Sunday, 10 December 2017

Malware


In the 1980s the first PC viruses emerged. Boot sector viruses invaded the floppy disk. Almost immediately the first anti-virus products emerged. Doctor Solomon's Anti-Virus Toolkit was one of the first. Alan Solomon had, in fact, created standalone anti-virus tools for some time as S&S Enterprises.

Back in the early 90s I was a beta tester for this product and my then boss was involved in selling it. The PC industry was pretty small and I had a small part in the development in the UK anti-virus industry. Consolidation led to the product being sold and we all moved on.

The key point was that the business opening was that DOS and Windows wasn't very secure. This didn't really matter too much when computers weren't networked to the extent they are today. Two decades later Microsoft have had their Trustworthy Computing programme which brought about fundamental changes in the Windows platform and the modern BIOS.

Which brings me to the question someone recently asked me. What sort of anti-virus protection do you use?

Mostly I am a home user. I dont do work at home. I do productive stuff but not work. I like to separate my life in that way. So I just use Windows Defender. Microsoft now protect PCs in several ways including secure boot, TPM, and Defender.

How good is Defender?

For the most part for home users it's enough. Check out the AV Test centre; https://www.av-test.org/en/antivirus/home-windows/

Defender isn't the best in class but most of the time for most things it's going to do the job. Other software is often bloated and tries to do far more than just AV protection. Defender works with pretty much most common viruses in the wild and crucially is part of Microsoft's overall defence so you benefit from the research it does into protecting business in the cloud.

For business use the story is different. You probably want to have more than one anti-virus product and the tests for those can be seen here; https://www.av-test.org/en/antivirus/business-windows-client/

Business users need a full security strategy of protection.

One of the best in test results is Kaspersky Labs. It does pretty well in the lab tests and has top results. You can buy online or discounted at retail. It seems to have one downside - it's Russian. Government agencies are now warning against using it. The reason is simple - an anti-virus product accesses all your files and, in theory, could be a security risk.

It all depends on where you sit. My own view is I treat my PC as compromised because I can't know for sure it isn't. I usually upgrade the "home editions" of Windows to the Pro edition so I can protect my hard disk with Bitlocker. I keep backups of files on disks and in the cloud. I carry out best practice regarding email and websites, secure passwords with two-factor but if my PC got a virus I have a clean USB to rebuild the PC from scratch.

You can't be completely paranoid using a home PC but just installing anti-virus is not the only way.

So yes I use Microsoft Defender. Microsoft have come a long way from third party AV being a requirement because there was no security in Windows. In fact the biggest security focus now seems to be shifting to mobile and Google's Android OS on phone.


Saturday, 25 November 2017

Powershell Symlink to Onedrive

laptop-keyboard
I have more than one PC. To be precise, and overly pedantic, 3 Windows 10 laptops. All are slightly different and of various ages. One I use with a Windows 10 Insider Build to keep up with the next thing coming down the pipeline. On each, I do a bit of Powershell.

Powershell is the latest generation of Windows command line tools. The Linux enthusiast would look down on the Windows command line of whatever generation but Microsoft has always provided command line tools.

In the early days MSDOS was a command line OS. It did little but create directories (folders), copy, move or delete files. It ran “command.com” which some said was just a basic file system manager and way of loading programs into memory. It wasn’t difficult to disagree. Developers brought out alternatives to this such as 4DOS, literally “for dos”, by JP Software. They also produced 4NT, which enhance the Windows NT command processor and 4OS2. The latter was for the IBM OS2 Operating System of the late 80s and early 90s. Years ago I visited JP Software, then based in Boston, and got to meet Tom Rawson who ran the whole thing at the time. Although to be fair I should add the principle developer was Rex Conn.

However, I digress quite considerably. The main point is that the command line, for many users of Microsoft operating systems, became quite powerful and many attempts were made to turn it into a scripting tool. The advantages of scripting, as opposed to programming, was that regular administrative tasks on a PC could be automated. Engineers could set up processes that repeated steps at a specific time or over a range of machines.

Microsoft got the scripting bug too. VBSCRIPT became a scripting language used by many. However, it was a bit clumsy because it was tied closely to the Windows GUI and not really to the command line. This often meant an uneasy use of object orientated programming in places where engineers wanted simple procedural choices to get stuff done quickly.

This brought the world to Powershell. Microsoft’s command line interface that allowed you just to type commands, process text files, setting up common configurations and much more. Mostly it let an engineer write a few lines of commands that did everyday tasks quickly. It was also extended into many of Microsoft’s core business products like Sharepoint, Exchange and Lync. It is everywhere and having a bit of Powershell knowledge is a good thing.

Keeping my personal Powershell library of stuff easily backed up and automatically updated has been a challenge. By default a folder is created at “c:\users\username\documents\windowspowershell” and your startup scripts are dumped there. (You replace “username” in the example with your own login name in Windows to find this location because I am doing a generic example here).

If you install Onedrive sync on your PC then you end up with a path to your documents of “c:\users\username\onedrive\documents”. The obvious issue is that your Powershell settings and default script location is local rather than synced in the cloud. The easy solution to syncing everything up is to do what Unix/Linux guys have done for years – symbolic links. You put a link in your local document folder pointing to Onedrive.

1. Run cmd.exe as administrator.
2. Go to “c:\users\username\documents\” on the command line and rename “WindowsPowershell” folder. Use the RENAME command. Use any name you like.
3. Once the folder is renamed create a symbolic link with the command “mklink /D WindowsPowerShell C:\Users\username\OneDrive\Documents\WindowsPowerShell”

That’s it. Your local Powershell reference actually points to Onedrive now. Remember “username” in this example has to be replaced with your actual computer username.

Repeat on all your PCs and your Powershell scripts will follow you around your PCs.

Sunday, 5 November 2017

Being progressive rather than universal


Microsoft was not short of ambition for its tiled interface and One Windows strategy. Microsoft was doing what no other tech firm had done - uniting mobile to desktop/laptop PCs in one experience. Apple had two OSs available - IOS for phone/tablet and OSX for its desktop/laptop users. They were different and had different interfaces. Google had two OSs - Android for phone/tablet and ChromeOS for its Chromebook devices.

Of course, even One Windows doesn't mean exactly the same OS but it does mean components have such similarity that the interface appears the same to users and, with little modification, apps can run on all platforms.

Unfortunately, the app platform UWP (Universal Windows Platform) was hobbled from day one. Microsoft had a poor quality application store, ever-changing developer tools and standards and a Store that only worked (on the PC side) for Windows 8 and latterly Windows 10. While people used legacy versions of Windows such as Windows 7 and XP the apps were "invisible". They also kept rebooting WindowsPhone from 7 to 8 then 8.1 and 10. Each iteration became a year zero where developers were faced with re-writes.

UWP also became fragmented. Developer "bridges" allowed conventional WIN32 legacy apps to be delivered in a UWP "wrapper" to aid installation. There was also a wrapper so that websites could be delivered as an "app" but were just launching a web connection. UWP became more of a way of distribution via the Store and adding notifications rather than being universal. Microsoft's interest in phone waned as they retreated from successful markets turning them into unsuccessful markets. It literally appeared their ambition was to achieve zero sales in mobile.

You can't have a "universal" platform if your universe consists of just the PC!

Just as Microsoft abandoned mobile devices, affected greatly by the dearth of good apps, PWA arrives.

Progressive Web Apps (PWA) are the force that makes apps unimportant. A PWA is a website that has components that run on a smartphone like an app. For most people they will act like an app. They can be pinned to home screens and may even work offline. Mechanically a PWA has "manifest" of components that make it work online or potentially offline using the web.

There will be some applications like CAD, Photoshop and games that will need to run natively on the device they are coded for. However many phone "apps" can become progressive and can work across any device. Google and Microsoft are onboard with the concept. The next Windows 10 update with Edge will support PWA. The Windows Store will be able to wrap PWA "apps". Maybe even Windows 10 Mobile devices could run PWAs and then have parity of function with Android devices.

There is irony here. Could it be that Google backing for PWA makes Windowsphone viable?

Sunday, 29 October 2017

Mature Mobile


The iPhone X is almost here. We are just days away from the event that comes 10 years after the original iPhone. We have the iPhone 8 on sale and the iPhone doing clever stuff with face recognition.

In the last few days Apple has been forced to deny it has reduced it's high manufacturing standards for facial recognition on the iPhone.

The "revolutionary" aspect of this phone is it unlocks just by looking at it. By unlock I mean that you have to be the owner of the phone!
Underlying this technology is the Israeli company that created the tech behind the Microsoft Kinect sensor. This week saw Microsoft end the production of the Kinect sensor that was, at one point, the fastest selling games peripheral. Apple bought the company that created the technology behind Kinect and had them work on using the idea for facial recognition. However even then Apple are a little late in the game because Microsoft already created "Windows Hello". Windows Hello logs you in just using your face or other biometric on Windows PCs and Phones.


Microsoft was there first. Despite the "death" of Windowsphone devices it's a little bit strange that 2 years after Microsoft had a facial login it's Apple that claims the technology as new.

On the iPhone 8 bulging battery photos have shown that even this phone, largely little changed from it's predecessor, has also been reported as having issues.

Google has also launched the Pixel 2. Made by Google is the slogan. This device has also been hit by some criticism. Screen burn on two-week old devices has hit the press.

The problem with all mobile makers is that the smartphone market is mature. Changes now are incremental not revolutionary. Most manufacturers are now finding it hard to add the killer feature that is sufficiently different from last year's model. You would be hard pushed to find much change from 2 or 3 year old phones!

This years' update season of new devices seems to prove there is not much reason to upgrade devices at all and pay premium prices. The only real reason is fashion. Being seen with the latest device.

The market is now mature. People are keeping their old devices much longer because there are few technical reasons to upgrade.

Tuesday, 17 October 2017

The death of Windowsphone


Windowsphone actually “died” a couple of years ago. After Steve Ballmer, the previous CEO of Microsoft, bought Nokia for $7.2 billion you might have assumed that Microsoft was serious about mobile. However Microsoft had little choice. Nokia had made Windowsphone it’s primary operating system and now had 98% of the Windowsphone market. If Nokia’s phone division had just gone bankrupt or made Android handsets then Windowsphone would have ended in 2014.

Nokia had done a pretty good job for Microsoft. Good industrial design, striking colours, double digit market share in places like Europe, South America and Asia where Nokia was a known brand and Microsoft had neglected. Nokia’s handsets had great cameras and additional apps that added value to the device. Nokia had teams of designers and specialists that knew how to make mobile hardware. Microsoft, on the other hand, struggled to sell Windowsphone in their US home market, contantly re-booted the operating system making older handsets incompatible, re-branded services, failed to create a mobile payments system and undermined developers with a poor quality app store and changing developer tools frequently. It seems astonishing that the weaker partner in Windowsphone, in terms of product development and innovation, was Microsoft.

Spending $7.2 billion dollars was not universally popular in the Microsoft board room. The current CEO, Sataya Nadella, in his book Hit Refresh”, says he did not support the decision to buy Nokia. However after becoming CEO he said that Microsoft would continue to support phone, even when the evidence was not showing Microsoft had confidence in their own phone business. In 2015 Microsoft did launch the Lumia 950/950 XL flagship phones on a very iffy Windows 10 Mobile OS. This was the 3rd reboot of the OS itself and reviewers found the speed of the device as great but it showed none of the flare of the Nokia designs and the OS frequently crashed or froze. Developers had not embraced the UWP (Universal Windows Platform) to develop apps and most store apps were compatible with previous generations of Windowsphone.  Microsoft watchers pointed out a shift in language. Microsoft talked about mobile experiences, applications on any device and not just Windowsphone, they wound down their efforts to get developers specifically on board with mobile and Terry Myerson, the chief of the Windows division, said that Microsoft was not “focused” on phone in 2016.


Saturday, 7 October 2017

Simple anti-ransomware tip

The most recent ransomware attacks on PC networks have been amplified by SMB 1.x. SMB is the original file sharing protocol on Windows. It actually came from MS-DOS, the previous operating system from Microsoft, and has a long history. It eventually became called CIFS (Common Internet File System) as a rebrand to dominate internet file sharing in the same way as Windows dominated the PC world.

In the recent ransomware attacks where computers are controlled by malware the old version 1 of SMB has been used to spread the malware over networks. Very few systems, except the odd printer/scanner, use SMB 1 any more. Mostly you see version 2 or version 3 on networks today. So unless you know you need version 1 it’s best to switch it off in the Windows control panel.

If you select switching on/off Windows features you see something like this.

smb-off

Basically you just switch off SMB 1 by unticking the box. Probably a good thing to do on all your PCs to make them a little safer.

For more detailed information click here.

Sunday, 3 September 2017

Star Trek Times



Computer calculate the value of PI to the last possible digit. I paraphrase slightly but with these words Mr Spock instructed the Enterprise computer to prioritise the calculation of PI. It was a plot point to rid the computer of an alien. Maybe the 24th Century version of malware. In the 1970s viewers of the re-runs of Star Trek in the UK were treated to a vision of the 24th century. In the 24th century you could communicate via a small handheld device, you could view the world through flat wall mounted screens and you could command your computer via voice making keyboard input a
aberration from the 20th century.

We didn’t have to wait for the 24th century after all. Today the mobile phone provides global communication from your hand, TVs can hang on the wall and now the new technology battle is voice based digital assistants.

Currently the field of digital assistants seems to be;
Siri.  Apple’s iphone based digital helper.
Cortana. Microsoft’s largely PC based digital assistant with a name based on a character from the Halo game series.
Google Assistant. Google’s home and mobile based assistant.
Alexa. Amazon’s smart assistant for the home.
Bixby. Samsung’s smart assistant. Currently available only on the Galaxy S8

This market in AI is nascent. All of the digital assistants use cloud technology to discover information and provide functionality. Apple’s Siri was first introduced in the iphone 4S and provided a way of access to the iphone via voice commands. Next came Microsoft’s Cortana. Cortana was first available via Windowsphone and is now available on the PC and, in some countries, as an Android app. Google Assistant as evolved from Google Now. Google hasn’t gotten a real personal name for the assistant but kicks off with “OK Google” . Alexa, also known as the Amazon Echo, is a surprise because Amazon is associated more with shopping and has no mobile platform at all. However Amazon’s prime services such as music link in nicely to its capabilities. Bixby is Samsung’s attempt to unbundle itself from Google services. Each entrant has it’s own strengths but all are trying to lock you into their service ecosystem.

So if you primarily use Google services then the Google Assistant should be your number one choice. Productivity workers primarily using a PC and Windows 10 should probably be in the Cortana camp. Apple users will find Siri most useful. Leading to the conclusion that we are heading into walled gardens of service specific assistants. What users really want is universal access to personalised services everywhere. Cortana users will see that the failure of Windowsphone and lack of a home speaker system means it is useful primarily on the PC. Google users will find the PC lacks the assistant natively. Iphone users who use a PC will find no connection at all.

The solution appears to be “skills”. These are the software extensions to home assistants that add capability. An Amazon Alexa user with a Spotify subscription can add Spotify as a skill via the app or web browser. Now if you ask Alexa to play music it knows you mean Spotify and not Amazon. Alexa now has thousands of skills. This week Amazon and Microsoft announced that Amazon devices were going to get Cortana skills. For a Microsoft user like me this means I can use an Amazon device and call up my calendar or information from the Microsoft ecosystem with the same ease as Amazon itself.

echo
Right now I have an Android phone that is setup to use Cortana. I have a PC using Cortana. I have a new Amazon echo box using Alexa but shortly to have Cortana skills. We are moving to the world of the universal voice assistant and Star Trek. The only disappointment I have is that Majel Barratt Roddenberry, who provided the voice of the USS Enterprise computer, has passed away and  can’t voice my digital assistant and make me feel it’s the 24th century.