The Threat of Standardization

Written By: Mike S.

Not too long ago Internet news sites and the mainstream press were reporting on Melisa, a computer virus that ended up costing the US more than $80 Million. Yesterday, the computing community was hit with a Melisa variant known as ILOVEYOU. This variant is more malicious and harder to contain then it's predecessor. It's so vicious that it's being called the fastest spreading and most destructive virus ever unleashed.

The sad part is that this computer epidemic could have been prevented. The reason it's so destructive is two fold: 1) Microsoft's Windows and Office monopoly 2) the corporate standardization mentality. The fact of the matter is ILOVEYOU would not have been so devastating had there been a greater diversity of platforms and applications in use. ILOVEYOU relies on the presence of Microsoft applications and technologies to do it's damage. It auto-spreads via Outlook, included with Office, and modifies Internet Explorer as well as a popular Windows IRC client.

Had companies been using Macintoshes, Unix systems, NEXTSTEP or OS/2 along with Windows, or simply not have been using Office, the virus would have infected far fewer machines and been far easier to contain. This simply isn't possible because Microsoft does all it can to prevent such diversity. They eliminated OS/2 and destroyed or "Embraced and Extended" any technology that would have made platform interoperability viable. This article isn't about Microsoft, however, it's about the pitfalls of the standardization argument used by so many IT departments

If you haven't heard it at your own workplace you've read about it online at your favorite Mac site. IT departments at corporations and schools make the claim that a single platform standard is the way to go because it will lead to greater reliability and lower management costs. Where do these arguments go in the face of one of these platform specific viruses? Where is the ease of management when you have to shut your network down for an unknown period of time? Where's the cost savings? Right now there are companies out there who can't use any computer because their network is infected. How much money do you figure a large company looses if it's forced to cease operations for an entire business day? What about the overtime they'll have to pay the IT department when they have to pull an all nighter?

Don't get me wrong, the idea of a standard is a good thing but it's not the OS that needs to be standardized and it's not even the applications. The computing community needs a set of standard file formats. Open formats that anyword processor, database, spreadsheet or Email app can read, write and manipulate. I've heard the argument that the MS Office suite of documents is such a format, that it gives companies a standard way to operate with each other. This is true to an extent, but it is not done correctly. MS Office forces the use of Windows or Macintosh but Microsoft can pull Macintosh support for Office at anytime once their five year deal with Apple expires. They are then free to dictate that all companies must use Windows, which most are doing already, in order to remain compatible. It is this very situation that makes viruses like ILOVEYOU and Melisa such destructive forces.

Think about it, a true open file format would allow companies and home users alike to choose any platform they please and use any combination of programs they are comfortable with. Yet, users still remain compatible with their workplace and their workplace remains compatible with their business partners regardless of the fact that all of them are using a variety of platforms and apps ranging from BeOS to Irix/ Appleworks to StarOffice.

To sum things up, there's nothing wrong with a standard. Just look at TCP/IP, X (Unix windowing protocol), USB, Firewire, Ethernet...the list goes on. The problem is that when businesses talk standards they mean one vendor, one platform, one set of apps and zero choice. It's really no harder to maintain a network consisting of multiple platforms since just about every OS I've seen uses very similar network config settings because there are networking standards. The problem is maintaining support for multiple OS' and apps. In this respect I can see where the IT departments are coming from but these people are paid large salaries to execute and maintain a corporate computing strategy and if I can learn how to operate and troubleshoot multiple platforms with my only compensation being an increase of knowledge and self-satisfaction then these "pros" should be able to do it as well.

If a single corporation wants to standardize on one platform/suite then that's a risk they'll have to live with but, as it stands, the majority of Corporate America is standardizing on that same platform/suite because they feel they must have Office and Office is only available in two places. Since switching to Macs would require a large investment in hardware they seem to be left with a choice of one. That, my friends, is a major threat to system security and, if conditions are severe enough, even the American economy.

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