Friday, December 6, 2013

I Hate (General Purpose) Computers

I hate computers. More specifically, general purpose computers. They cause me many hours of frustration, mostly due to malware.

Most people don't need or want the freedom to run the malware of their choice. They need a nice computing appliance with a well-designed GUI that "just works". General computing is important, it just shouldn't be the default option.

I propose appliance-default computers with a big red FTC mandated 'general computing' switch. It would save millions of hours in security and support costs, while protecting consumer freedom.

Anger and Frustration

It all started over Thanksgiving. Once again, it was time to answer family computer questions.

My father asked, "How can I be absolutely sure I don't get infected with CryptoLocker?". He was very concerned. It was on the news, and there was a warning email at work.

Unfortunately, there was nothing more I could tell him. He already does everything right, and could still be infected with CryptoLocker. There's nothing I can do: he has a computer and it can run malware. Sure there are precautions, but these are mostly useless.

Malware Precautions: Largely Useless

These (largely useless) precautions to avoid "being a victim" just happened to be on the news as I was drafting this blog post. The news report was about the recent social media password leak.

The precautions:

These precautions try to mask the core issue: malicious code can run on a computer, and there is nothing you can do about it except live in fear of every website and email attachment.

Even when following every single precaution, you could still be infected with malware.

Computers vs. Computing Appliances

The problem is that my father has a computer. A computer is a platform that permits arbitrary code execution. This encompasses pretty much all desktops and laptops.

What he needs is a computing appliance with a large monitor and a keyboard. A computing appliance is a platform that only permits execution of pre-approved code, like iOS or Windows on ARM.

In fact, the vast majority of people only need a computing appliance. They will never, ever develop software. They have no interest in running arbitrary, unapproved applications. The only unapproved code they will ever run is ZeuS or CryptoLocker.

A Computing Compromise

Every time OS vendors try to move into a direction of computing appliances, a vocal minority screams bloody murder. Just look at what happened when Microsoft introduced Secure Boot with Windows 8.

To some extent, these people have a point.

Computing appliances have many faults:

Of these, the last is the most important and can't easily be solved by competition between vendors.

It is important to let those who want to modify their computer and their software to do as they see fit. It just shouldn't be the default option.

The best execution of this I've heard of is the Developer Mode switch on Google's chromebooks. You have to physically flip a switch that allows unrestricted code execution. Additionally, flipping the switch wipes all local data.

It's a beautiful solution: there is no accidental enabling, and it prevents 'evil maid' attacks.

There is, of course, little profit in having a general computing mode in appliances. Most customers wouldn't use it, and it would cost time and effort to maintain. The only purpose would be to protect consumer freedoms.

Which is why computing appliances are a perfect target for government regulation. The FTC can require all computing appliances to ship with a 'general computing' switch to protect consumers from malware and controlling vendors. The millions of hours in saved frustration and tech support would be well worth it.