Aris Silzars Display Technology Consulting

Wishful Thinking...April 2001

Is there a point at which one can properly assert that unbridled optimism has crossed over into wishful thinking -- or maybe even a denial of reality? I am beginning to feel that way about some of the next-step opportunities being proposed for the Internet and personal computers as control centers for our homes and for our lives. Here are the disconnects I am trying to reconcile.

Wishful Thinking #1. The Internet will become the way we do more and more of our computer-related work activities. Our files will be stored remotely and we will access software from central sites as we need it for a small usage fee. Our computers will become more of communications appliances than today's self-contained processing and data storage devices.

The Reality. In the last month, I have had to deal with at least a dozen virus-laden messages. Some I could recognize immediately as of suspicious origin. Several looked dubious and I checked with the sender prior to opening them. Sure enough, in both of these cases, they were indeed carrying nasty viruses. Three other e-mails came from "trusted sources" and my virus-scan software caught the creepy-crawlies before they could get through. Two of the three senders did not know that their computers were infected. Unfortunately, one evening, tired from a long trip home, I was looking through my latest e-mails and tried to open an attachment that came from a known source but didn't look quite right. Because of my travel schedule, I hadn't updated my virus scan program for about a week. I will skip the nasty details of what happened next. Let me just say that it was almost one week and $360 later before my computer was clean and safe to use again. There are still a few remnants of broken and missing software that keep my computer from running exactly as it did before -- like a car that has been repaired after a significant collision. A recently published survey by ICSA states that in the last 12 months 80% of the respondents had experienced viruses/Trojans/Worms. Is that acceptable for a ubiquitous product?

Wishful Thinking #2. In the future we will see more shopping and financial transactions handled over the Internet. Banking and bill paying will all be on-line.

The Reality. Our newspapers and television news almost daily report the latest attacks on commerce sites that end up with stolen credit card numbers, and on the recent rapid growth of a crime known as "identity theft."

Wishful Thinking #3. Soon the computer will become the central control point in our homes, helping us to control heating, lighting, appliances, entertainment functions, and security. We will all have keyless entry with biometric recognition. The computer will be the reliable device that helps us in our daily activities such as ordering grocery items, reminding us to pick up the cleaning, and keeping track of where we need to be next.

The Reality. In my home/office, we have two relatively new computers. We also have two older models that run on Windows 3.1 and DOS. The older ones get fewer hours of use, but can you guess which ones are the most reliable? The new machines, using the most popular software, can be counted on to hang up at least once per day. Why can my computer exit my Internet hook-up three times out of four successfully, but not the fourth time? I didn't do anything different that fourth time, so why the red "X" of an illegal operation? That and other peculiarities such as slowly eroding disk space and suddenly lost printer drivers don't exactly inspire confidence in these machines as reliable control points in my home or anywhere else in my life.

Given these apparent disconnects between the hopes and aspirations of the computer, software, and Internet providers and the reality experienced by us users, what can we expect to see in the future? Will this discrepancy be resolved or are we doomed to a stress-filled life of one computer-created crisis after another?

Unfortunately, there is not much that we in the display community can do directly to fix these problems. The products we provide have great reliability and seldom need attention. Both CRTs and LC-based displays are sturdy devices that survive even the rough handling of cross-country and cross-continent shipments without requiring re-calibration by the end customer. So what can be done to help with the software-created crises that are likely to get worse before they get better?

Somehow we must encourage the movement toward robust software products that will perform the functions they promise each and every time. These products must be immune to unauthorized attempts to change them. I would find great comfort in an operating system or other software that could only be changed by physically having to read the changes from a CD-ROM. The comfort of such protection (knowing that at least my operating system and my software are immune to invasion) would more than make up for any inconvenience, or small extra expense, of not being able to download updates over the Internet. At least I should be offered that choice in the products I buy. Then, whenever I wish, I could just back up my data files.

An astute attorney once told me that the only reason we have laws and written contracts is for when things go wrong. If we have an informal agreement and everything is going as we hoped, then there is no need for a written document. But when expectations diverge, then we need the protection of a written contract and sometimes even the courtroom. Have we engineers been so naive as to think that everyone would behave honorably when using computers and the Internet? If we can't count on that in any other facet of our lives why would it be different with computers? It's as if we have built our electronic houses with no locks on the doors. Anyone can just walk in and vandalize the contents. That seems like a rather naive and unscientific expectation of currently known human behavior.

My prediction is that we will have to struggle with the current situation for at least one or two more years. And it will continue to worsen. But sometime after that, there will finally be so much attention focused on these problems that it will force the major software company(ies?) to create the inherent protections that will allow us to conduct our computer business with a reasonable assurance of reliability and security. We can never expect to eliminate all bad behaviors but we can at least stop extending open invitations.

I would be interested in hearing your ideas on how we can create a more stable and secure environment for our computers and Internet-related activities. Perhaps we can gather them together and send them to the big software makers for their consideration. Please share your thoughts with me by e-mail at Email or president@sid.org, by phone at 425-567-8850, by FAX at 425-557-8983, or by the highly reliable and surprisingly secure method known as the US Postal Service at 22513 SE 47th Place, Sammamish, WA 98075.

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Aris Silzars is President of SID and lives on a hilltop overlooking Issaquah, WA.