Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Why I Shun Some Microsoft Programs

This is something that I need to explain to almost every new customer; so it makes sense to write it down – finally.

For technical purists: I know my wording is not always technically 100% correct but this blog is written for totally non-technical people; their understanding of the concepts is more important to me than expressing my thoughts technically fully correct. I ask your forgiveness.

In the 1990s Microsoft developed a programming technology known as ActiveX. This technology naturally is widely used in all major Microsoft products. ActiveX programs require the so called “ActiveX environment” on any given computer to be able to work. Consequently all major Microsoft programs contain and supply an ActiveX environment.

In December 2009 Microsoft operating systems powered more than 92% of installed computers according to this ArsTechnica article. This market share has somewhat shrunk but I believe I still can say: Since ActiveX was introduced Microsoft has become a world encompassing monopoly.

According to Internet World Stats currently there are over 2.3 billion Internet users worldwide. Around 80% to 90% of these people use a computer that is run by an operating system from Microsoft.

What is a crook going to do if he wants to (ab-) use your computer for his purpose? What programming technology or programming language is he going to choose? Likely he will choose the programming language that will give him access to the largest number of computers, machines run by a Microsoft operating systems.

Around 2006 there were estimates that about 75% to 80% of all viruses were written in ActiveX. I have not found current statistics but that percentage is lower now. By my personal estimate currently ca. 50% to 60% of viruses are still written in ActiveX.

My conclusion: Just by not using certain Microsoft programs we can easily avoid common ActiveX viruses! Microsoft programs that I avoid are primarily:
  • Internet Explorer
  • Any and all Microsoft email programs
  • Windows Media Player
  • MS Word, Excel and PowerPoint when I need to tap into Internet connected features 
  • Microsoft Messenger (a chat program)    
How do I “get to the Internet” and write letters and so on you ask? The alternatives of my choice are all free, free as in no money at all and safe as far as malicious ActiveX programs go:
As usual I welcome comments and suggestions right here in the blog. Thank you in advance.

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Saturday, June 9, 2012

Why I Recommend A Backup Program for $$

Update June 20th 2016: Changed software recommendation

Again a customer's question required an answer that might be of general interest. Thank you Carrie L.

The lady asked: 
So you would recommend the xyz external disk drive PLUS the fully automatic solution which is the software that runs the xyz drive?  Or can I just get the fully automatic solution?  If I do, where does the backup go - to a company who stores it?
I would never recommend to store backups on a third party's computer or "in the cloud" as the many Internet based services are called now. Uploads (from your computer) to the Internet are just too slow! All these advertisements are an appeal to our complacency and unabashed attempts at getting a sticky finger into our wallets. These solutions may be feasible when a company has leased a fast connection into the Internet; technically we talk about T1 lines or faster. For the average home user this is simply cost prohibitive.

Storing backup data in the computer itself does not offer any security against data loss in case the computer fails badly. Everybody who has been around computers a little bit will agree that you need to store your data files outside of your computer; for the home user that is on an external disk drive! Ideally the files should be stored in the same format that the operating system uses.

So, yes, you need an external disk drive. These disk drives usually come with some sort of backup software. Mostly these programs create proprietary formats. Whether you can restore your data files from these proprietary formats on other, new computers is questionable at best. This specific piece of software might not run on a new machine or not be available for a new operating system.

Above mentioned proprietary formats usually are compression and/or encryption schemes of some sort. This makes backed up data files inaccessible for normal, standard means of the operating system. I totally oppose any of these schemes for home use, especially if the users are "normal" people that do not have a degree in computer science.

Every other backup program I know needs to be either run manually or be scheduled to run automatically. Manual operation usually gets forgotten or postponed until it's too late; I confess, I can't do it dependably!
Automatically scheduled solutions require
  • that your computer is always turned on at the scheduled time and on the scheduled day of the week and
  • that you do not work on the computer while the scheduled backup runs (the problem here are "open" files, files you are working with whether you know it or not; many backup programs can not handle open files correctly(!) and
  • that the computer does not enter sleep or hibernation mode while the backup is running (all Windows computers are by default set to go into sleep and hibernation).
Update June 20th 2016:

All too often a backup does not get done because, honestly, to run "that darned backup program" is an additional chore. And such chores get "forgotten" too often. But this something I can not change; if you want to be secured against data loss you will have to run backups - and you will have to do backups regularly! 

And to be totally honest, you will have to learn about the different basic backup concepts and functions and their names. There are literally many hundreds of tutorials about that on the Internet.
For Windows PCs I recommend the $70 (one time payment!) program Macrium Reflect. The free version is sufficient for most home users but you always can pay to upgrade.

You may want to read additionally this article about backup devices.
As usual I welcome comments and suggestions right here in the blog. Thank you in advance.

Stay safe.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Email Scams Getting More Elaborate

A few days ago I received an email that requested to "verify" my Yahoo! account. Similar scams happen for Hotmail.com, MSN.com and AOL.com based accounts all the time.

I took a screen shot of my email program to demonstrate a few details.

First warning flag:
In the top line you see (framed pink/purple) that the email comes from an individual Yahoo account in Australia.

Second warning flag: When I rested my mouse (without clicking!) on the link that textually seems to be from Yahoo! (red frame) you can see in the status bar on the bottom of the picture that the actually called web site is from a different web address, here "host-now.net". Never, ever click on a link that translates to something else than the link claims!

Third and most important warning flag: No reputable company, no financial institution, no Internet company, absolutely nobody who wants to be taken serious on the Internet will ever ask you to confirm personal or account information via email.

It is amazing that this still has to be repeated and repeated and repeated. Please use your common sense BEFORE you click!

As usual I welcome comments and suggestions right here in the blog. Thank you in advance.

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