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For once, a Windows debacle not Microsoft’s fault

McAfee blunder shows some Windows screw-ups are outside Redmond's control

Not that they would engage in schadenfreude, but the security people at Microsoft likely at least breathed a sigh of relief this week that the blame for a security screw-up in Windows systems did not land on their doorstep.

Many Windows XP systems that had been updated with SP3 crashed globally Wednesday when, irony of ironies, a security patch was deployed by security vendor McAfee. As Network World reported, the 5958 virus update inadvertently identified the svchost.exe file, which is a core system file on Windows PCs, as a malware threat. In a case of the cure nearly killing the patient, false positives forced a continuous rebooting of XP systems or showed end users the dreaded blue screen of death.

As systems began crashing, frustrated users began flaming McAfee on its online support forum in such volumes that McAfee later took the forum offline, a move that reminded me of the, perhaps apocryphal, story of the operators of the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania who responded to the near meltdown of the reactor core in 1979 by taking all the phones off the hook in the PR department.

McAfee update 5959 corrected the errors of 5958 and all has seemingly returned to normal. The people responsible for that debacle probably wish they were Gray Powell, the Apple engineer who unwittingly left behind in a bar in Redwood City, Calif., a prototype of the next-generation iPhone. I and others believe he was protected from firing by the great and powerful Jobs only by having his identity revealed by Gizmodo, the gadget Web site that obtained the phone Powell left behind. If Apple fired Powell for an innocent mistake, there'd be a backlash.

Then, again, the McAfee mistake doesn't appear innocent. It appears to be major breach of QA.

And the McAfee debacle that crashed Windows XP comes at a time Microsoft is starting to build some cred for its dedication to security. The same day McAfee released its 5958 XP killer to the world, PCWorld.com was reporting that a black-hat hacker turned white-hat hacker said Microsoft systems are now more secure than those of Apple and Adobe.

"When you look at Microsoft today they do more to secure their software than anyone," said Marc Maiffret. (Full disclosure: he now works for Microsoft.) "They're the model for how to do it. They're not perfect; there's room for improvement. But they are definitely doing more than anybody else in the industry."

Apple, he said, benefits from operating a harder to hack Unix-based system and because hackers go after the most widely used system, which is, of course, Windows. But Apple is still vulnerable. And Adobe has come up in recent reports as an emerging target for the spread of malicious code, through its Adobe Reader and Flash applications.

What all this means to Microsoft, in my view, is that as much as it tries to improve its security and as much a market leader as it is, Microsoft is still just part of an ecosystem where factors beyond its control can still be a threat to it.

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