system," Lipner said, referring to the retiring of the old Windows code.

While some may have quibbles with NT, Lipneris implication that a "real" OS has true user-based security measures, a la Unix, serves to legitimize years of griping by beleaguered Win95/98/ME users (as well as countless Macolyte potshots).

Nevertheless, the lessons of UNIX arenit learned overnight, especially when you arenit actually using UNIX. Seasoned developers with the best accumulation of experience Redmond can buy are charged with the task of patching the patchwork while maintaining secure coding standards. If you can imagine five highway workers filling a pothole, youive got the picture.

Followers of PC history will peg the XP interface and UNIX-like security as another example of Microsoft riding the coattails of an idea that Apple popularized first. I say that analysis is more a conditioned reaction than truth. A company as entrenched as Microsoft acting with uncharacteristic reverence (see also the two recent nods toward FireWire and AirPort, with back-handed snubs of Intel and Bluetooth, respectively) shows us something new.

In converging the fundamental differences between the platforms, Windows and the Intel boxes it resides on will seemingly try to out-Mac the Mac. Knowing the likely outcome of that Battle Royale, I think we can now sleep at night with Lipneris assurance that, "we are imbuing security into [Microsoftis] culture, we really are."

Jeremy Jones is a freelance writer from Minneapolis whose work has appeared, finally.

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