Microsoft Made Choices, Libraries Must Respond

This morning I read with interest the story on Windows Secrets about the decision of Microsoft to not update the program Steady State, which many public places use to remove all traces of change from public computers between user sessions. Te program works well in Windows XP, and apparently Windows Vista, but won’t be updated for usage on Windows 7.

Millions of Americans depend on libraries, Internet cafés, and other public locations for their connection to the Internet, and keeping these points of access safe from hackers is especially difficult.

Recently, however, Microsoft has made that challenge even more difficult for many public libraries.

The company announced it would not upgrade the free application, SteadyState, to Windows 7 compatibility, angering many of the folks who manage public-access PCs. People who manage library PCs say they don’t have money to pay for third-party products that protect public PCs from malware and malicious users.

People who manage public computers face daunting security and anti-malware threats. Microsoft acknowledged this fact when it introduced Windows SteadyState, an add-on for Windows XP and, later, Vista.

SteadyState essentially resets a computer whenever a user signs off, thus protecting his or her identity and data. It lets administrators restrict how users can interact with the computer — administrators can, for example, block access to programs, Web sites, the Control Panel, and disk drives.

SteadyState can also set time limits on user sessions and import user accounts (so that once you’ve set up an account on one PC, you don’t have to start from scratch on the others you manage). And when a user logs off, a feature called Windows Disk Protection erases all changes, ensuring a consistent user interface.

However, not only is SteadyState incompatible with Win7, Microsoft says it has no plans to introduce a Windows 7-compatible version. That’s leaving some IT managers scrambling for replacement technology and others vowing not to upgrade to Windows 7 at all.

Since the program was part of a project by the Gates Foundation, ostensibly with primary usage aimed at these libraries, it makes one wonder what the folks at Microsoft are thinking.

My first opinion, and one I believe I’ll stick with, is that there is absolutely no need to update to Windows 7, for as the saying goes “if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it”. Though the talking heads at Microsoft would have you believe that Windows 7 is worlds better than Windows XP, that is far from true. If there are any small differences in security, they can be fully mitigated with a simple change of browser, firewall, and antivirus/antimalware programs.

It has been clearly shown that Internet Exploder, pick your version, they are all bad, is the first line of attack on every Windows system. Lately, Firefox has been shown to be vulnerable, but not nearly as much as IE. Still, I would enforce a change to Opera or Chrome ( or its derivatives, Iron or Dragon), and call it good – because it would be.

If Microsoft wishes to save a few bucks to not update Steady State, so that it can be used with Windows 7, let the company suffer when the nation’s libraries don’t buy copies of Windows 7. At first glance, the minor losses in revenue may seem a small thing to Microsoft, but remember, we’re talking about a per user license, and no duplication of materials, so there is quite a savings in materials and support for Microsoft, and each license is pure profit. Discounting that, think of the message sent to Joe Average User, as he looks and sees that Windows XP is what is still being used at the library. Joe then gets the idea that, when he gets to have his own machine, Windows XP will be just fine, and Windows 7 must not be a worthwhile product.

As I have said many times, perception becomes reality.

Going back to the article, we get a bit more information about the reticence of Microsoft to do the work necessary to help itself immensely –

Microsoft declined a request for an interview about the future of SteadyState (or to discuss dropping Guest Mode, a somewhat similar feature that appeared in early Windows 7 betas). Instead, the company provided, via its public relations firm, an e-mail response attributed simply to “a Microsoft spokesperson.”
“Microsoft is always investigating customer requirements and continually explores opportunities to meet customer needs in product offerings. Part of that process is prioritizing features we put into our products and making tradeoffs on what to support.

“For many organizations, the use of Group Policy and System Restore functionality provides the ability to manage and reset their PCs as needed; as a result, Microsoft will not be updating Windows SteadyState to support Windows 7. Organizations that require the extended functionality beyond what is offered within Windows 7 should explore third-party products which provide comparable functionality to Windows SteadyState.”
Using Group Policy and System Restore is not practical in a public, kiosk-PC setting. SteadyState treats each computer as a self-maintaining, autonomous system.

The first indication that there would be no Windows 7 version of SteadyState came in a March 10 post on Microsoft’s Windows SteadyState forum by moderator Sean Zhu. Responding to a forum member’s query, Zhu wrote: “I’d like to inform you that currently, there is no plan to develop a compatible version of Windows SteadyState for Windows 7.” Zhu did not elaborate.

Microsoft still maintains the SteadyState Web site, which lauds the tool’s virtues for shared Windows XP and Vista PCs — not just in libraries but also in Internet cafés, schools, and even homes.

SteadyState is descended from the Public Access Computer security software developed in the early 2000s by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. It was part of the foundation’s ongoing drive to put computers into schools and libraries.

In 2005, Microsoft picked up the torch with the release of the Shared Computer Toolkit and then followed with SteadyState in 2007 for Windows XP.

Ironically, news of Microsoft’s decision not to support SteadyState in Windows 7 arrived in the same month as a Gates Foundation–funded, University of Washington study, which reported that some 77 million Americans used a library computer or Wi-Fi network to access the Internet last year.

As Microsoft’s statement on SteadyState suggests, there are other tools available for managing shared computers. At least one forum poster said he was able to install SteadyState on Win7 systems by using the new operating system’s Vista or XP compatibility mode. But at this time, it’s not known whether all features — particularly Windows Disk Protection — will work.

Third-party solutions, such as Faronics’ Deep Freeze, don’t appeal to cash-strapped educational institutions, which are already spending considerable money upgrading to Windows 7. Faronics does offer libraries and non-profits discounted volume licensing rates that lower the $45 price to about $30 for each PC.

“I think it’s worth it,” says Philip Boccia, Systems Librarian for the Long Beach, N.Y., Public Library. “But in these times a lot of libraries can’t afford it.”

Not only is the Gates Foundation supposed to be sensitive to this, Microsoft, working in its own best interest, should see the immediate need to do something, or else, some enterprising person will come along and show many libraries the benefits of a little jewel called Linux.

Let’s face it, for what people do on computers at the library, Linux, specifically Ubuntu or OpenSuSE would work very well, and be very easily administered by the right person. SO each library district may have to pay for that right person, in the long run it saves thousands, if not millions of dollars in bypassing the Microsoft trough, and forced cash removals every 3-4 years.


Opera, the fastest and most secure web browser

≡≡ Ḟᴵᴺᴵ ≡≡®