Software // Enterprise Applications
Commentary
1/2/2002
09:26 AM
Fred Langa
Fred Langa
Commentary
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Langa Letter: Ten Resolutions For Better Computing In 2002

Fred Langa details several proactive steps to take to keep your PC running smoothly all year long.

We all have our New Year's traditions. As a card-carrying geek, one of mine is to update a long-standing list of 10 things we all can do to help ensure trouble-free computing for the coming year.

Of course, "10" is an arbitrary number; these certainly aren't the only steps you can or should take. But chances are, you'll find at least one or two items here that can either help you get out of trouble with your hardware or software, or better still, prevent such trouble in the first place.

Please take a look at my 10 suggested resolutions for the New Year, and then follow the link at the end of the article to tell us what other resolutions you would add.

1) Broaden Your Operating-System Horizons
Yes, it's still a Windows-based world out there, and will continue to be so for some time to come. But almost every day brings to light a new problem with either Microsoft or its software.

For example, this last year we saw an astonishing stream of "unchecked buffer" security problems emerge in numerous Microsoft products. (A malicious hacker can use an unchecked buffer to insert dangerous commands into your software.) This systemic problem with unchecked buffers in Microsoft products reached its culmination late last year, with the first reports of security problems in the "universal plug and play" system built into XP and ME, and into the Internet Connection Sharing service in Win98. Microsoft initially downplayed these problems (assigning them a threat rating of "low"), and only changed its tune after non-Microsoft researchers dug deeper and uncovered a security hole (another unchecked buffer) so severe that malicious hackers could completely take over an affected system at its deepest levels. In fact, the problem was so dangerous that the FBI issued a dire warning in December. After that, Microsoft belatedly acknowledged that the problem was indeed of "critical" importance, and released a patch.

I think it says something very bad about Microsoft when third-party researchers and government agencies have to uncover and publicize glaring, extreme security problems in Microsoft products. That's especially so when the same kind of problem crops up again and again in other Microsoft products. Something's seriously amiss in Redmond.

For this and other reasons (which we'll cover in a future column), I think it's time for all Windows users to have a "Plan B" in mind: Begin exploring alternatives to Microsoft products. The free or low-cost Linux operating system is one obvious Windows alternative. Linux.Com is a good starting place if you're new to Linux; more expert users can find a world of Linux information via search engines. To go with your new operating system, consider something like Sun's free or low-cost Star Office suite as a potential alternative to Microsoft Office.

2) Embrace The "B" Word
Don't groan--I know it's not an enthralling topic, but I have to mention "backups." There's simply no substitute for having a complete, known-good backup of all your data files and essential system settings. Yes, products like "GoBack" and Windows' own "System Restore" (in ME and XP) let you try to undo bad installations, and Unerase/Undelete products can help you recover from user errors (such as deleting essential files by accident). But the only 100% certain, absolutely guaranteed way to ensure the survival of your setup and your data is with a full, current backup.

Backups used to be slow and clunky, but new products make them almost unbelievably cheap and fast. (Fore more information, see Fast, Easy Backups). If you're not making regular backups, try it. I can virtually guarantee that someday you'll be incredibly glad you did!

3) Keep Your Hardware/Software Fully Up To Date
It's a good idea to regularly check your vendors' sites for software and driver updates. I don't advocate installing every new update and patch that comes along, but know what's available, so you can make an informed decision. Every major hardware and software vendor has a download or update area; some software even comes with automatic-update features that check the vendor's site to see if newer software or drivers are available.

Whether or not updates are automatic, periodically swing by the Web sites of your PC maker, modem manufacturer, major applications vendors, and so on--and don't forget to visit Microsoft's own Windows Update site. Generally, any security-related patch or update is worthwhile on the face of it, but you can be selective with other patches. If a given patch or update fixes a problem you're having or that you think you'll likely, then grab it; if it's an obscure problem you don't think you'll run into, feel free not to download it.

The bottom line: By proactively and selectively keeping your system current, you'll eliminate known, solved problems, and thus reduce the likelihood of unexpected future trouble.

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