Writings on technology and society from Wellington, New Zealand

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Today on the radio

Today on Radio New Zealand National I’ll talk about a whole list of things – not sure if I’ll get time for them all. I’m going to mention the rumours that IBM will buy Sun, talk about why you can’t use your mobile on the London Underground, how you can tell if your computer is infected, and about where the value lies in software, which is based on a blog post I made a few days ago. I’ll put some of my speaker notes and the links for the program behind the “more…” below.

Listen live at 11:05 or download the audio as ogg or mp3.

Q: Anything else for use this week?

A: Londoners can’t use their mobiles on the London Underground, that’s the tube to its friends. The technology exists to make the mobiles work, but its not going to happen, in the short term anyway.

Q: Would you want someone next to you yapping on their mobile?

A: Would you be able to hear it? The tube is such a noisy place that I don’t know how you’d hear a mobile phone if it was next to your ear!

Q: Is there any thought of making mobiles work on aircraft?

A: I wouldn’t rule it out. It’s technically possible to modify an aircraft so that mobiles could safely be used, but it would be expensive, because you’d have to use satellites to get the signal in and out. And again, do you want to be sat in economy next to someone yammering away? I don’t think this one will fly!

Q: OK – anything else for us today?

A: A good article in the Herald called “How to tell if your machine is infected”. This is a serious issue on the Internet today – people taking over your computer and using it for their own nefarious ends like sending spam. The article gives some signs that this has happened – your system keeps going slowly for a while, or you have dozens of popup ads you just cant get rid of, or you keep ending up at web sites you didn’t intend to visit.

If this is your computer, try getting it scanned. There are several sites on the web that will do this for free, and they may be able to clear up the mess. The only guaranteed way to get it clear, though, is to reload your operating system and all your software from scratch, which is an arduous business and not for the faint hearted. You’d need to back your data up first, of course – you should be doing that anyway.

Q: Sounds scary!

A: It is, a little. The second best way to avoid this kind of thing is to make sure you are running up to date system security software, like Norton, McAfee or Kaspersky. You need to pay for this, and keep paying to keep it up to date. It’s a royal pain. One of the antivirus, called AVG, has a free version which provides a basic level of protection.

Q: You said that’s the second-best way?

A: The best way is not to use the same operating system as everyone else. Use Linux or a Mac and you won’t need to worry about security, or at least not to worry as much as Windows users.

Q: So what do you really want to talk about today?

A: What drives the pricing of desktop software? Unlike physical goods, software has upfront development costs but very little cost of producing each copy. So the traditional cost-based model that we use for, say, cars doesn’t apply. The competition for Microsoft Office, say, is mainly from the free OpenOffice, although the (also free) Google Docs, which runs on Google’s servers rather than on your computer, is getting some attention. Another paid alternative is Apple’s iWork suite which goes for a lot less than Microsoft Office but only runs on Apple hardware. So, the price of Microsoft Office is staying high despite the availability of free competition. That’s a neat trick, and its achieved mainly through the fear of re-training costs and incompatibility. Incidentally, its why Office is available for home users at a far lower cost than it is for commercial users.

But, the question for those of us who use software is: what drives the price? And, how can we justify using software with any kind of price tag in today’s environment when free software is available? That’s particularly a question for CIOs as they see their budgets slashed in the recession. And it’s very relevant to government, which buys an enormous amount of desktop software – so much so that it tries to negotiate specific government wide deals with the main vendors, in an attempt to control its software costs.

The French Police force has recently converted to Ubuntu Linux. A quote from their CIO, Lieutenant Colonel Xavier Guimard:

“Moving from Microsoft XP to Vista would not have brought us many advantages and Microsoft said it would require training of users. Moving from XP to Ubuntu, however, proved very easy. The two biggest differences are the icons and the games. Games are not our priority.”

The German Foreign Ministry converted some time ago. Last year I met the man who had taken that decision, a diplomat named Rolf Schuster. He said that cost of maintenance – not just the purchase price – had proved to be much lower than running pay-for software.

Q: Is this happening here?

A: Not yet, but you’d have to hope that the government will take notice and realize that there is some real money to be saved here. You would think that the government would appreciate spending modest amounts of support dollars on local companies to help them with open source rather than remitting a far larger amount overseas in licence fees.

One last thing – Terry Waite has come out in support of Gary McKinnon. Most people will remember Terry Waite as the former Church of England envoy who spent several years locked up in Beirut. We’ve mentioned McKinnon before, as well – he’s a British man who in about 2001 went looking into US military computers to feed his obsession about UFOs and cover ups. It was stunningly easy for him to get in – they mostly had very simple obvious passwords. And he left little messages saying that their security was rubbish – that’s probably what cooked his goose. Anyway, the Brits have agreed to extradite him to the US where he will face a probably lifetime in jail. He’s been diagnosed with Asperger’s, and its clear he doesn’t have the same grasp on reality as the rest of us. A list of celebrities from Terry Waite to Boris Johnson have come out in his support and say he shouldn’t be sent to the US.


Mobes on the Tube? Not going to happen.

IBM trying to buy Sun?

How to tell if your machine is infected. If you are worried, scan your PC.

How to reinstall Windows XP or Vista.

Windows security software – a ‘must have’ if you run Windows. This mostly costs money, but there is a free but basic suite.

French Police save millions by switching to Linux

German Foreign Ministry goes to Linux – ‘it’s far cheaper to maintain’

The trials of Gary McKinnon.

posted by colin at 9:00 am  


  1. A couple of comments on your radio spot.

    First of all, you suggested that Free Software purveyors are somehow defying the laws of economics, with the implication that vendors of proprietary software are hewing more closely to them. It’s actually the opposite (as I explained in my comment on your “What Makes Software Valuable?” posting). Free Software is restoring badly-needed competition to the market.

    Secondly, in terms of what Free Software downloads you can trust, you mentioned “big” names, e.g. Apple or Google. Interestingly, both of those companies have been engaging in anticompetitive practices against their users. I wouldn’t use a “name” as a basis of trust. Instead, I would trust two things: the software itself (which I can get the source to), and the community around it. That, I think is a more sustainable basis for trust.

    Comment by Lawrence D'Oliveiro — 19 March 2009 @ 11:33 am

  2. You don’t have to pay to keep ClamWin up to date (or to install it in the first place). And if you combine it with Winpooch (also free, in both senses), then it’ll scan for viruses in real time, so you don’t have to manually scan everything all the time.

    Comment by Tim McKenzie — 19 March 2009 @ 11:36 am

  3. @Lawrence

    What I meant was that it’s the commercial software providers who are defying economic gravity.

    Regarding Apple and Google – I understand your perspective. If you check my notes above you’ll see that was a question I hadn’t prepared for. People who are well versed in free software have a better understanding of what can be trusted than a general audience – I had to come up with some brand names quickly. I also recall saying that I’d do a leter programme about free stuff. I’m open to suggestions about what to recommend.


    Thanks for this. I was sourcing my knowledge for the Netsafe Netbasics page – perhaps you could let them know as well.


    Comment by colin — 19 March 2009 @ 1:48 pm

  4. “What I meant was that it’s the commercial software providers who are defying economic gravity.”

    Is there some presumption that Free Software cannot be developed and offered on a commercial basis? Did you mean to say the _proprietary_ software vendors?

    Comment by Lawrence D'Oliveiro — 19 March 2009 @ 3:46 pm

  5. You missed a freebie anti-malware tool: Windows Defender. I have set up a large number of Windows PC’s for friends and family and, if they’re running Windows XP rather than Vista, (which ships with Defender built-in) I download it from and install it along with AVG Free. To-date I am not aware of a single one of these PC’s being compromised.

    The standard four steps of keeping a PC clean and healthy (use a firewall, use up-to-date AV, keep the PC patched, use an up-to-date anti-malware tool) is incredibly effective (and cheaper than buying a Mac).

    Comment by Brett Roberts, Microsoft NZ — 19 March 2009 @ 4:51 pm

  6. @Lawrence – perhaps, but that’s a distinction I didn’t have time to unpack on air. There’s a lot going on and I only get 15 minutes every other week!

    I’m very interested in doing a program on free (beer or speech) software for a general audience. Feel free to leave some suggestions or email me.

    @Brett – I’ll check out Windows Defender and consider it for a ‘free stuff’ programme. And,yes, most things are cheaper than macs. But you’ll prise my Mac Book Pro from my cold, dead, fingers. And I don’t worry about malware. C.

    Comment by colin — 19 March 2009 @ 11:01 pm

  7. You’re not worried about malware on Macs?

    Comment by Lawrence D'Oliveiro — 20 March 2009 @ 7:05 pm

  8. Not terribly. If it starts being a real problem I will have to be. But for the moment, there’s very little if any circulating in the wild.

    Comment by colin — 20 March 2009 @ 11:53 pm

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