Easier PCs Hinge on Better Security

Opinion: The PC will be simple enough when it is as simple-and as safe-to operate as a radio, television, telephone or toaster.

One could argue that technology has come a long way. PCs are cheaper and faster than ever, with more memory and storage capacity than in the past. High-speed Internet and wireless access are available nearly everywhere. Even voice over IP is nearing mainstream acceptance. And, for the most part, software is getting easier to use.

But—and you knew there was a "but" coming—theres one hurdle that we havent cleared: the mother-in-law test. This is not a knock on mothers-in-law. Its just that they come from a generation that did not grow up with PCs.

Case in point: My mother-in-law recently was given a new PC (by her other son-in-law), and because Ive set up computers for other family members, her first call was to me. I told her she would be able to get it going herself, but she felt more comfortable getting help. Another example: I was on the phone with my dad for more than an hour last week talking him through installing a driver for a USB flash drive on a Windows 98 machine.

Sure, there have been advances in simplicity, such as visual programming languages and Internet access, especially wireless. But Microsoft Word is needlessly complex and, more important, security threats inject an element of complexity into everything we do. The PC will be simple enough when it is as simple—and as safe—to operate as a radio, television, telephone or toaster.

Sadly, the trend seems to be heading in the other direction. PCs are getting easier to crack into; phishing messages are becoming more sophisticated. Before I hung up with my mother-in-law and father, I reminded them about the dangers of opening, responding to or clicking through links in suspicious e-mail. Its the same lecture companies are giving employees, but its not enough. If you read Dennis Fishers "Phishing Inc." story last week, you learned how phishing has become big business for organized crime.

Can a PC ever be as simple to use as a telephone? It seems so, if you consider that the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports economic productivity (output per hour worked) is up about 30 percent in the last decade, and the proliferation of PCs is a big reason behind that boost.

Ah, but can you say the same about your IT administration staff? Not unless you measure productivity by the number of patches installed, the number of spam messages blocked or the number of phishing scams thwarted.

A recent study of 1,400 CIOs by Robert Half Technology showed that 35 percent say improving network security is the No. 1 priority of IT staffs. Operating system maintenance was second, at 16 percent. Thats a lot of activity thats not going to the top line. Security improvements are costing businesses billions of dollars. By now we should expect technology to contribute to revenue growth, shouldnt we?

So, is it really possible to achieve simplicity, enough so that users can turn something on and accomplish what they need to accomplish without jeopardizing the security of themselves or their data or that of others with whom they work? Yes, but it may require a new way of thinking. The old IT adage of "Keep it simple, stupid" needs to evolve to "Make it simple, stupid."

Make systems that are locked down from the beginning and that restrict what users can do, where they can go and what they can download, or significantly cut the number of power users at your company. It will be hard for users to accept—IT administrators need to be jerks, meanies, hard-asses or whatever you want to call them. This may not be "new" thinking, but until technology can be made simple enough, then perhaps its uses need to be simplified.

Such draconian measures could hurt productivity for those who depend on PowerPoint attachments or graphic files coming in their e-mail. But there are ways around that, such as setting up secure FTP sites. For the rest of us who are expecting a certain e-mail or are not sure if someone got the one we sent, heres an idea: Pick up the phone. Its safe, reliable and easy to use.

Simple as that.

E-mail eWEEK Editor Scot Petersen at scot_petersen@ziffdavis.com.

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Scot Petersen

Scot Petersen

Scot Petersen is a technology analyst at Ziff Brothers Investments, a private investment firm. Prior to joining Ziff Brothers, Scot was the editorial director, Business Applications & Architecture,...