What's up with Windows

It seems a given that a Windows PC, connected to the internet, will almost certainly fail on some level. I am refering to the operating system itself. Not a hardware failure. What exactly is it about Windows which seems to make it so vulnerable to viruses, blue screens of death, and the like?

I haven’t seen a BSOD on an XP system in years. They occur on 9x systems because, well, the OS sucks. Operating systems are also unbelievably complex, so problems are bound to happen, and thankfully MS has improved somewhat.

Poor OS security design can account for some viruses, but the main reason that Windows has so many viruses is due to its popularity. There probably aren’t too many people designing OS/2 or even MacOS viruses these days, because they can only affect a comparatively small amount of computers.

I agree. Give a windows system a moderately decent antivirus program, and connection to the internet, and a fairly cautious and knowledgeable user, and there won’t be any problems.

On the other hand, there are users who, even though they aren’t computer illiterate as such, seem to be magnets for computer problems. (One of them is my brother. Sigh.)

The machine needs to be firewalled (although perhaps this is implied, since current service packs include Windows Firewall).

Without a firewall, there are exposed listening ports that could enable malicious intrusion. If the machine is on a LAN, then it needs its own firewall in addition to anything that is being done by the router, otherwise one compromised machine on the LAN can infect others.

The popularity of Windows is certainly a huge factor.

Is it the only reason that Windows tends to be the target of malware/viruses/spyware/etc? Probably not, although it’s a subject debated at length on many message boards (and I suspect you’ll soon find this thread in GD, not GQ). Other factors often cited:

• Alleged design flaws — the modern Windows (NT family, includes Windows 2000, Windows 2003, Windows XP, and the forthcoming Windows Vista), which was loosely based on the architecture of VMS, had some early holes punched in its privileges and security system as a byproduct of trying to make the OS more user-friendly, speedy, and automatic. Or so it is said. Entire layers of system-level processes were made open to being directly bossed around by things happening at the user-space level, and that left, umm, some windows open (sorry) for viruses and other malware to exploit. VMS was far more rigorous about keeping user-level processes boxed in narrowly; so are the traditional Unix variants, as well as MacOS X.

(I’m insufficiently knowledgeable to give the details, and therefore can’t directly attest to the truth of the above, it’s just what I’ve often heard said)

• Corporate politics — There is a lack of universal love and appreciation for Microsoft. As a company, MS is said to have stepped on many toes over the years, squeezed many companies out of business (and with them, the developers whose projects died so Microsoft’s version could live). According to this explanation, some of the folks writing viruses in a critical period (early to middle 1990s) were decently skilled coders with a grudge. They left behind a legacy of “cool radical attitude” associated with the creation of computer viruses, and tied them in with “hacking” in some folks’ imagination rather than just destructive vandalism, and it inspired a generation of “script kiddies” who thought they were doing something edgy & admirable. Nowadays creating publicized havoc with a computer virus attracts folks of the same mentality as graffiti vandals, but they are mainly copycats seeking to emulate and outdo what they’ve seen done. Meanwhile, other operating systems didn’t evolve the same kind of destructive fringe vandal culture because (so says this line of thought) the companies involved didn’t step on toes as often or as badly as Microsoft did. Not that Apple is some kind of warm and fuzzy company that never acts in ways that piss people off, but Microsoft’s reputation as a monopoly that acts like a monopoly is entirely well earned.

• Another argument involving “subculture at a critical time” kind of explanations, in the late 1980s and early to mid 1990s, both the Macintosh and the DOS/Windows platforms had viruses; more on the PC side back then, but more in proportion to the installed user base of the respective platforms. On the Mac side, a guy named John Norstadt put out a freeware antivirus (Disinfectant) and kept it updated for years, whereas PC users’ viruses were addressed with commercial antivirus software. Macs of that era were heavily present in education (where a Mac Lab operator at school or university could distribute Disinfectant to all the machines & users) while PCs of that era were, as now, particularly prevalent in corporate environments (where an IT Department would buy a site license and install commercial antivirus and keep it up to date), and perhaps as a consequence of that and also a bit of the “us-against-the-majority” attitude one often finds within any minority, Mac users who knew the Mac tended to bond and do mutual support and help out newbies while knowledgeable PC folks were more inclined to see their arcane knowledge as a lucrative trade skill. Consequentially, the free Disinfectant had a solid installed base on the Mac platform before the heyday of the internet, and by the end of the System 7 era the Macintosh virus was nearly an extinct species; on the PC, though, everyone knew someone whose PC had been infected and who had lost all their files. It’s cultural — people in neighborhoods without graffiti on the walls don’t go buy wide tip markers or spray paint cans and paint a tag on the side of the supermarket, and if graffiti suddenly does appear there, they are more likely to make some calls or even start sponging & scraping it off themselves; people who see graffiti on the walls and see folks putting it there and so forth get used to it, expect it to be there, are more likely to just accept its inevitability and existence rather than act to get rid of it, and are also more likely to put some up themselves.