March, 2008

Mar 08

Apple Software Update

What Apple is doing now with their Apple Software Update on Windows is wrong. It undermines the trust relationship great companies have with their customers, and that’s bad — not just for Apple, but for the security of the whole Web. What they did yesterday was to use their updater for iTunes to also install their Safari Web browser –what follows is some background and analysis.

Keeping software up to date is hard — hard for consumers to understand what patches are for, how to make sure they’re up to date.

It’s also critically, crucially important for the security of end users and for the security of the Web at large that people stay current. If people don’t update software regularly, it is impossible for them to remain safe; good software developers are creating improvements constantly. That’s why Mozilla spends so much time making sure our own Automatic Update Service works, and why we spend so much time agonizing over the user interface for the updates. We look at the data every time we do an update; we obsess about what we call “uptake rates” — the percentage of Firefox users who are on the most current version of the browser a day or a week or a month after release. As a result, Firefox users are incredibly up to date, and adopt very quickly.

There’s an implicit trust relationship between software makers and customers in this regard: as a software maker we promise to do our very best to keep users safe and will provide the quickest updates possible, with absolutely no other agenda. And when the user trusts the software maker, they’ll generally go ahead and install the patch, keeping themselves and everyone else safe.

Anyone who uses iTunes on Windows has Apple Software Update installed on their machines, which does just what I’ve described above: it checks for new patches available for Apple-produced software on your Windows machine, alerts the user to the availability, and allows updates to be installed. That’s great — wonderful, in fact. Makes everyone more likely to have current, patched versions of Apple’s software, and makes everyone safer.

Here’s screen that comes up on Windows XP if you’ve got iTunes installed:

(photo credit CNET)

The problem here is that it lists Safari for getting an update — and has the “Install” box checked by default — even if you haven’t ever installed Safari on your PC.

That’s a problem because of the dynamic I described above — by and large, all software makers are trying to get users to trust us on updates, and so the likely behavior here is for users to just click “Install 2 items,” which means that they’ve now installed a completely new piece of software, quite possibly completely unintentionally. Apple has made it incredibly easy — the default, even — for users to install ride along software that they didn’t ask for, and maybe didn’t want. This is wrong, and borders on malware distribution practices.

It’s wrong because it undermines the trust that we’re all trying to build with users. Because it means that an update isn’t just an update, but is maybe something more. Because it ultimately undermines the safety of users on the web by eroding that relationship. It’s a bad practice and should stop.

[I’ll make 2 points that I want to make very clear: (1) this is not a criticism of Safari as a web browser in any way, and (2) I have no objections to the basic industry practice of using your installed software as a channel for other software. This is specifically a criticism of the way they’re using the updating system. I’d much prefer to be writing about Firefox, but this practice hurts everyone and is important to note.]

Mar 08

Best 2 days of the year

Spring is springing, daylight saving time has started, and there are 32 basketball games in 36 hours. Life is good.

Mar 08

Bridge of Sighs, by Richard Russo

I read Russo’s Empire Falls a few years back, and think it’s an exceptional piece of work. Since my son was born, I read everything slightly differently, and Russo is one, in particular, who keeps coming back to themes on what it means to be a son, to be a father. Bridge of Sighs is a very good book — not as good as Empire Falls, but still a really wonderful novel. But rather than talk about Russo, I think I’ll put in some of his own words. Mostly, it’s a great story told by a man in middle age about his life growing up — and periodically he stops the narrative to try to synthesize. Here’s a relatively lengthy passage that comes early in the book:

Odd, how our view of human destiny changes over the course of a lifetime. In youth we believe what the young believe, that life is all choice. We stand before a hundred doors, choose to enter one, where we’re faced with a hundred more and then choose again. We choose not just what we’ll do, but who we’ll be. Perhaps the sound of all those doors swinging shut behind us each time we select this one or that one should trouble us, but it doesn’t. Nor does the fact that the doors often are identical and even lead in some cases to the exact same place. Occasionally a door is locked, but no matter, since so many others remain available. The distinct possibility that choice itself my be an illusion is something we disregard, because we’re curious to know what’s behind the next door, the one we hope will lead us to the very heart of the mystery. Even in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary we remain confident that when we emerge, with all our choosing done, we’ll have found not just our true destination but also its meaning. The young see life this way, front to back, their eyes to the telescope that anxiously scans the infinite sky and its myriad possibilities. Religion, seducing us with free will while warning us of our responsibility, reinforces youth’s need to see itself at the dramatic center, saying yes to this and no to that, against the backdrop of a great moral reckoning.

But at some point all of that changes. Doubt, born of disappointment and repetition, replaces curiosity. In our weariness we begin to sense the truth, that more doors have closed behind than remain ahead, and for the first time we’re tempted to swing the telescope around and peer at the world through the wrong end — though who can say it’s wrong? How different things look then! Larger patterns emerge, individual decisions receding into insignificance. To see a life back to front, as everyone begins to do in middle age, is to strip it of its mystery and wrap it in inevitability, drama’s enemy.Or so it sometimes seems to me…the man I’ve become, the life I’ve lived, what are these but dominoes that fall not as I would have them but simply as they must?

This is amazingly articulate about the interior musings of our lives and how they change as we all get older. To be clear, I don’t share this same outlook, but as I reflect on being a father and having a family, I’m beginning to understand the way this thought pattern works, and that people really feel this closing of doors, this inevitability of dominoes falling. For myself, I still see nothing but doors and opportunities, and hope that I can see them until my last breath (hopefully a long long time in the future!). But for Russo to be able to articulate this sense is a really wonderful gift, I think, and I enjoyed this book.

Mar 08


This is an incredible speech by Obama (here’s the full 37 minutes on YouTube). It’s not simple, and it doesn’t yield very good sound bites. It’s complex and nuanced, personal and transcendant, flawed yet right. It gives me hope, honestly. I believe deeply in the strengths of the US system — in the incredible way that the 2 fundamentally different constructions of the Declaration and the Constitution work together to make a fabric that has stood up to time. Again and again through US history, there have been serious challenges to the nation, and executives who have done exceptionally damaging things — in the tumult after Washington left, in the Civil War and its aftermath, during the Great Depression, during Vietnam.

I’ve been pretty despondent in this last cycle that the executive branch of our government has finally done some things that were so extra-constitutional and so damaging, that we’d not be able to re-weave the fabric of the US like we’ve done again and again for more than 200 years now. But this speech by Obama gives me hope. Not necessarily because he’ll become our next president, but because he shows that leadership can inspire without dumbing things down; that leadership can make you want to be better without speaking to your own base motivations and desires.

Anyway, this is real, undiluted, inspirational leadership, and it gives me hope.

Mar 08

5 years

so much wasted, so many assets squandered, so many distractions. a devastatingly bad 5 years for the US.