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
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 email@example.com