MS CrystalBall 95

By Larry Seltzer  |  Posted 2005-08-24 Print this article Print

In the sense of security that was in place at the time, Microsoft would have said that security was a business/network issue, and that it was Windows NT that needed to be secure. Windows 95 was not designed to be secure, in the sense that it was not designed to be a part of a managed network. This turned out to be beside the point, which was that the biggest security problems are not in how a system is properly used but how the holes in its design and implementation are abused by outsiders.

But imagine that Microsoft had a crystal ball and wanted to design Windows 9x to be more secure.
Very, very few people at the time were greatly concerned with addressing vulnerabilities in their programs to overflows in the stack, even fewer in the heap, or bugs that could result in a privilege escalation. (Of course, there is no such thing as privilege escalation in Windows 9x, since everyone has ultimate privilege.)

Addressing these matters at the beginning would have been really hard, and the problems would have begun with the incredulity with which Microsoft would be greeted in claiming that the Internet presented a nightmare for computer security. Undoubtedly such analysis would be viewed as a scam to sell security software. And Win32, the API, and other guts of the operating system, had been under development for many years.

And of course, Microsoft was focused, as was everyone else at the time, with building the applications rather than making them secure. The really hard-core gold rush didnt begin for a couple of years, but it was definitely there at the time, and security was a distraction from it. Nobody wanted to believe in the security problems. They would much rather believe in nightmare Y2K scenarios that, after all, were useful for selling new hardware and software. And most of this new hardware and software was made possible by Windows 95 and its descendents. And so were the problems that sat there, just under the surface of the programs.

The first time I remember security getting serious ink (we still used ink back then) was in the ActiveX vs. Java arguments, and more generally about Java. Once again, the whole thing turned out to be largely beside the point. ActiveX has not actually been a major security problem and even if we accept that Java would be a very secure one, it was way ahead of its time in terms of system performance. Click here to read more about ActiveX and security from Larry Seltzer. To this day its not really considered acceptable in terms of performance for large applications. (Ask yourself why Sun doesnt use it for StarOffice.)

I wrote the first hands-on review of the Win32 SDK based on what would become Windows NT in my hotel room at the Win32 PDC in San Francisco in July 1992. It was based on work that had begun years before. Would Microsoft have been reasonable in imagining IRCbots and phishing scams back then?

Clearly they could have foreseen things being worse than they were, and they might have foreseen many of the problems that developed. But 10 years ago the PC industry had a lot of growth ahead of it, and Microsofts talents lay in driving that growth, not in prophylactic measures against theoretical problems, the addressing of which would only slow down product development. I suspect that even if they could have seen how the next 10 years would turn out, the wouldnt have done much different, security-wise.

Security Center Editor Larry Seltzer has worked in and written about the computer industry since 1983. He can be reached at Check out eWEEK.coms for the latest security news, reviews and analysis. And for insights on security coverage around the Web, take a look at Security Center Editor Larry Seltzers Weblog.

Larry Seltzer has been writing software for and English about computers ever since—,much to his own amazement—,he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1983.

He was one of the authors of NPL and NPL-R, fourth-generation languages for microcomputers by the now-defunct DeskTop Software Corporation. (Larry is sad to find absolutely no hits on any of these +products on Google.) His work at Desktop Software included programming the UCSD p-System, a virtual machine-based operating system with portable binaries that pre-dated Java by more than 10 years.

For several years, he wrote corporate software for Mathematica Policy Research (they're still in business!) and Chase Econometrics (not so lucky) before being forcibly thrown into the consulting market. He bummed around the Philadelphia consulting and contract-programming scenes for a year or two before taking a job at NSTL (National Software Testing Labs) developing product tests and managing contract testing for the computer industry, governments and publication.

In 1991 Larry moved to Massachusetts to become Technical Director of PC Week Labs (now eWeek Labs). He moved within Ziff Davis to New York in 1994 to run testing at Windows Sources. In 1995, he became Technical Director for Internet product testing at PC Magazine and stayed there till 1998.

Since then, he has been writing for numerous other publications, including Fortune Small Business, Windows 2000 Magazine (now Windows and .NET Magazine), ZDNet and Sam Whitmore's Media Survey.

Submit a Comment

Loading Comments...
Manage your Newsletters: Login   Register My Newsletters

Rocket Fuel