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Author Archives: Alex Kidman

Still running Windows 7? It’s time to upgrade

Microsoft has announced that anyone still using Windows 7 is essentially living on borrowed time. To be specific, the software giant has stated that it will cease offering new security updates to Windows 7 users from 14 January 2020.

Windows 7 has had a solid run, given that it first became available to consumers on 22 October 2009. It replaced the not-terribly-popular Windows Vista, and a 10 year run of updates is a reasonable kind of track record, especially when you consider how the technology world, and especially the level of online threats has multiplied in that time. Windows 7 is fully two versions of Windows behind the times, given Microsoft has released Windows 8 and Windows 10 in the intervening years.

So what does this mean if you’re currently looking at a Windows 7 PC that’s still in regular use? The good news here is that it’s not as though on 15 January 2020 your PC will be reduced to a lump of molten silicon thanks to Microsoft’s machinations. It will run as it did before, but with a significantly increased risk profile if it’s ever online. Now, if this is a machine that never goes online — which is unlikely in this day and age but not actually impossible — then you could keep using it with only minimal risk.

However, if you do go online from that time, you’re basically playing Russian roulette. Windows is incredibly popular and widespread in the computing world, and that means that it’s under substantial pressure from malware writers all the time. Just because Windows 7 is old doesn’t mean that the malware writers will forget about it, especially given that some figures suggest that around 40% of all Windows PC are still running it!

While a good malware/AV package can provide a level of support, those companies don’t have the direct code access to fix flaws the way that Microsoft does. That means that even if it picked up one known threat, it may have no way of dealing with a similar threat if it can’t modify direct system files. Again, that’s down to Microsoft, and it’s giving warning that it’s going to stop. If you’ve got a Windows 7 PC, you may already have had a pop-up window informing you of the upcoming change.

So what are your options? You could, if your computer meets Microsoft’s minimum requirements upgrade to Windows 10. That will be a paid upgrade, however, unless you’ve already got a Windows 365 Business subscription, in which case it’s an included software upgrade.

The practical reality there is that the upgrade cost isn’t really that much cheaper for a full legitimate copy than it would be for an entry-level laptop or desktop that’s arguably going to be faster — and obviously less worn down — than your existing computer. As such, if you do still run Windows 7, the best bet might be to budget and save so that you can treat yourself to a completely new PC when Windows 7 reaches the end of its effective software life.

Microsoft’s current strategy for Windows 10 is that it’s going to keep updating and upgrading it internally, rather than working towards a “Windows 11” style solution. That means that if you do upgrade, whether via software or a new PC, it’s a problem that you shouldn’t notably have to face again.


What can we learn from Facebook’s outage?

Popular social media destination Facebook made worldwide headlines recently, and not for the kinds of reasons that Facebook might want to be noticed. That’s because for a roughly 12 hour period, access not just to Facebook, but also Instagram and Whatsapp — all services owned and operated by Facebook — consumers worldwide had issues connecting to or using those services.

It wasn’t simply a matter of going to the web page or opening an app and discovering no access, either. For some users, Facebook might as well have not been there. For others, they could access their own profiles, but not comment on other people’s posts, and for some, no posts they made would go live, even though they could see their full Facebook feed. It was much the same story if you were an Instagram user or Whatsapp devotee as well.

It wasn’t even consistent — during the first couple of hours of the outage, speaking purely anecdotally, I could access Facebook just fine, only to find in the middle hours my ability to post was non-existent. Later on, it was fine for me but I witnessed others who couldn’t even get it to load up.

Facebook’s impact on the web is immense, even if you’re not actually a Facebook user. Depending on whose metrics you trust, it’s either the first, second or third most visited web property, sharing that top 3 placing with Google and YouTube. So Facebook being down had some serious implications for a lot of users, and in ways that go beyond whether or not they were able to share the latest silly cat meme.

If you’ve ever used the ability to use your Facebook ID as your login for other sites and services, that may have been down for you, and of course for any business that works with Facebook — whether it’s to promote their own services on a page, provide support for customers or simply to place ads in your feed — it meant lost revenue as well.

So, was it a gang of elite cyber-criminals, determined to squeeze some cold, hard cash out of Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s CEO?

Not quite. Facebook was quick to alert users that it wasn’t a DDoS (Distributed Denial of Service) attack, where thousands of attempts are made to access a page in order to take it offline or reveal potential security weak points. Although it did so via Twitter, because… well… Facebook was down. While the impact was being felt worldwide, Facebook remained rather quiet, before admitting that the issue came down to server misconfiguration.

“As a result of a server configuration change, many people had trouble accessing our apps and services”, Facebook said on its Twitter account. “We’ve now resolved the issues and our systems are recovering. We’re very sorry for the inconvenience and appreciate everyone’s patience.”

If you’re curious, what that most likely means based on analysis of how Facebook’s systems went down is that someone at Facebook HQ made changes to the way its servers identify themselves to the outside world. Those kinds of changes happen all the time, and for the most part they’re invisible to the outside world — until something goes wrong. Because the server identification doesn’t (in effect) get mirrored around the world simultaneously, if there’s a dodgy server entry it can take some time — often many hours — before every system connecting to Facebook knows the proper routing information.

That would neatly explain why it was different for so many users, because the way their servers might think they had to talk to Facebook’s systems could differ depending on the routing information they had. Think of it like addressing a traditional letter. If your recipient moves, but doesn’t tell you the correct forwarding address, you’d send it to the wrong place all the time. It would take time for them to get the right address to you, at which point the flow of communications can be restored.

It’s interesting in a technical nuts and bolts sense, but you and I don’t actually run Facebook. So is there anything in this outage for us to learn? I think so. Here’s some quick takeaway thoughts for you to ponder on:

1) Is it your best option to use a single service – whether it’s Facebook or indeed your Google ID — to log into third party services? Would you be merely inconvenienced if you couldn’t access them, or actually in dire straits? If it’s the latter – consider another alternative, pronto.

2) For those who rely on Facebook for communications purposes, do you have a backup plan for contacting people if those services go down? Not being able to share a picture of your lunch sandwich isn’t a vital matter, but in some circumstances it could be quite serious. At the very least, consider how you might communicate to vital close family and friends in other ways.

3) If something goes wrong with your computer — or any other gadget — have you retraced your digital steps? That’s precisely what Facebook had to do to get its services back online, but it’s a good general approach to any tech problem. That last app you installed might have corrupted something, or perhaps you shouldn’t have left your laptop out in the rain. In the former case, maybe uninstall the rogue app. In the latter case, learn from your mistakes — or buy a water resistant laptop!


GPS systems are about to reset, but not everyone is going to be lost

There’s a well-known test that taxi drivers in London have to sit, called “The Knowledge”, that can take years to pass, detailing just about every street in the UK’s very disorganised capital road system.

It’s tough learning that many roads, although it may have side benefits, with some studies suggesting that London black cab drivers have over-developed the parts of the brain that deal with spatial logic, thanks to that very test.

Which is neat science, but for the rest of us, memorising roadways — or for that matter, even relying on folded maps or map books — has given way to the convenience of letting technology do it for us.

The Global Positioning System (GPS) allows for accuracy within a range that’s generally suitable for pinpointing positions, and once you know a start and end point, along with up-to-date map information, actually calculating a route isn’t all that complicated a matter.

That’s presuming, however, that you get an accurate lock-on in the first place. GPS works by comparing the time differences from satellite signals to sort out your co-ordinates, using a 10-digit field with a maximum value of 1024 weeks.

It’s a casualty of the technology available at the time that the GPS satellites were first commissioned for military use, but it means that the GPS “clock” has a fixed rollover date of just under 20 years. 19.7 years to be precise.

On April 6 2019, we’re going to hit that 19.7 year rollover period, at which point the GPS satellite signals will essentially start thinking that it’s January 6, 1980.

Which doesn’t mean that it becomes 1980 again and Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” starts climbing the charts.

It could however be very significant for systems that are trying to match up the signals from the GPS satellites. How bad could it be? The official specification systems for the GPS array suggest that a nanosecond (one thousand-millionth of a second) out could add up to 1 foot (0.3m) of error tracking into a GPS calculation.

Needless to say, there’s a lot of nanoseconds in a 19.7 year span. However, it’s not the case automatically that on the 6th of April all our GPS systems will go awry. Because of that 19.7 year rollover period and the 1980 start date for GPS systems, they’ve actually been through this problem once before, back in 1999.

At that point, however, the quantity of non-military GPS users was negligible. However, that did lead to the creation of software specifications that can automatically adjust for the difference as long as the receiver knows that it’s at or past the relevant rollover date. You can’t exactly send a technician up to the satellites to spin the clocks forwards nearly 40 years, but you can mathematically adjust for the receivers that use that data.

So what likely impact is the GPS rollover bug going to have on your use of GPS satnav systems? It largely depends on how old your GPS is. If you’re using a smartphone for GPS tracking, you’re almost certainly safe. They’re new enough to have the relevant updated specifications in play.

Where it gets trickier is in older systems that may not have been updated, or that may use a different rollover date to avoid the 2019 date specifically.

There’s been some work done for industrial-scale GPS usage, for systems like shipping and aircraft to ensure public safety, but if you’ve got a car with more than a few years on it and a much older inbuilt GPS system, it’s feasible that there could be an issue. Likewise, if you have an in-car receiver, boat or golf GPS that you’ve held onto for more than a few years, it might not be up to date. In the case of golfing GPS, that might just add a few strokes to your shot, but obviously for navigating safely it’s much more of a concern.

It’s roughly — but not absolutely — a problem you should consider if you’re using any system that relies on GPS that’s about a decade old. After that time, the new specifications tended to be adopted and all should be well. It’s generally advised if you’re concerned, especially if you’re using a system that rarely (if ever) sees software updates to contact the manufacturer and check what the state of play actually is.

The one big upside for GPS systems is that the newer specifications not only allowed systems to adjust for the bug automatically, but they also updated to a 13-bit counter, with a total runtime of 8,192 weeks.

That’s around 157 years, so if your smartphone (and you) are still operational in the year 2176, you might have a problem — but there’s plenty of time to work on that one.


Does the Mac Mini still make sense for everyday consumers?

Not that long ago, Apple surprised everyone by updating its line of Mac Mini computers. The Mac Mini isn’t like any other Mac that Apple sells. Where much of its output is in laptops, or the 2-in-1 style iMac computers, the Mac Mini is instead a “headless” computer — a fancy way of saying that it comes as a computer in its own casing, but there’s no keyboard, mouse or screen. It’s up to you how you want to use it.

Apple waited a very long time between Mac Mini updates. 1,475 days, to be precise, or at bit over 4 years, which is an eternity in computing terms. The original Mac Minis were highly affordable Macs that worked very well if you liked the macOS operating system but didn’t want the 2-in-1 form factor of the iMac — or its price point. Sure, you didn’t get the portability of a true laptop either, but if all you do online is at home and never on the move, that’s not much of an issue.

The new Mac Mini is a different kind of PC. Obviously, the internal components are a bit better and faster than the old Mac Mini models, but you would expect that. It’s substantially quieter than the older models, thanks to improved airflow, and it’s now a more stunning black colour. That may or may not matter to you, given that this is a PC designed more or less to be out of the way most of the time.

There’s a stronger focus on ports, with 4 combination Thunderbolt/USB C 3.1 ports, an HDMI output for monitor usage and 2 standard USB A type ports. Underneath its small black casing lurks an 8th generation Intel Core processor, with everything from an entry level Core i3 model — which is what I’ve been testing out — all the way up to a much more expensive Core i7 variant. You can spend a lot on a Mac Mini now, which is something of a change for the model.

The new Mac Mini is certainly fast, but that price jump could be problematic if you’re a home user with an older Mac Mini looking to an upgrade. Where once the Mac Mini was the “cheap” Mac model — not that Apple ever uses the word “cheap” to speak of — it’s now just another choice next to a bevy of MacBooks, MacBook Air, MacBook Pro and even iMac models. You actually don’t have to try that hard to configure a Mac Mini, with no screen, no keyboard and not that much storage that costs more than an iMac.

Now, if you’re bringing an existing monitor, keyboard and peripherals into play that’s maybe not an issue, but if you were shifting from a laptop, say, you’d have to then add in the cost of at least a keyboard, mouse and display. Apple does sell those, but weirdly if you order through Apple at the time of writing, you couldn’t automatically add them to your order. Odd, although the fact that they’re USB and HDMI based means you could use any old keyboard, mouse and display with few issues.

Apple knows it’s got a market for the Mac Mini, because it’s been used in a lot of places as a tiny server option for businesses, in certain cases for video production and in areas where a small, nicely designed computer makes visual sense.

For the home market, though, if you’re in the market for an Apple upgrade, you might want to check the pricing on the Mac Mini against your other options. Unless that very compact size is super important to you, a basic MacBook Air or iMac might actually be a smarter purchase option.


How much is too much for a foldable phone?

There’s been a lot of speculation around foldable phones in the past 12 months, fuelled by the hype from the manufacturers busy producing devices that can fold from phone to tablet and back again — or even crazier concepts, like phones that become slap bands when you place them around your wrist.

That latter idea is still just a concept, but within the next few months, you’ll be able to take your pick in foldable phone concepts from two of the world’s biggest technology companies.

Samsung was first off the blocks, announcing its take on a foldable device in the form of the Samsung Galaxy Fold. It’s a 7.3 inch tablet device that folds around to form a 4.6 inch phone.

Samsung’s done some clever work with Android apps such that the full sized Galaxy Fold can run 3 apps side to side, so you could have your social media and email running while you check out your YouTube or Netflix favourites — all on the same screen. What’s more, if you’re using an app on the smaller folded down 4.6 inch display, it’ll automatically expand out onto the 7.3 inch display without losing your place. Samsung’s throwing an exceptional 6 cameras in total around the body of the Samsung Galaxy Fold, so no matter what way it’s folded or positioned, you should be easily able to grab a quick snapshot.

Not to be outdone, just a couple of days later at the big Mobile World Congress 2019 conference, Chinese firm Huawei announced its own take on what a foldable phone could be. The Huawei Mate X is even bigger in tablet form, with a full 8 inch display, but when it folds down, it does so into a phone that’s 6.6 inches in diagonal display terms. There’s only 3 onboard cameras, but the reverse fold (relative to the way the Galaxy Fold, well… folds) means that there’s no onscreen “bezel”, because the cameras live at the back of the phone. This does mean if you’re taking photos in the folded down form of the Huawei Mate X, you’ll be able to see yourself in selfie mode, and anyone you take portraits of will be able to do likewise. Huawei’s display is larger, but its demonstration of usage only showed off two apps running simultaneously, where Samsung’s Galaxy Fold managed three.

Samsung says it’ll produce the Samsung Galaxy Fold in versions for both 4G LTE connectivity and the newer 5G standard rolling out across the world in 2019, while Huawei’s Mate X will be 5G out of the gate. That doesn’t mean it’s 5G only, however; pretty much every 5G device will have fallback through 4G and 3G connectivity if there isn’t a suitable 5G signal to be had.

All of the technology in the Samsung Galaxy Fold and Huawei Mate X is very impressive, but there is a notable catch.

If you’re super keen to get your hands on a Galaxy Fold or Huawei Mate X, you’re going to pay a pretty stiff “early adopter” tax to do so. Samsung hasn’t announced full pricing for the Galaxy Fold just yet, but it noted at its launch that the entry level model would start from $US1,980. That’s very high for a smartphone, but Huawei’s effort is even more expensive, with a listed price at launch of €2,299 Euro.

On one hand, you’re getting a high end tablet and a high end phone in a single device. On the other hand, your wallet — or your credit card statement — will probably be weeping by the time you’re done paying for one. If you’re still keen, both Samsung and Huawei expect to be selling their respective devices by mid-year.

Over time, of course, we’re likely to see more flexible phone/tablet concepts at slightly less nerve-wracking prices than the Samsung Galaxy Fold or Huawei Mate X. For now, for most of us, we’ll just have to look on enviously at what the future holds.


For Microsoft, Mobile World Congress is no longer about phones

In the technology space, there’s a few “big” conferences where new technologies and gadgets get announced.

Early in the year there’s the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, followed in late February by Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. As the name suggests, Mobile World Congress is (largely) all about phones and mobile technology, which means that this year there’ll be a focus on everything from foldable phones to 5G networks.

In years gone by, Microsoft had a presence at Mobile World Congress to show off its mobile phone category, largely with its own Lumia-branded devices. However, if you’re a fan of Windows 10 Mobile, I’ve got some bad news for you. You might be a fan of it… but Microsoft isn’t.

It’s announced that it will end support for Windows 10 Mobile devices from the 10th of December 2019. That doesn’t mean that your phone will automatically stop working, but it does mean no more software or security updates, and it’s pretty likely that any app that requires the Windows app store to run will stop working around that time. Microsoft’s advice if you’re still rocking a Lumia phone (or one of the very rare non-Microsoft produced Windows 10 Mobile handsets) is to switch to Android or iOS.

Microsoft has space in the mobile mindset, however, with applications like Office and enterprise platforms that run on mobile devices, but it appears that this year at Mobile World Congress, it’s going to launch something new. Specifically, it appears, based on a teaser video tweeted out by Technical Fellow for AI Perception and Mixed Reality in the Cloud and AI Group at Microsoft, Alex Kipman that an update, and possibly a consumer release of its Hololens project is imminent.

As a complete aside, working as a tech writer I sometimes get mistaken for Alex Kipman. He’s not me, and I’m not him.

Kipman is the creator of Microsoft’s Hololens, a product I’ve written about for some years now that sits in a space that’s referred to by Microsoft as “Mixed Reality”. That’s because the first generation Hololens was a combination of what you might expect from a set of Virtual Reality goggles, but without the immersion in a virtual world. With a set of VR goggles, you’re cut off from the world, but with Hololens, you see the world with a heads-up display overlaid upon it.

Microsoft has built some impressive demonstrations of what Hololens can do over the years, but to date it’s not been a product that you can simply order online or from a tech store like you might a laptop or a phone. Instead, it’s been a high-priced device primarily pitched at developers and those in very specific industries that can afford its asking price.

The new Hololens will probably retain that kind of price point, but Microsoft’s presentation of it at MWC will be key to showing off any new features it might have. One of the prevailing trends in the mobile space right now is the use of enhanced AI functions, and for a device that not only has to overlay holograms in real space, but do so in real time, being able to more intelligently do so could make it a whole lot more useful.

That could lead to wider adoption, or, as happened with the humble PC, it could be the start of the journey that began in the early 80s — where a “consumer” IBM PC was priced near equivalent to a family car — but that led to today’s ultra-affordable computing environment.


Google’s Chrome password checker could improve your security — but there are better options

Generally speaking, people suck at keeping their passwords secure.

I know, I know. I’ve said this before many times.

But year in, year out, the same bad passwords crop up in leaked lists, because human beings are, for the most part, creatures of convenience.

If there’s an easier way to do something, most of the time we’ll do it. That leads to poor password routines, such as using the same password on multiple sites. That’s a big problem, because if your password on one service is compromised, it’s trivially easy for miscreants to code up a script that slams that password and your email against countless sites, just to see what happens. If you use the same password for a service that’s worth money, or as a gateway to your identity, you could quickly be in trouble.

Google recently announced a new official extension for its Chrome browser that should make it a little easier to detect if you’re using a password that may already be compromised. The Google Password Checkup Chrome extension checks passwords as you enter them against known breach databases, so it can alert you if you’re using a password that’s already been compromised. With that knowledge, you can then rapidly change that password for something else, and hopefully keep yourself more secure.

Installation is pretty easy — all you have to do is install it as an extension via the Chrome web store, either by searching for Password Checkup, or directly from this link.

Once installed, you’ll end with with a small green icon next to the URL bar. Click on it, and it will check if any of the passwords you’ve stored in Chrome are known to be compromised. Google says it’s using its own database, rather than the publicly available repositories such as those found at haveibeenpwned.com, so its results may be a little different.

For its part, Google says that the extension itself doesn’t store your passwords, or share them with Google in any way. However, the way that it works is via the passwords that you choose to save within Chrome itself, so it’s still doing a level of data analysis in order to work out if you’re at risk.

You’d have to take that as a matter of trust, although fairly obviously it’s in Google’s best interests to have consumers happy with using Chrome in a safe manner.

As a free extension, it’s a case, I think, of some security being better than none. That’s not quite the same thing as saying that all you should consider is installing the Password Checkup extension and considering your Internet security as a “fixed” matter. As always, where there’s money involved, whether it’s directly siphoning your bank accounts or compromising your credit via identity theft, there will always be a new approach and something to be wary of.

A password checking extension is a good start, but you should also consider ensuring that your general password hygiene is as sparkly clean as it can be.

I’d still advocate strongly for the use of a password management application such as Lastpass, Dashlane, Keepass or 1Password, simply because those provide a much more robust toolset for managing, changing and monitoring your entire password set.

They’ll even help you create truly random passwords if you do fear that an existing password may have been compromised. Some are paid, and some offer their services for free, so there’s really not much of a reason not to make yourself as secure as possible while you’re working (or playing) online.


Apple’s Facetime bug is a reminder that software is fallible, but updates are crucial

Apple is a company that prides itself on the security of its products. Apple has a lot to lose as one of the world’s biggest tech companies. It prides itself on having a lot of control given it produces a complete set of technology. That’s both the operating system software and hardware it all runs on, whether you’re talking an iPhone or a Mac.

It must have been embarrassing, then, for a major flaw to emerge in the company Facetime video calling service. The bug exploited a flaw in its group calling service.

Group calling allows you to call more than one person, as you’d expect.

If you started a group call and added yourself (along with 1 other person) to the call you could listen to everyone’s microphones, even if they hadn’t picked up the call!

To make matters worse, under certain circumstances, the video camera on some system could be viewed, again without the second caller actually agreeing to take the call.

If you have your iPhone or Mac with volume enabled you’d spot an incoming Facetime request. Not so much if you had your device on silent, or you were away from it.

To make matters even worse, Apple was reportedly told about the flaw some time ago. 9to5Mac reported that a concerned mother tried to contact Apple about the flaw some time before knowledge of it became widespread. Apple didn’t take them seriously.

That’s a huge black eye for Apple in the security stakes, because it could have patched away the issue well before the exploit itself became public.

Once it had become publicised, Apple yanked the Group Facetime servers offline, and it says it’s tested internally to patch the flaw.

A software update, due to appear at some point this week should disable the flaw on iOS and macOS devices, as well as re-enable Group Facetime calls.

The reality here — and what we, as consumers can learn about security as a result — is that modern application software is very complex stuff, built by fallible human beings.

No software, anywhere is 100% free from bugs, but what effect those bugs may have can vary. Some may cause crashes. Some may cause weird screen effects, and some — like the Facetime bug — may cause genuine security worries.

This bug was particularly troublesome in that, unless you’d already specifically disabled Facetime because you never used it, regular users would have done nothing “wrong”.

They left nothing insecure. Yet they still could have had their privacy compromised.

So what can you do? While it’s a scary situation, it’s also a reminder of why it’s a very good idea to make sure that you’re up-to-date with security releases and patches for your operating system, whether you’re an Apple Mac/iPhone user, or indeed more of a Windows/Android user.

There’s good sense in waiting on major operating system updates — again, because of the potential of crippling bugs in early software.

When patches relate to issues within that software, as Apple’s Facetime update is sure to, it’s smart to keep yourself up-to-date.

It’s likely that Apple will aggressively push the update to fix Facetime out with a lots of pop-up windows reminding you to upgrade.

You can take matters into your own hands by checking regularly for software updates.

On Macs, click on the Apple symbol, then App Store, and then on updates. On iOS devices, open Settings, then General, then Software Update. As long as you’ve got an active Internet connection, you’ll be informed if there are relevant updates to install.


Google’s anti-phishing quiz makes it easier to keep yourself safe online

As we’ve shifted to an online world, we’ve sadly seen a huge increase in the quantity and sophistication of phishing attacks.

Just in case mention of that term had you pondering picking up gumboots and long lines and dreaming of trout, that’s fishing. Totally different thing.

Phishing is the term used to describe fraudulent ways to gain access to systems and information, whether that’s your personal details for the purposes of identity theft, or access to your online bank accounts for more traditional stealing activities.

Google recently launched a phishing quiz to help everyday web users identify phishing attacks, and it’s a very smart approach. I’d highly encourage you to give it a go — you can find it at https://phishingquiz.withgoogle.com/ — because whether you ace the quiz or flunk it entirely, there’s plenty to be learned. It’s part of Google’s wider efforts to make the web a safer place, alongside efforts to highlight insecure URLs for domains not using HTTPS encryption, and other measures.

The quiz itself encourages you to enter a name and email, and it actively encourages you to use a fake one, not that it captures this data regardless. Then again, it’s Google-based, and it probably already knows who you are anyway.

It then walks you through common phishing scenarios to see if you can correctly pick legitimate emails from their more fraudulent counterparts. Whether you get it right or wrong, you’re walked through what to look for and what to check for when a new email comes in, which is again, a smart approach.

If you’re right, it’s a refresher in what you should be doing with real email, and if you’re wrong, it’s the first step in learning what to look out for.

What I found fascinating in taking the test is how many very simple techniques scammers use when phishing in order to lure in their prey. While the visuals are more sophisticated, there’s a mix of straight up technological obfuscation at play — because the scammers want to appear as though they’re actually your work colleagues, bank or other important business you deal with — there’s also an element of psychological manipulation to deal with as well.

That’s why while it’s important to keep an eye out for more obvious clues, such as email addresses or URLs that don’t quite resolve where they should if you hover your mouse over them — it’s also important to stay calm when opening email, even if it appears alarming. Much of what works within a phishing approach does so because they try to short-circuit your logical thinking processes. That can come either by appearing to be from a friendly source, so they look like a zipped up bunch of photos from your significant other, or by making you outright panic with a warning about warrants for your arrest, lockdown of your valuable online accounts, or even just a simple request to reset your password following a “breach” of your account.

So what should you do in all cases? Check the URLs (or email addresses) of any email asking you to open a link or attached file carefully. Keep your anti-malware software up to date, because that way if you do accidentally click on the wrong URL, you’re at least a little safer if your software intercepts the dodgy URL before loading anything. But above all, use your brain when assessing an incoming message. If it looks dodgy, or it’s trying to make you panic, think twice, and possibly contact the individual (or business) directly. If there’s a genuine issue to resolve, you’ll still be on top of it, but if it’s a phishing scam, you’ll stop it affecting you outright.


Would subscribing to Microsoft make sense for consumers?

Microsoft made its immense fortunes largely off the back of selling software. There would be a new version of Microsoft Office, or Microsoft Windows, and you’d pay a set sum for CD-ROM (or, going back even further, a bundle of 3.5 inch floppy disks) that would provide you with that software, typically accompanied by a period of software updates (if available) until the next “new” version emerged.

Microsoft shifted many years ago to a subscription model for businesses and schools, offering up its popular software packages and operating system on a pay-as-you-go model for businesses where investing heavily in fixed packages didn’t make quite as much sense. Pay for an Office 365 subscription, for example, and you never have to worry about not having the latest features in Microsoft Word, because your subscription includes the very latest version of Word, all the time.

The question of whether or not you’re using all those features is one for another article, but there are also some security implications, and sometimes file compatibility issues if you stick with a particularly old version of Microsoft’s Office suite, and especially its Windows platform. That too has appeal for businesses, none of whom want to risk their business reputation (or the contents of the business bank account) to otherwise unpatched bugs or errors in the code.

Microsoft launched a bundled product simply called Microsoft 365 that included both Windows and Office products for businesses back in 2017, and it appears that it’s mulling over a similar strategy for consumers too. Speaking to The Verge, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella suggested that the company was looking into consumer-based subscription products, possibly under the same Microsoft 365 branding.

There’s an existing area of consumer interest where Microsoft already does pretty well with consumers, and that’s in gaming, where its subscription-based Xbox Live and Xbox GamePass services offer excellent value if you’re already an Xbox One or Xbox OneX owner. Gaming is a different sphere to productivity, however, and the prospect of having a subscription product as distinct from a software licence is one that brings with it some rather precise benefits and drawbacks.

On the plus side, just like the business product you could expect to always have the latest version of each of the Office apps, as well as all the security updates for them. In today’s connected world, that’s a big plus. Microsoft could indeed leverage its Xbox platform to tie in some kind of gaming subscription as well, if it chose to. It’s also the owner of the Skype messaging platform, and again it could tie in value on for video calling into some kind of bundle.

At the same time, however, the reality for most consumers is that they don’t buy Windows as a standalone product that much any more. It’s much more likely to come bundled with a new desktop or laptop, with a licence tied rather firmly to that hardware. Microsoft shows no sign of switching away from the strategy of permanently iterating just on Windows 10, with no plans for “Windows 11” any time soon. As such, the upgrades are (currently) free anyway. Were Microsoft to start charging for them, unless it did release an entirely new “Windows 11” type OS, it would face a serious consumer revolt.

That means that the value would most likely lie with Microsoft Office, but again you hit that issue of whether new interface tweaks or semi-hidden features would have value to the average user. We’re long past the days of having the annoying Clippy pop up to ask us if we’re writing a letter, but he was at least a sop to the consumer-office-using-market. Modern Word is a fine word processor, but it’s not particularly consumer-centric, and it’s got plenty of features that you wouldn’t even need to look at unless you had rather precise professional needs.


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