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Twice Bitten

We, the User Bees, must talk back to the tech giants

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Is anything more blinding than choosing a political party? You feel compelled to defend lawmakers of that stripe, regardless of their stupidity. Most Democrats defended President Clinton for cavorting with a young intern while conducting the nation's business; yet they would have fried a Republican for the same stunt. Then, New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani's philandering is exposed; Republicans are curiously quiet, even as New Yorkers joke that Rudy now only wants nine commandments in school rooms.

In the technology arena, too, many consumers blindly follow one "party" or another. Microsoft weasels into the front-runner position; users defend its every move. Meantime, other OS users do the same.

The day after the Lovebug virus hit, I extolled readers to pressure Microsoft to close on-by-default security holes in its Outlook Express e-mail program (which is tied to Visual Basic scripting, which is tied to Windows, which is tied to Bill Gate's hip bone, and so on). Microsoft, I wrote, was a primary culprit in the Lovebug virus devastation that has cost some $2 billion in lost resources and income for individuals and businesses. The company had not closed the holes, although they have been repeatedly exploited (remember cousin Melissa?). It had only quietly suggested downloading a patch that would bring up an "are you sure?" dialog box with every attachment -- as if that would help with attachments ostensibly coming from loved ones.

Lo and behold, Microsoft listened to complaints this time. Last week it announced a patch to block any executable attachments. That may be overkill, but at least Microsoft is acknowledging that it is part of a computing community where everyone has a responsibility. The user should not send or open any unrequested attachments. Obviously, the actual virus perpetrators should be apprehended. But, there will always be another loser geek ready to find his 15 minutes of notoriety behind bars. So when a company does not repair obvious security holes, consumers talk back -- or shop elsewhere.

That's capitalism at its finest. And it illustrates well the dangers of monopolies: Imagine if you could only buy tires from one company, and those came with weak spots. Should you really be blamed for not seeing the nail on the road?

Yet, so many Microsoft (and Apple and whomever) apologists go ballistic at the idea that we should demand better service from our computing providers, or dump them. We're supposed to be loyal little user bees. In my first Lovebug column, I wrote that, as a Mac OS user, I'm immune to most current viruses. From the angry e-mail I got, you'd think I'd fired the first torch in the battle between Maximus and the barbarians. One reader: "there is clearly a hole left by the Unabombers arrest for an anti tech luddite (sic)."

These Microsoft disciples missed my point. The Mac OS is immune from most current viruses, but, clearly, that could change. It's currently not the dominant OS so a virus attacking Macs might make the world a little less creative for a few days, but it wouldn't cripple the masses. The bigger point is, the Mac OS has not repeatedly been the target of widespread viruses enabled by its own security holes. It could be, though, especially as the popularity of the Mac OS continues to ascend, and if Apple designs exploitable holes into its applications. If that happens, watch for Microsoft yes men to start blaming the OS, and Mac fans to whine about the stupid users.

It's painfully predictable. Most users seem so brainwashed by an operating system that they'll defend it at all cost. In the past, I've praised Apple products because I don't want to be stuck with one computing choice, especially that Windows dud. But I have also criticized the Steve Jobs empire, much to the chagrin of Apple apologists who want nothing but loyalty.

I don't care. If we give up our right as consumers to vote with our pocketbooks, or our keyboards, what will we have left? My guess: mediocre standards and a bad case of the flu.

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