Living Without Computer Viruses

Most of us have received at least one of those urgent forwarded virus alert emails from friends and relatives.  I got one last night, announcing a “new and very dangerous” greeting card or postcard virus that will “Erase your C: drive.”  This does not concern me, since none of the computers I use to read email have a C: drive, for one.  Second, this is just another one of those viral email hoaxes, that provoke well-meaning folks to flood their friends’ mailboxes with empty warnings.  If you get one, check it out before you forward.  Most of them say the virus alert has been issued by McAfee or other anti-virus company and verified by Scopes, a site that tracks these things.  But, if you go to those sites yourself, you will find disclaimers exposing the hoax.  Trust your friends, but verify their information.

This does not mean there aren’t dangerous computer viruses: any executable attachment or link in an email can be the source of a Microsoft Windows virus. Note I did _NOT_ say “computer virus”. Viruses infect vulnerable software, not computer hardware.  By nature, single-user computer systems like Microsoft Windows are vulnerable.  The constant parade of security fixes attack symptoms, but do not change the fundamental design.

Please consider switching to a safe operating system. The obvious choice is one based on Unix, a multi-user system built on the premise that the system files must be protected from the users and the users’ files from each other.  Unix-like systems available to the home and small business user are Apple’s OS/X, GNU/Linux, Oracle’s Solaris, or one of the several BSD variants.  If your budget or preferences exclude Apple Computer from your choices, you can convert your unsafe Microsoft Windows system to GNU/Linux for free (or, at most, the cost of a blank CD or DVD disk and a long download). And, if needed, you can keep Windows on the hard drive to run programs you “must” have, using the Grub menu to select which system to boot.

Keeping your Windows applications might not be necessary, as GNU/Linux comes with every type of program imaginable, either on the install disk or downloadable over the Internet (from the distributor of the system you install). If you are comfortable with Microsoft Office, OpenOffice will be easy to switch to.   For those who need to make the switch gradually, many of the most popular Windows programs can be installed on Linux directly, running under Wine (or the easier-to-use commercial Wine wrapper, Crossover Office), and still enjoy the safety of the underlying system.

Firefox, with which many Windows users are already familiar, is the default Internet browser in Linux. A wide variety of games, chat clients, and other office productivity tools for managing and editing photos and documents are either built-in or available with a mouse click–at no additional cost. Updates and fixes for the software you have installed are automatic, but on your schedule–the system never reboots without your permission or interrupts your work.

How is this possible? Because of a 30-year movement started by Richard M. Stallman and maintained by the Free Software Foundation to promote freely-sharing the ideas embodied in computer software, embodied in the source code itself.  It is possible because the developers are paid to solve a problem, usually through leveraging other solutions through source code written by others and freely distributed. You only pay if you need personal services installing and using the software, through print books, telephone support, and consultant support.  Even though only the source code is freely available (as in free speech), companies package complete systems on CDs and DVDs and distribute them for free (as in free beer), or for the cost of packaging and shipping.  You only pay if you decide to keep using the product and need support.

Free (openly published) software enriches society, not corporations. And, it creates jobs, by reducing startup and operating costs for small business and permits rapid adoption by larger companies.  The vast majority of publicly-accessible web sites are served by computers running GNU/Linux–a secure, stable, and scalable system that you, too, can adopt for greater peace of mind and to unlock the full power of your computer.  After all, your computer is not sick, your software is.