Microsoft Issues Emergency Security Patch

MrYuk

Microsoft on October 23, 2008 did something out of the ordinary.  They released an emergency critical security update for Microsoft Windows (Effecting Multiple versions of the Operating System) on a Thursday.  This was an extraordinary change of pace for Microsoft, which normally releases their updates only on Tuesdays (known, less than affectionately, to the Microsoft world as “Patch Tuesdays”).

What does this tell us?  It tells us that this flaw is BAD, really bad – anything bad  enough to make Microsoft release this patch out of the normal cycle can’t be good.  The flaw, found in multiple versions of Windows, could allow an attacker to gain  access to an unpatched system to run malicious code (Read: Virus, Trojan, Worm, etc).  What’s more – several exploits have already been found in the wild.

The good news: If your system is set to automatically download and install updates daily, and you are behind a corporate firewall you are probably in the clear.  But if your system isn’t auto updating, or you don’t know, I highly suggest you install this (and all other) Microsoft security updates.

To download the patch – run windows update.  Or go to: http://www.microsoft.com/protect/computer/updates/bulletins/200810_oob.mspx

Remember, if you maintain a good working firewall, anti-virus application and regularly patch your system – you can go a long way towards preventing issues like these from affecting you.

For more information on the problem, see: http://www.microsoft.com/technet/security/bulletin/ms08-067.mspx

Some known exploits in the wild:
http://www.f-secure.com/v-descs/trojan-spy_w32_gimmiv_a.shtml
http://www.microsoft.com/security/portal/Entry.aspx?name=Exploit%3aWin32%2fMS08067.gen!A

More about Windows 7

After years of cute names Microsoft is going back to its roots. The successor to Vista will be called Windows 7. While none of the information about Windows 7 is concrete, Microsoft is allowing some of the upgrade information to slip to the public. Windows 7 is more of an OS refresh than a full-fledged major release, meaning MS isn’t planning on adding new incompatibilities into the system. It seems this update is more about tacking off the rough edges and adding additional polish to the Vista platform.

Some of the areas that will be enhanced include UAC (User Account Control), Windows Explorer, and Desktop Gadgets. While useful UAC was rather annoying in Vista, in Windows 7 it can be customized, allowing varying levels of alerting. Windows Explorer has been tweaked to offer a simplified toolbar, new content icon view and resizable search box. The Vista Sidebar has been removed so gadgets will not live directly on the desktop. Windows 7 has a new application navigation scheme called Scenic that works much like the Office 2007 Ribbon interface. Both Paint and WordPad take advantage of Scenic.

Being released in early 2010, Windows 7 will come in bundles with Internet Explorer 8 and a new feature called Windows Credentials. Windows Credentials will allow users to store online IDs and passwords for websites they visit. Some applications such as Windows Mail, Windows Photo Gallery and Windows Movie maker will no longer be bundled, but will become optional installs through Windows Live.

Several new control centers have been added to ease configuration and administration. Windows Solution Center replaces the Windows Security Center and combines security and maintenance features. HomeGroup networking will ease set-up and management of SOHO networking solutions. Windows Mobile Device Center will now come preinstalled rather than an options download. A new troubleshooting control panel allows for “one-stop shopping” for troubleshooting applications, devices, networks, printing, sound and other Windows features. Multiple monitor support has been overhauled to allow quick transitions between portrait and landscape views. DPI Scaling and ClearType Text can both be tuned to allow cleaner fonts in the interface.

Two major “Geek Additions” are PowerShell V2 and Native VHD (Virtual Hard Disk) support. PowerShell V2 allows administrators to manage several parts of the OS and applications without the need for graphical tools. Virtual Hard Disk support allows admins and users to mount, tweak, and utilize virtual images within the OS. It may be possible to boot directly to the VHD opening several new virtualization opportunities.

More about these enhancements as well as several others can be found at http://www.winsupersite.com/faq/windows_7.asp. Overall it looks like Windows 7 will be a worthy upgrade but I think it would have been Vista R2 is we would have seen better adoption. I’m sure as time passes we’ll see more great features added to the solid foundation Vista already offers.

A few bad Apples

Do we really need more disinformation? Apples’ ongoing attempt to fool consumers is the electronic equivalent of a poorly run negative political campaign.  Granted the switcher ads are humorous, but comedy doesn’t excuse dissemination of disinformation. Don’t get me wrong, Apple has done a good job at building unique niche products, but best of breed? I think not. Does Apple actually believe the public at large will buy this crap or is this all done to play to the ego of the Apple fan boys?

Apple has created a sense of false security, allowing consumers to believe Macs are immune to viruses.  Granted Mac viruses are rare. This is not because they are more secure than other operating systems, rather because they don’t have a targetable market share. As Apple market share grows, it becomes a more favorable target. Ignoring this potential risk and reinforcing a security myth expands the target while hurting security as a whole. PC hardware and software manufacturers understand these risks and vigilantly work to create and provide security software suites.

More expensive manufacturing, assuming the manufacturing truly does cost more, doesn’t necessarily make better hardware. Sure, milling a solid block of aluminum to create a laptop chassis is different but not groundbreaking. In reality, Apple builds computers lacking hardware options, expandability, and upgradeability. While there isn’t media frenzy around PC hardware innovations they normally have a far greater impact than Apples. I use blocks of steel as bookends – that does not mean I’m an artist or innovator. I didn’t make a better bookend; it’s just my use of steel. I can understand a minimalistic approach but that’s a choice, not an innovation.

Where are the standard features we’ve come to expect on a laptop? Multiple ports for expandability with the freedom to travel without a case full of dongles? Biometrics for added security and additional authentication schemes? How about the desktop options required to stay abreast of technology growth? Or, the ability to easily upgrade to an unlimited by compatibility choice of processor, video card, HDTV-tuner, soundcard, motherboard, or any other hardware that is on the market? Where is the freedom of choice that spurs innovation, or the open platform that allows rapid evolution? PCs are not only more flexible, they are cheaper to replace if you choose not to upgrade your hardware.

I’m not buying the fact that it’s cheap and easy to change platforms. Yes, I understand that a Mac functions right out of the box. Truth be told, you can do the exact same thing with a PC. I know iLife is a claim to fame with MACs, but Windows comes bundled with the exact same feature set. Hands down, there is more consumer software for the PC than for the MAC, and it’s cheaper. And yes, I understand I can run Windows on a Mac, but why? PCs come with Windows, why would I buy a MAC then buy Windows on top of it? It’s like buying a “pretty” car then paying to have the engine installed.

Windows Vista is not broken, and if you compare the out of the box experience between Mac OS and Windows, people find them about equal. Neither platform is perfect but neither is broken – they’re simply different. A minimalistic approach isn’t wrong nor is it innovative, it’s just different. Simply put, it seems as if Apple just can’t seem to find the strength within the product line to positively promote their product, instead relying on negative mud-slinging more reminiscent of a Presidential campaign than a computer company.

Maybe there is a reason that the Apple motto is ‘Think Different’ and not ‘Think Better’.

Can we meet?

Groupware solutions like MS Outlook contain great time saving features such as appointment free/busy views, but to get all of the extras you normally have to run an expensive server solution like MS Exchange. Even with the extra expense of a server, you’re normally locked inside of a single organization or network. Luckily some new web applications make it possible to break out of the fence, and utilize these value added tools across the Internet.

TimeBridge is a calendar sharing plug-in that allows users to synchronize appointment information from Outlook or Google calendars and create a shared free/busy view. The service strips meeting details out of the shared view, and those you invite can see your availability. More importantly, the service can cross organization and application boundaries when needed. Rather than sending multiple e-mails or making multiple phone calls, you can simply view when attendees are available and propose meeting times.

Those using MSN or Hotmail to host calendars might consider trying the new Microsoft Office Outlook Connector. The Connector allows you to use MS Office Outlook to manage MSN or Hotmail accounts, adding Groupware features to your free accounts. Once you’ve installed the connector it’s not much of a leap to install TimeBridge to add free/busy features.

If you’ve ever had difficultly pinning down meeting times, TimeBridge is worth a try.

My media my way: Microsoft Zune

As the line between work and personal are continuously blurred, I find myself constantly looking for multipurpose devices to keep both sides of life on track. When it comes to balancing entertainment with information there is nothing quite like the Microsoft Zune.Tight integration between Microsoft software, well built media management software, and excellent hardware all combine to build a best-of-breed media player.

zune The Microsoft Zune comes in multiple sizes and colors. Starting at 4GB and climbing all the way up to 120GB of storage, there is a size for any use. Color choices include classic black, red, blue, pink, green and gold. Additional customization is available through custom engraving called tattooing.

The Zune management software continues the custom-theme by building a social music experience connecting you with other Zune users. Purchasing a Zune Marketplace subscription allows you to connect three Zunes and three computers for $15.00 a month. The subscription enables unlimited music downloads through the Zune software or on the device itself via Wi-Fi. In addition to music, you can also download videos and television shows to enhance your media experience for an additional cost. Of course, Vodcast and Podcast subscription management is included within the Marketplace. These subscriptions allow users to subscribe to news and entertainment feeds based on personal interests. Another feature that ties the Zune to the Market place is song tagging. When listening to the built-in FM radio, users can view the song details and tag the song for download from the Marketplace.

While the marketplace offers a wide variety of media, the tight Windows integration  further expands your media options. Media placed into the My Pictures, My Music, or My Videos folder can be automatically converted and synchrzunelogoonized  with the device. This extends Windows Media center content capabilities by allowing you to simply copy recorded TV shows to the My Video folder. The Zune software will automatically find media convert and sync it with the device. Pictures and audio files can be managed the same way, simply put your media in the corresponding folders and your media becomes available. Alternatively, you can set the Zune software to monitor additional folders bypassing the copy and automating the entire process.

Flexibility in media management allows users to move past the basics, utilizing external software to capture and utilize additional media types. Some of my favorite external software solutions include:

Using these tools allows me to easily rip DVDs, capture media from the web, and convert any of it for use on the Zune.

Combining my music collection, audio books, podcasts, vodcasts, movies, Youtube , and online training videos creates the balance I demand. Utilizing simple patch cables links the Zune to my TV, Stereo, XBox 360 or car stereo. When I travel, my entire media collection is available and accessible with the device I choose. I can update or share my media via Wi-Fi and if all else fails I can drop back to the FM tuner for live coverage of news and events.

While it might not be as simplistic as the iPod the Zune offers the additional features the iPod lacks. The included Wi-Fi, integrated marketplace and FM Tuner add functionality I require. With a prices ranging from $199.00 though $249.00, the Zune is an exceptional device for the price. Overall the Zune offers the flexibility I need for the life I live.

R U Addicted?

I’m sitting at dinner with my wife and kids and continually hearing a faint buzz move around the restaurant. It’s almost as if the entire place is filled with some large but invisible flying insects. As it nears my table it occurs to me the entire place is infested with TXT messages. As the buzz hits my table the phones fly out in a way reminiscent of a gunslinger during a showdown. I quickly move to stop this unacceptable table behavior but then it happens: my phone begins to vibrate and I have to face my own communication addiction. So it’s a little dramatic, but mobile devices are everywhere. You see people TXTing at dinner, in meetings, even in church.

Is it merely just a matter of communication or have we all become addicted to our TXTing devices? There is a reason we call them Crackberries after all – once you have a taste of instant communication it’s almost impossible to give it up. I won’t argue that mobile devices have added new levels of communication in both business and personal life. I’m not sure how I would function without push e-mail as it makes me far more effective in my job and more comfortable as I travel. I utilize TXT messages to communicate with my family and use Twitter with TXT to keep up with tech trends and news.

My experience with mobile messaging seems positive. Still, I wonder what the cost to productivity is when I’m in the office with my phone vibrating every three minutes. Can I remain effective while maintaining a level of 100% multitasking? Is family dinner really family dinner when we all stare at two inch screens? Most of all I wonder, why can’t I just ignore it or turn it off?

As an experiment I took it upon myself to follow some work-life balance advice and disconnect for a portion of each day. I decided that I’d apply some very simple communication rules and gauge my productivity and my overall comfort level.

My simple rules:

  • I’d turn my phone off while I was in the office
  • I’d turn my phone off during dinner
  • I’d set my phone to only check office e-mail once an hour before and after work
  • I’d close Outlook and only view e-mail once an hour while at work

I found that I had significant gains in my personal productivity while in the office. My project work was completed efficiently and I fond great satisfaction in closing out my tasks quickly. While at home I felt a sense of anxiety that I might miss something but after a few days it dwindled and I was relaxed and interacting with my family in normal ways. Both were positive outcomes, so it would seem my experience without mobile messaging was positive as well, and went quite smoothly…

Well, not exactly. My children have come to rely on TXT for those last minute decisions that dads make and those last minute pick-ups required when dad says no. Seems I missed more than one urgent text and with my phone off I missed the calls too. In the office I missed more than one impromptu meeting and was late responding to more than a few critical issues. In the long run my time without TXT caused far more chaos than comfort.

My conclusion is we’re all addicted to mobile messaging. It’s become part of the culture and once you’re connected you can’t escape. It’s true there are side effects but in the long run it’s safer than smoking so I guess it’s OK if the kids TXT at the table, at least I know how to get a hold of them when they’re on dates.

Diggin’ Digsby

Linked-In, Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, Yammer, Yelp, even this blog…these are only the beginning of social networking sites and I don’t see any end in sight. In fact, social networking is so hot right now that the limits one can take with social networking seems well, limitless.

If you’re like me and have multiple social networking and IM accounts spread throughout the World Wide Web, then you know how annoying and time-codigsbynsuming it is to have to navigate to each site and remember one of your many logins (the same password parameters all around would be helpful) just to update your status and keep up with what your friends are doing. It’s exhausting.

Enter Digsby to the rescue! 

This social networking tool combines several of the aforementioned social sites (but  not all) as well as some IM clients, and e-mail notifications into one application. The IM clients that Digsby currently supports include AIM, MSN, Yahoo, ICQ, Google Talk, and Jabber. Have multiple e-mail accounts? No problem. Digsby allows users to manage their Hotmail, Gmail, Yahoo Mail, AOL, IMAP, and POP accounts. Remember those social networking sites you don’t want to individually log into? Digsby allows you to be fully connected to your Linked-In, Facebook, Twitter and MySpace pages at once.

All of these features display fully customizable pop-up notifications when you receive new e-mails and new status updates. The one and only disadvantage that I have found is that while Digsby allows you to make updates to Linked-In, Twitter and Facebook, it does not support instant updates to MySpace directly from the application, thus forcing users to click on the “Home” link at the top of the MySpace window from your taskbar.

Bottom line: This application is fun, convenient, and just downright cool. Check it out at www.digsby.com.

Convenient for who?

All too often I run into situations where technology is used to replace customer service rather than enhance it. In our hustle and bustle world, it’s very easy to justify a technology solution as good for business merely because it reduces overhead. We neglect to evaluate the real impact to our customers, then rationalize that automation will reduce frustration and increase satisfaction. The reality is, problems don’t usually fit a designed pattern and technology can’t think for itself.

If an organization has a reoccurring problem that can be corrected through customer service automation then the problem can most likely be corrected in a better way without negatively impacting the customer. Automating a response to known problems is not finding solutions, it’s just masking or ignoring the cause.

One of the most common forms of poor customer service automation is a phone tree. Nothing escalates a frustrating situation more than making someone navigate a process that forces them to self-diagnose a problem before speaking to someone that can resolve it. Another frustration comes from broken web based customer service tools. If companies must utilize the web in an attempt to answer questions then have a frequently asked questions page, and test your customer service tools regularly to ensure they are working. I recommend that any customer service representative or customer service manager test automated systems weekly. Nothing humbles a person quite as quickly as eating their own dog food. Empathy for the customer starts with understanding that they want to communicate frustrations, not deal with vague emotionless technology solutions.

Honestly, as a consumer I see the negative effects technology has on customer service almost daily. It seems that I’m inconveniencing the store clerk if I disrupt a cell phone conversation or texting session and attempt to purchase an item. I’m transferred endlessly when attempting to correct simple billing issues or check a credit card balance. I’m forced to utilize online forms or e-mail to request additional information about a product or service rather than simply making a call. I understand that I can be abrasive when I’m frustrated, but does that mean I don’t deserve a positive customer experience?

Have companies, or people in general lost the ability to manage frustration or deal with conflict? Is it acceptable to use technology as a crutch rather than to deal with problems or requests as they arise? Is the cost-savings significant enough to compensate the lost business with poor automated customer service delivers? Why do I need to know an extension to call somebody at their office – don’t we all have names? I know who I am!

I’m the customer, I believe in the old adage “The customer is always right.” I’ll continue to use the checkout lines, pay for my fuel in the store, and press 0 repeatedly to escape your phone tree. I’m a technologist and I’ll not only explain my original frustration but continue on, explaining technology shouldn’t replace customer service but enhance it. I’m a proud employee of The Ohio Society of CPAs, an organization that still has a human answer the phones, and a staffed member service center to answer customer’s questions.

Before you consider automating customer service or communication services, think about the bottle necks and frustration they might cause. If you have systems in place, what’s your testing policy and when were they last tested? Eat your own dog food, find out how hard it is to navigate your own systems and get satisfaction.

Machines within Machines: Virtualization

Recently I had the honor of speaking at and attending The Ohio Society of CPAs Cincinnati Accounting show. While I was at the show I had the opportunity to sit in on several great sessions including Virtual Machines presented by K2 Enterprises‘ Executive Vice President Randolph P. Johnston.

As a Techie I understand the benefits of virtualization, but I’ve struggled on finding ways to present the topic to the non-technical crowd. While an hour long format might not be the best scenario for communicating such a complex and beneficial presentation, Mr. Johnston did an excellent job.

image In its basic format, virtualization is using one physical computer to run multiple Operating System instances. Server virtualization has become common practice allowing system architects and engineers the flexibility to utilize server hardware more efficiently. The ability to run multiple instances of a server Operating System on a single physical server reduces hardware costs, power consumption and physical space. Additional benefits are realized though ease of back-up, better disaster recovery options, simplified administration and increased utilization of hardware investments. With all the benefits it’s no question why technical folks embraced virtual servers, but what about desktops?image

Virtual Machines have similar benefits to virtual servers, and can be utilized in several  types of scenarios. Uses for virtual machines include running legacy applications, testing new software, isolating user environments, or training. Because Virtual Machines are not tied to any specific hardware and are contained within a single file they can be:

  • Stored as a template, quickly replicated, and reused for multiple needs
  • Backed-up as a single file and restored quickly
  • Copied and replicated on multiple machines
  • Moved between machined without additional configuration

Best of all machine virtualization software packs a punch while maintaining a reasonable price tag. Some options for machine virtualization include:

One consideration before jumping on the virtual machine bandwagon is your hardware. As Mr. Johnston pointed out during his presentation, virtual machines are software machines within hardware machines. In order to run virtual machines your hardware must be robust enough to support the host operating system, the virtual machine software, and the guest operating system. For example if your machine runs Windows Vista as the host (Normal) operating system, and you want to run Windows XP as your Guest (Virtual) operating system you will need a minimum of 1.5GB of RAM. Keep in mind these are minimum requirements, 3GB is a more realistic configuration. You can get more information about virtual machine hardware requirements at Microsoft’s Virtual PC site. Even with the hardware considerations it’s easy to see where a RAM upgrade is less expensive than buying multiple machines.

Considering the decreasing cost of computer hardware, the benefits of virtualization should be a consideration. Server and workstation virtualization are just the tip of the iceberg. While I haven’t discussed them; Application Virtualization, Virtual Appliances, and Storage Virtualization bring their own benefits. Regardless of your environment, it’s a good bet that virtualization can help fulfill one or more of your current or future technology needs.

For more detailed information regarding Virtualization Technology, check out these links:

Microsoft Equipt worth looking into

Hey, have you heard about Microsoft Equipt? No? Well just from the name, you can guess what it is right? Nope, me neither. As it turns out Equipt is actually a fairly good offering. Equipt combines Microsoft Office 2007 Home, Windows Live OneCare, and Windows Live Services into a single subscription based product.

imagePriced at $69.99 for three PC’s, Equipt offers base Office 2007 features including Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote. Microsoft fills in any gaps utilizing its Live Services offerings for Mail, Instant Messaging, Photo Sharing and Document Collaboration. If that wasn’t enough, they also throw in Live OneCare Antivirus free (normally $49.99).Unlike its boxed counterpart Office 2007 Home and Student that don’t qualify for upgrade pricing, Equipt subscriptions include version upgrades.

There are some drawbacks though. If you’re currently a Windows Live OneCare user there is no way to upgrade to Equipt, and currently you can only purchase Equipt though Circuit City.

If you’re looking for a cost effective solution that combines Office 2007 with Antivirus, Equipt is worth a look. You can find more information about Microsoft’s Equipt on their website.

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