PCs Arent for Everyone

For some, platform is unsafe at any speed.

Not everyone should have a personal computer. There. Ive said it. Youll say Im a techno-elitist, that I believe that some people should be excluded from the technology revolution. Thats not true.

I believe that everyone should be part of the technology revolution. But I dont think PCs are the right platform for everyone because of their high complexity level and because of the harm that not understanding these systems can cause users.

In June, I wrote a column, headlined "Idiocy imperils the Web," in which I noted that users continued ignorance is one of the main reasons that viruses are able to propagate. There was a flood of e-mail in response, some accusing me of blaming the victims. In one message, the reader said his grandmother just wanted to be able to chat and exchange mail with friends, visit Web sites for her hobbies and do some basic word processing, so she didnt need to understand the deep underpinnings of her system.

The fact is, there are plenty of users with similar basic needs. However, theyre using a tool that is much too powerful and dangerous for these tasks. If your grandmother needed a vehicle to get to the store, would you buy her an Apache helicopter or a Toyota? If she wanted a knife to cut sandwiches with, would you give her a bread knife or a laser-honed samurai sword?

If your grandmother isnt willing or capable of learning all the aspects of controlling her computer, it can do harm to her and to others.

Do you want her system to be full of spyware that could be used to con her into buying products she doesnt need? Do you want businesses and other agencies to know every aspect of her computer and Internet use? Do you want her system to have Trojans on it that malicious persons will use to steal her money and identity? All these things can happen if a person treats a computer like a generic appliance and not like a complex and sophisticated piece of equipment that requires understanding and training. Face it: Modern computers are much too powerful and potentially dangerous for people who cant learn how to secure and manage them properly.

However, theres no reason why a safer, easier, capable and less expensive system shouldnt be available for users with basic needs.

Sure, personal Internet appliances like 3Coms Audrey and Microsofts WebTV have been tried and found wanting. But they failed because they sacrificed too much functionality, were too expensive and came at the wrong time. Looking at current open-source technology and system advances such as Mini-ITX, a scaled-down PC motherboard, a very capable and safe personal appliance could be made and sold for the magical price of $100.

Using many of the trusted system and secure file technologies that have come out recently, such a system could be designed to be immune to most spyware, viruses and Trojans, and could be designed so multisession tracking is impossible. And the system would sacrifice very little in terms of Web surfing, e-mail and basic word processing. In fact, the recently released WebStation from Lindows (info.lindows.com/webstation) meets many of these criteria. If Lindows can build a system like this, theres no reason other vendors cant follow suit with secure privacy-protected systems.

Marketed as a secure, easy-to-use but highly capable appliance, such a product would meet the needs of users who dont need or shouldnt have a highly powerful PC system. Such systems could even become very popular in businesses, where they could be safely deployed to the many users who need only these basic capabilities. Suns Sun Ray network computer addresses some of these needs but hasnt caught on because of its price and inability to run mainstream office software. Unfortunately, major PC and electronics vendors have not been moving in this direction. And many software vendors are moving in the opposite direction with products like media players that track everything you do.

But when the inevitable backlash against this practice comes, a smart vendor could do very well offering safe and cheap systems that protect your privacy.

Until then, if youre not willing to learn how to secure and manage a powerful PC, then maybe you shouldnt get one.

Jim Rapoza can be contacted at jim_rapoza@ziffdavis.com.