Danaergeschenk

(a German idiom)


A son, well-meaning, selects a notebook as a Christmas present for his mother. The lady, a librarian close to retirement, is as happy as helpless when looking for the first time at the start screen of Windows 8.1. Everybody at the party has a suggestion, but after hours of touching and prodding, the initial joy turns to disappointment.

Days later, she worked up the courage to ask me for help. Her desperation was so obvious that I agreed immediately. Only minutes later, I had second thoughts. The last version of Windows that I had physically installed was 2000, and that's 15 years ago. I have never even looked at Windows 8 but, I reflected, I was perhaps not totally unprepared as I had digested an article on Windows 8 in the German computer magazine c't in 2012.

The little I remembered from the article was indeed helpful. There was anyway very little to do, except for configuring e-mail access and a browser with an ad blocker. The system came with a full version of Norton Security, and I explained that we would have to find a solution once the license expired in a year. Oh, and the notebook turned out to have a normal display — no touch screen.

....

Two years later. My client asks me if I could have a look at her notebook. She admits to have used it only sporadically, and not all during the past 18 month. She reports that it "behaved strangely" the last time she has logged in. She doesn't know how to state that more accurately.

Well, booting takes an eternity (4 minutes). Norton complains that the license has expired. I uninstall it and activate defender. Full scan, nothing found. Then, I update Windows. And update. And update.

Two days (!) later. After four reboots, all updates have been installed. Firefox crashes on start. I install the current version and add ublock Origin and Ghostery. When opening heise.de, ads start to populate the page to an extent I've never seen before. It's creepy, like a swarm of big, ugly insects invading a cadaver.

Malwarebytes finds 97 "potentially unwanted programs" (so much for Norton Security). Desinfec't (which I could boot after dealing with the secure boot UEFI specialties) detects another 16 varieties of malware of the advertising sort.

After all these scans, and altogether one week later, the system is (reportedly) clean, and everything works as expected.

....

My client was horrified when I reported my findings, and she asked how that could have happened. I wanted to be frank with her, and thus had no choice than telling her that the origin of this "infection" was the download and installation of an apparently innocuous program called Regclean Pro. Needless to say, she never heard about this program in particular, or about download portals in general. With her (naive) view of the internet thoroughly shattered, she sat there with a forlorn, crestfallen expression on her face, not feeling at home in this world anymore.

I'm usually cynical enough to have no mercy at all with people whose view of the world doesn't match reality. But I felt different this time. Microsoft, with the help of the advertising industry as well as profiteers and criminal organizations around the globe, has created a monster. To keep Windows clean requires knowledge, time, and effort. Definitely too much of all, if you ask me.

MacOS and Linux are the best known alternatives to Windows. The former is essentially as vulnerable to adware (or, as that crap is called euphemistically, "potentially unwanted programs aka PUPs") as Windows. The latter is not. However, a full blown Linux installation seems a bit of an overkill for a user who only wants to explore the part of the WWW devoted to bone china accessories, and for the e-mails resulting from the occasional acquisition.

For a user with this profile, a Chromebook would do admirably. It's affordable, boots fast, is updated automatically, is not affected by PUPs, does not require an anti-virus scanner, nor any other pampering, and has a builtin backup in the cloud. And I don't think privacy and data protection are the most important issue here, particularly when compared to the existing notebook with its login based on a Microsoft account. ;)

Update: I'm not alone.