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Love is just a 4-letter word

By Scott Bradner

It's spring and love is in the air and in a lot of computers. But much of this love is a bug rather than a feature, and this love bug is no Disney movie. It is closer in feeling to the title of an old Dylan song. The whole thing is made more ironic because it is the result of software that is trying to be too helpful.

Most weeks it is hard to figure out what to write about. I frequently go into Sunday morning with no idea, but this week it's easy. Any time that a columnist gets confronted with a story that the news people on the radio are now saying may amount to $10 billion in damage because of some silly design decisions then there is no question that the right topic has presented itself. Even in these days of Cisco-led stratospheric acquisition evaluations, $10 billion would be real money if it were a real cost. It's not, it's just news media hyperbole, but it does grab the attention.

It would be one thing if this new virus was the first time that some of the supposedly helpful features in Microsoft software have been used by some anti-social individual to impact a big chunk of corporate America (and corporate elsewhere.) But this is far from the first time. There seems to be a new Microsoft Word virus every few days and a new Exchange one every week or so. Microsoft's continual answer to the question of why is it so easy to do this sort of thing is that they put in features that their users want. I may not know all of the users of Microsoft Word or Exchange but I expect the percentage of them that have requested that Microsoft add virus vulnerability to the repertoire of features is quite limited.

I will say that the level of default helpfulness in programs like Microsoft Word is quite annoying. Even more annoying is the fact that it is very laborious to disable most of the features. For example, I have yet to find a way to permanently kill the dancing paper clip or to tell it that I want plain text without any smiley faces or typesetting quote marks. For this user, the most helpful feature would be a helpfulness control panel.

The root enabler for most of the recent virus attacks is the fact that Microsoft and other vendors enable a lot of things by default that would be far better disabled unless you need them. Things like the ability to click on an email attachment to execute it. The vast majority of users would do just fine with this function turned off and being limited to opening Word, Excel and a few other office application files. To enable more than that by default is to facilitate what has happened.

disclaimer: Some would say that Harvard has facilitated history but it has no opinion on helpfulness so the above is my frustration.