Killing the paper clip

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’s 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’s trying to be too helpful.

Most weeks it’s 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 a columnist gets confronted with a story that news people say may amount to US$10 billion in damage because of some silly design decisions, there is no question that the right topic has presented itself. Even in these days of Cisco Systems Inc. -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 people’s attention.

It would be one thing if this new LoveLetter virus were the first example of a supposedly helpful feature in Microsoft Corp. software being used by some antisocial 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 virus every week.

Microsoft’s answer to the question of “Why is it so easy to do this sort of thing?” is that the firm added features users want. I may not know all Microsoft Word or Exchange users, but I suspect few have requested that Microsoft add virus vulnerability to the repertoire of features.

I will say that the level of default helpfulness in programs such as Microsoft Word is quite annoying. Even more annoying is 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 quotation 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-things like the ability to click on an e-mail attachment to execute it. The majority of users would do just fine with this function turned off and be 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.

Bradner is a consultant with Harvard University’s University Information Systems. He can be reached at [email protected].

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