Tech

Apple is happy to diss the desktop – it knows who’s got the most to lose

Column You will have noticed that Apple just pushed MacOS under the wolves, thrown it to the bus and left it hanging out to dry like a post-Brexit fishing net.

In the ever-enthralling Epic Games versus Apple court case, the latter’s software supremo Craig Federighi trash-talked his own operating system. MacOS was sub-par for security, couldn’t hold a match to iOS’s mighty walls. A more wretched hive of scum and villainy you could not find. Apple said this? In court? Game over, surely.

Not so fast. Earlier in the same case, an expert witness wheeled in by Epic, Professor James Mickens of Harvard, said that there really wasn’t much difference between the inherent security in iOS and its App Store, the Android ecosystem, or indeed MacOS.

With only a few minutes spent on human evaluation of iOS apps at Apple, he said, and those used on a tick-list of five areas mostly taken care of by the OS’s own features anyway, how could it be otherwise? Professor Mickens, who had worked for Microsoft for eight years until 2015, did say he reached his conclusions from articles and books, and he does describe himself as an “authority on everything” on his stratospherically self-assured Harvard bio, so make your own mind up about his testimony.

So strike from your mind the notion that expert witnesses don’t spin like washing machines. The judge herself noted with exasperation that everyone was talking past each other, describing very different versions of the matters at hand, and she was going to have to work very hard to pull it all together. In court, computer companies are like someone who minimises their income for the taxman and maximises it for the mortgage company. Actual reality is entirely contingent on strategic need.

So, where’s the truth?

Fortunately for us, we live that truth every day. We are all geeks of the world. We all have our favourite OS and mobile platform, but we all know, and often use, many different options at work, rest and play. It is not uncommon for the well-balanced tech maven to have an Android in one pocket, an iPhone in another, a Windows VM in a Linux desktop and a Linux VM in a Windows desktop. Some even have Macbooks, which admittedly is going a bit far. We don’t need telling what the security experience is on all of the above, even if we’re not explicitly charged with worrying about that for our line of work.

And desktop OSes are more vulnerable than mobile OSes, purely because they’re general purpose tools designed to run arbitrary code from arbitrary sources. It’s not like the old days, when MacOS’s Unix architecture underpinnings gave it multiuser DNA with a much longer track record of defence than Windows’ legacy of single user on a disconnected PC. That counted for a lot, once. No longer.

And mobile OSes are app-centric, and are designed to shield the user: you can certainly get malware, but you have to try harder.

Despite the growth of the sandboxed browser model, most obviously expressed in Chromebooks bringing mobile security sensibilities into the edge of the desktop, the basic utility of the general purpose OS cannot be sanitised into total safety. Nor should it.

But it has to be seen for what it is, a chainsaw that’ll as cheerfully rip into your femoral artery as cut down the tallest tree in the forest. For professionals who need that power – creators of digital content, developers, scientists, engineers – the idea of working in a mobile OS model is mostly horrible.

For household users who Netflix and Facebook and game and email, not having to worry about all the hairy-arse crevices of a desktop OS is something we should all devoutly wish for.

Where the desktop OS still dominates, and where it should be shot, butchered and melted down for glue, is on the desks of enterprise workforces.

Microsoft makes its bread and butter off enterprise Windows licensing, so of course it is utterly wedded to its huge corporate customer base sticking with the mutant offspring of Windows 3.1. And it is true that Win10 in a well-maintained enterprise environment is no more inherently vulnerable than Apple or Linux would be, were that ever to happen. But all three are the wrong answer to 21st century general business computing needs.

That’s what Apple admitted in court, and that’s a far more dangerous perception for Microsoft to deal with. Apple is, after all, the professional’s platform, for reasons just as historical as Microsoft’s dominance in the enterprise. It still has the advantage of not being as tempting a target to corporate extortioners as Windows, because the reason you rob banks is the reason you hack Microsoft. That’s where the money is.

Microsoft’s move to a minimal, ChromeOS-esque desktop model is one choice. For Redmond to cede ground to that model in the enterprise is another. That the hive workers of business carry on using the massive Win10 apparatus to access their browser-based HR leave request forms, while IT support and the dark knights of ransomware battle it out, is no option at all. And Apple will swear to that in court. ®


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