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Windows Vista Diary: New Mac Ad Pokes Fun At Vista Security

I had forgotten how annoying Vista's User Account Controls (UACs) are, until I was reminded by the latest installment in Apple's series of uber-cool Get A Mac television ads.
I had forgotten how annoying Vista's User Account Controls (UACs) are, until I was reminded by the latest installment in Apple's series of uber-cool Get A Mac television ads.The new ad, entitled "Security" according to Apple's Web site, but more popularly known as "Vista Versus Mac," features hipper-than-thou Justin Long as "Hello, I'm a Mac," and Bill Gates surrogate John Hodgman as the hapless "PC."

Here's the ad:

The commercial pokes fun at Vista's persistent pop-up dialog boxes, which appear pretty much every time you want to install an app, attach a thumb drive, or do anything new. In theory, this is good. In practice, as I've noted previously, Vista's UACs are the software equivalent of the boy who cried wolf.

That's what Apple's ad highlights, deflating the UACs by mimicking how they actually work. In the ad, a bodyguard behind Hodgman repeatedly asks: "Cancel or Allow."

"He's part of Vista, my new operating system," explains Hodgman "He asks me to authorize pretty much anything I do. I could turn him off, but then he wouldn't give me an warnings at all…that would defeat the purpose."

Well, QED!

True, the Apple ads are unfair in that they present a false dichotomy between supposedly dumb PC users and with-it folks who've opted for Apple. (For more in this vein, with some well-done skewering of the Justin Long character, see Slate's piece from last year, "Apple's mean-spirited ad campaign.")

However, the ads do raise anew a serious issue, one which Microsoft had promised to address, but doesn't seem to really have taken to heart. There are actually two issues here, which needs to be considered separately.

  • First, the User Account Control dialog boxes. When Vista was in beta, Microsoft had made noises that it would revisit this issue of the intrusiveness of the UAC. If I'm not mistaken, they did a slight tweak to the contents of the UAC dialog box between the first beta and the final release of the operating system. However, they haven't addressed the crux of the problem, which is that the boxes pop up so frequently they're essentially ignored by most users.

    Microsoft might argue that novice users need such reminders. (They might further argue that most Vista home users, by virtue of the fact that they're using Vista, are novice users. But that's a rather abstract, and not entirely fair, argument, so I won't go there. Plus, I use Vista at home.) There also is an extremely legitimate argument that you don't want to allow unsigned (i.e, untrusted) applications to be installed on Vista. However, common sense tells us that, with UACs popping up all the time, users aren't able to figure out where they're really supposed to be concerned. Further, a serious alert system wouldn't be binary (allow/don't allow); it would present some kind of graded alert, a software terrorist warning, as it were.

    [For a slightly more detailed presentation of a Microsoft perspective on UACs, see this message from the moderator on Microsoft's TechNet Security Forum. The forum itself is also a valuable resource for its discussions of UACs and related Vista security issues.]

  • The second issue is that the focus on the out-of-control UACs obscures the real and deep security advances built into Vista. Along with a design which sandboxes applications code to a much greater extent (this means keeps code from getting outside of where it should be, so it can't mess with other parts of the operating system), Vista's invisible but important security enhancements include a much stronger Internet firewall. There's also BitLocker, which enables users to encrypt the contents of their hard drive.
  • The bottom line is, from a self-interest standpoint, it seems Microsoft would want to get the UAC issue out of the way so it can sell the true security improvements in Vista. And make the Justin Long character the doofus for a change.