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Genetic Diversity in Computers

by Douglas E. Welch

September 14, 1999

© 1999, Douglas E. Welch

You probably don't expect to see biological issues like genetic diversity addressed in a column about computers, but a trip to the Los Angeles Zoo this weekend brought to mind some technological issues that relate very closely to each other. Just as a lack of genetic diversity can doom an endangered species, so can the lack of diversity in computer operating systems.

Windows uber alles

As we all know, Microsoft Windows holds the largest market share of any computer operating system now available. Despite being a user of Apple Macintosh computers myself, I spend much of my consulting time teaching people how to use Windows computers.

Windows has helped users by giving them a common interface regardless of whether they are working on their home computer, their office computer or a public access computer like those in the public library. "Windows Everywhere" has been Microsoft's battle cry for a while and it seems to be working.

My computer has a cold

Now for the bad news. Just as a simple virus can bring about the destruction of an endangered animal or plant, so too, can a single computer virus leave us vulnerable to the disruption of most of the computers in the world.

Endangered species have been forced to breed within closer family relationships than is healthful. This in-breeding leaves more and more members of the population open to infection or other diseases. Once the entire population has a weakness it can take only a small outbreak to wipe out the entire species.

When most of the computers in the world are running Windows, it only takes one well-written malicious virus to cause havoc. The similarities between computers that make them easier to use also makes them easier to infect and makes it easier for the virus to travel between them. We saw this to a thankfully small effect with the various "macro viruses" that have been released in the past few months. The viruses used the built-in macro languages of Microsoft products to not only infect other files on the local computer but also reach out over the Internet via email and infect other computers thousands of miles away.

I watched calmly while all the reports came in about crashed email systems and thousands of infected documents. Since I use a Macintosh for all my daily work I was protected from a large part of the Windows virus' impact. While my documents could be infected, the infection could not spread beyond my computer because the virus only used Windows-based software to forward itself to others via email. To be fair, Windows users are not effected by Macintosh-only viruses either. In this important way, the differences between computer operating systems can actually help us.

Different but conversant

Today, the business market demands that companies obtain as much market share as possible for their operating system while driving other products out of the market entirely. This leads to de facto monopolies where other solutions are marginalized so far as to be nearly non-existent. While this is good for the company it is dangerous for the consumer. We need diversity to protect our investment in our computers and our data.

Instead of one operating system trying to dominate the entire market we need a variety of software, each with its own strengths. That would not only allow the consumer a choice to match their needs but also provide the extremely necessary diversity to protect us against scenarios like the one above.

What we need are operating systems that can inter-operate while still remaining different at their core. In this way, differences in the computers and operating systems themselves create the first line of defense against malicious attacks. Macintosh OS, Linux, other Unix variants and operating systems as yet uncreated are an important investment in future computer stability and survival. Other protections will still be necessary, of course, but why not develop a healthy immune system at the core of computing? There are biological reasons that animals are different from one another, even in the same species. Shouldn't we learn our computer lessons from life itself? Despite what some computer companies might think, diversity is a good thing for both manufacturers and consumers.

Learn more about computer viruses:

Steal This Computer Book -- Wally Wang, Wallace Wang; Paperback

The Giant Black Book of Computer Viruses -- Mark A. Ludwig; Paperback

The Virus Creation Labs : A Journey into the Underground -- George Smith; Paperback

Douglas E. Welch is a freelance writer and computer consultant in Van Nuys, California.He also writes Career Opportunities, a weekly column on high-tech careers and A Gardener's Notebook. You can find more of Douglas' writing on his web page at: http://www.welchwrite.com/

He can reached via email at douglas@welchwrite.com

© 1999 Douglas E. Welch