The Cure is Worse than the Disease

Nobody wants anti-virus software. It is an unfortunate necessary evil for Windows users. To that end, anti-virus software should be as transparent to the user as possible. It should simply do its job with a minimum of interruptions to the user and have as little impact to the computer’s performance as possible. It should NEVER cause problems – because that is exactly what anti-virus software is trying to prevent!

Introducing problems is the ultimate failure of anti-virus software but unfortunately it happens all too often. I’m not surprised. The very nature of anti-virus software is to place itself deep in the guts of the operating system and monitor every bit of data passing through it. Additionally, besides dealing with extraordinarily complex software, anti-virus developers are in a race to stay ahead of malware authors. Speed kills, especially when dealing with complex systems, and anti-virus programmers are moving at breakneck speed.

The recent, well-publicized, colossal blunder on the part of McAfee that rendered many users’ computers inoperable is a testament to this fact. It is entirely feasible that for many, McAfee’s software caused more pain and suffering than any virus or spyware would have! It is also a testament that the malware issue on Windows operating systems continues to escalate. As mentioned before, the desire to stop dealing with malware is one of the top reasons users are switching away from Windows. Situations like this only shine a much brighter light on the already glaring problem.

That elephant in the room continues to get larger. Pretty soon it may crowd everyone out.

Anti-Virus: EPIC FAIL

A few of years ago, by using a good anti-virus software, keeping it up to date, and avoiding “risky” behaviors online, I could confidently state to my clients that they would likely be virus-free. But in the last couple of years, I have perceived an increase in the number of malware infections. It has not mattered what brand of anti-malware software was being used. It seems none are completely effective all of the time. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but it just seemed like anti-malware software just wasn’t what it used to be.

Then I read this article, “Encryption and Anti-Virus are Failing,” and my suspicions were confirmed. A panel of experts at a security conference recently stated that current successful detection rates for popular anti-virus softwares are only between 70 and 90 percent. I remember when a detection rate below the high 90’s percentile was considered low! To me, detection rates like these are completely unacceptable. No wonder I’m seeing so many more malware cases. If anti-malware software leaves a 10 – 30% chance of letting an infection through, that’s a huge window of opportunity!

I’ve written before that the “elephant in the room” for Windows is its vulnerability to viruses and other malicious software. As much as Microsoft touts improved security in Windows 7, studies have shown that Windows 7 is just as susceptible to viruses as previous versions of Windows. If anti-virus software is only 70% effective, can you really call Windows secure at all? I’ve talked with a few people about this topic, stating that if this virus situation does not improve for Windows, at some point in the near future there will be a critical mass of users leaving Windows for operating systems that do not have a virus epidemic. News like this makes me think that this mass exodus may come a lot sooner than I first thought.

Apple iPad – Home Run or Strikeout? Part 2: Dawn of the Appliances

I’ve talked to many people over the years about my vision for the future of computing. In a nutshell, I feel that the computers of today are entirely too complex. Advancements in technology will allow computers to evolve into much simpler devices. I’ve used the term “appliance” to describe these simpler future computers. I believe appliance computers will be more like information portals than the general purpose personal computers we have today. Like the appliances we think of today, future appliance computers will be ubiquitous, they will serve more specific functions, and most importantly they will be extremely easy to use and much more reliable. Apple has certainly started down this road with the Apple TV, iPhone, and iPod Touch. Now, I believe the iPad will be the first device that will firmly begin to entrench the idea of appliance computing into the mainstream.

What makes the iPad more like an appliance than a PC? As I mentioned in part 1 of this series, the size, weight, and long battery life of the iPad make it already seem like an appliance from the future. Because iPads won’t be sitting on a desk like a desktop PC, or need to be attached to a charger for long periods of time like a laptop, the iPad will be a lot more accessible to their users – similar to appliances of today. Additionally, the streamlined Touch operating system of the iPad make means users will be using it in a more concise manner. I think users will pick up their iPads to perform fairly tasks at hand – again like an appliance. Finally, we expect reliability from our appliances and believe they will simply work when we need them. We don’t put up with “crashes” or odd behavior from appliances like we’ve become accustomed to with computers of today. The fact that the iPad does not have hard drives or fans will make it more reliable from a hardware standpoint and again the Touch OS ensures reliability from the software side. I don’t expect that the iPads will be “perfect” from a reliability standpoint, much as the iPhone and iPod Touch are not perfect, but compared to most computers of today, they are extraordinarily reliable.

By my criteria, appliance computers need to be ubiquitous. I believe the iPad will almost undoubtedly see widespread adoption. The low cost of the iPad and momentum that Apple has from the iPhone and iPod Touch will almost certainly assure that the iPad will gain a foothold in the market. I expect that early adopters will form lines at Apple retailers just like with the iPhone. From there, I believe the iPad will start eating into the low-end of the personal computing market – but not just in the netbook/laptop market. I think the iPad will also put dents into the low-end desktop market. Why would “grandma” spend $500 for a cheap desktop PC along with all the cables and complexity (not to mention low-quality) when she can spend $500 for an iPad? She’ll be able to do everything she wants and more in a simple device that doesn’t take up a lot of room and can be carried all around the house.

In addition, I can see that the iPad will grow the overall market of personal computing devices. The trend is already for multiple computer households. The demands of kids and family members to get access to the Internet have pushed the growth of multiple computer families. However, multiple computers means significantly higher complexity. The low cost and simplicity of the iPad will allow families to buy and make use of multiple iPads a lot easier than they can buy and setup multiple desktop or laptop computers. Many families who will not purchase multiple computers will purchase multiple iPads. This will allow the iPad to grow the computing market in a way the PC of today can not.

What I see for the future is the desktop and laptop computer as we know them shrinking into niche products. I can see that many homes will have probably just one main desktop or laptop computer (if needed) along with several iPad-like devices. As the iPad improves, it is entirely conceivable that the market for the general purpose computer of today will shrink down to only graphic artists, engineers, computer software developers, photographers, videographers and other highly technical users. This won’t likely happen overnight, but I feel the landscape of the computer market in the next five or ten years will be significantly slanted towards appliance computers like the iPad.

Of course, this transition won’t come without significant grumbling from those who are invested in the PC market of today. Not surprisingly, those are the people who are already downplaying or criticizing the iPad – just like they did the iPhone. I will respond to those criticisms in part 3 of this series, coming soon.

Apple iPad – Home Run or Strikeout? Part 1

Now that I’ve had time to study the iPad, read comments by others, and contemplate it all, I am ready to give my thoughts and opinions on this “magical device”. Because I have a lot to say, I will be breaking it down into at least three articles to make it a little easier for you to digest. I will begin with talking about the iPad from a hardware and software standpoint and how I think it will fare in the marketplace.

As usual, I will not go into a lot of detail on the features of the iPad. All the features and tech specs are available at Apple’s iPad website, which if you haven’t taken a look at, I recommend you do so right away. Instead, I will discuss some features which are the most important to this device. The iPad is in some ways a brand new type of device. In other ways, it is an improvement on previous tablet computers. There are a few main differences between the iPad and previous tablet computers which are critical to note.

The first is that the iPad’s main interface is a touchscreen that can be used without a stylus. While the iPad can be used with a keyboard attachment or a wireless keyboard, the majority of interfacing with the device will be by touching the screen with one’s fingers. Previously, most tablet computers required the use of a stylus, which was inconvenient as they could be easily lost. The iPad requires no such accessory for its use, keeping in line with Apple’s goal of creating products that are as simple to use as possible.

The second and most important distinction is that the iPad uses the same operating system as the iPhone and iPod Touch (which I will henceforth refer to as the Touch OS). Most previous tablet computers used the Windows operating system and some custom tablets used the Mac OS. Either way, these operating systems were designed for desktop computing. Desktop computers, and by extension, laptop computers have a keyboard and mouse as their primary interfaces. As evidenced by the lackluster sales of previous tablet computers, operating systems and software designed for desktops did not translate well to devices that used touch interfaces. Apple’s approach with the iPad was the to take an operating system that was designed for a small touchscreen and scale it up to a bigger screen. It appears that this approach will be a success from a usage standpoint. The ease of use that the iPhone and iPod Touch are known for seem to carry over to the larger iPad.

The final differences revolve around the size and battery life of the iPad. Previous tablets were the size and weight of laptops and often were laptop/tablet hybrids with keyboards and a pivoting screen. The iPad is only 1.5 pounds and is only half-an-inch thick. While the smaller size and weight may not seem like a big deal, the reduced size and weight of the iPad will make it very easy to carry around. As well, the 10 hour battery life means that the iPad will spend less time on a charger. All this will result in the iPad being more accessible to their owners which will result in much greater overall usage of the devices. The more they are used, the more their owners will become accustomed to and then attached to their devices. I’ll speak more to the “impulsive” appliance-like nature of the iPad in my next article.

So will the iPad be useful for most users? Realistically, most computer usage today revolves around the core functions of the iPad: web browsing, e-mail and digital media (photos, video, music). Throw in contacts, calendar, notes, and mapping capability and it is a well rounded device up to this point. The next big feature is the iBooks app and store, basically turning the iPad into an electronic book reader like an Amazon Kindle. This is a potentially “killer app” and one I will write at length about later. Finally, the iPad can run virtually all the apps from the Apple App Store.

Even before it hits the market, the fact that the iPad already has a very large pre-existing library of apps gives it a solid start. I think most users will find the iPad very useful and it will likely become a hit like the iPhone and iPod Touch have. But the iPad is a new type of device and it will not replace the personal computer – at least not yet. I will talk about this more in part 2 of this series so stay tuned.

Resolution to KB971486 and 0x000000E3 Blue Screen, Windows XP

I had a client experiencing a blue screen of death (BSOD) upon every boot with error 0x000000E3, “a thread tried to release a resource it did not own”. This was not a BSOD error I ever recalled seeing. Most of the information I found on the Internet was irrelevant, but I did find several postings on forums from users who were experiencing this exact same error. I quickly realized all the postings were from today or yesterday! All reported that this error occurred after running some Microsoft updates, which was the exact symptoms of my client. Unfortunately, all the solutions were to do a repair install of Windows XP.

So I set about to find a better solution than a repair install. I won’t bore you with the details of how I discovered the fix so I can get this info out there as soon as possible and help the poor souls who will likely experience this problem in the next few days or weeks. I found that Microsoft update KB971486 is the trigger to the problem.

(Update: see the end of this article for an additional method of uninstalling KB971486. Update #2: see another method suggested by a commenter for those using a boot CD or attaching their hard drive to another computer) I was able to resolve the issue for my client by accessing his hard drive from a boot CD and manually copying the following files:

COPY  “C:\Windows\$NtUninstallKB971486$\ntkrnlmp.exe” “c:\Windows\driver cache\i386\ntkrnlmp.exe”

COPY  “C:\Windows\$NtUninstallKB971486$\ntkrnlpa.exe” “c:\Windows\driver cache\i386\ntkrnlpa.exe”

COPY  “C:\Windows\$NtUninstallKB971486$\ntkrpamp.exe” “c:\Windows\driver cache\i386\ntkrpamp.exe”

COPY  “C:\Windows\$NtUninstallKB971486$\ntoskrnl.exe” “c:\Windows\driver cache\i386\ntoskrnl.exe”

COPY  “C:\Windows\$NtUninstallKB971486$\ntkrnlpa.exe” “c:\Windows\system32\ntkrnlpa.exe”

COPY  “C:\Windows\$NtUninstallKB971486$\ntoskrnl.exe” “c:\Windows\system32\ntoskrnl.exe”

COPY  “C:\Windows\$NtUninstallKB971486$\ntkrnlmp.exe” “c:\Windows\system32\dllcache\ntkrnlmp.exe”

COPY  “C:\Windows\$NtUninstallKB971486$\ntkrnlpa.exe” “c:\Windows\system32\dllcache\ntkrnlpa.exe”

COPY  “C:\Windows\$NtUninstallKB971486$\ntkrpamp.exe” “c:\Windows\system32\dllcache\ntkrpamp.exe”

COPY  “C:\Windows\$NtUninstallKB971486$\ntoskrnl.exe” “c:\Windows\system32\dllcache\ntoskrnl.exe”

In effect, this is uninstalling the update. Update #3 I would suggest that after you get your computer booting, you properly uninstall the update from the Add/Remove Programs control panel. Note that while I used a boot CD to access the hard drive, you could also remove the drive and connect it to another computer and accomplish the same thing. I’m sure there are other methods, but that is beyond the scope of this article.

I’ve not had time to fully test all aspects of this fix, so I can’t guarantee this will fix the problem if you are experiencing it, or if this is a complete fix. But hopefully it will get your computer booting so you can use it.

Links to Digg, FaceBook, Twitter, etc. are at the end of this article just above the comments. Do everyone a favor and spread the word, as this seems like this may be an emerging widespread problem.

Update: There is another method for uninstalling any Microsoft update that is applicable here. Here is the quick rundown:

1. Boot from your Windows XP CD or DVD and start the recovery console (see this Microsoft article for help with this step)

2. Type this command: CHDIR $NtUninstallKB971486$\spuninst

3. Type this command: BATCH spuninst.txt

4. Type this command: exit

The computer should restart and hopefully your problem will be fixed. Again, go to the Add/Remove Programs control panel and properly uninstall KB971486.

Update #2: If using UBCD or any other boot CD, a simple solution is to rename the file C:\Windows\$NtUninstallKB971486$\spuninst\spuninst.txt to spuninst.bat then just double-click it. This will automate the uninstallation process. Thanks to commenter Mark for the tip!

Update #3: A few users have commented that “properly” uninstalling the update from Add/Remove Programs control panel made things worse. I have now personally observed this. So I am recommending that once you fix the blue screen problem using one of the above methods, don’t bother uninstalling KB971486 from the Add/Remove Programs control panel.

Windows 7 Release Date Confirmed

A post on the Windows Team Blog states that Windows 7 will be on store shelves October 22nd. Additionally, the “release to manufacturing” or RTM date will be sometime in late July. RTM is basically a term for the final production version of a software project, or the version that will be pressed onto discs. Basically, Microsoft partner companies will have access to the production version of Windows 7 about 3 months before it is released to the general public. Companies that will receive the RTM code are usually PC manufacturers, software developers, and large corporations.

It is interesting to note that while this blog post seems to come from an “official” Microsoft source, there has not been a truly offical press release from Microsoft yet on this. Why, I’m not sure. Perhaps they will hold a press conference soon and just wanted to float the news via the blogosphere first.

So assuming this info is true, Microsoft will have Windows 7 available in time for the holiday shopping season, which should make PC manufacturers happy since they should see a surge in sales. Microsoft was not able to make this happen with Vista, which in hindsight, was probably for the best.

So we will now see what will come of Windows 7. Will it be simply “a stripped down version of Vista” that brings nothing new to the OS table, or will it be well-received and bring some credibility back to Microsoft. It should be an interesting last quarter of 2009.

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