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To combat worms, diversity helps

No, it's not your imagination. Our computers really are going bananas. Not in a bad science-fiction movie sense. Our desktop PCs won't be starting World War III anytime soon. That's mythology; this is biology.

It turns out that bananas, the tasty yellow fruits that humans consume by the billion, are extraordinarily fragile, and not just because they bruise easily. The kind we like to eat are sterile, and can only be grown by planting shoots cut from older banana plants.

It's a neat, clean, asexual way to reproduce, and consequently very dangerous. Sexual reproduction is better. It ensures our gene pool is constantly stirred up. The resultant genetic diversity makes the species healthier, better able to resist diseases.

Recently, a fatal fungus has flared up among the world's bananas. And since they're genetically almost identical, the entire global crop is at risk. So botanists are busily carrying out genetic engineering experiments aimed at introducing a little more diversity into the banana population.

The millions of us who use Microsoft Corp. software should have a good deal of sympathy for the banana growers. We are after all, in the same boat, and we don't even have Harry Belafonte to cheer us up.

Computer administrators spent much of August fending off a series of computer worms that infect only machines embedded with the DNA of Bill Gates. Meanwhile, Apple Computer Inc.'s Macintoshes are immune, as are Unix and Linux boxes.

We'll skip the tedious arguments over which operating system is best -- although, come to think of it, have you ever heard anyone claim that Windows was the best? Never mind. The real issue isn't superiority, it's diversity. We live in a computing monoculture, in which nearly everybody uses the same type of software running on the same type of hardware, and consequently gets infected with the same kinds of malware.

The great culprit, of course, is . . . no, not Microsoft. Instead, blame Apple -- or at least the company Apple used to be. Its current leadership is doing a first-class job of introducing elegant, innovative products, and turning a profit despite holding just a sliver of the market.

But in the late 1980s, the days when the desktop computer market was still young and fluid, Apple blundered in ways that ensured it would never gain mass-market popularity. At the same time, Microsoft made pretty nearly all the right moves.

Yes, the company cheated a bit, but less than its critics allege. For the most part, the Microsofties succeeded by working hand in hand with the chip makers at Intel Corp. to drive the cost of personal computing through the floor.

Apple could have joined this merry race to the bottom -- by porting its wonderful software onto Intel hardware. But it didn't. And so, instead of half of us using Mac software and half Windows, it's more like 3 percent Mac, 95 percent Windows, with Linux thrown in as a rounding error.

And now the bill has come due. Our stagnant software monoculture is so susceptible to worms and viruses that the more potent ones sweep around the planet in under a day. Some say that Macs and Linux boxes are inherently less susceptible. Maybe yes, maybe no. But they certainly aren't susceptible to the same malware, and if more of us used them, they'd serve as a sort of digital firebreak, protecting us against the worst of the worms' impacts.

Perhaps some of us are getting a clue. Consider the market for instant messaging software. Just a few years ago, consumer groups, Internet activists, and even Microsoft were all clamoring that America Online should make its Instant Messenger software compatible with everybody else's versions. AOL has studiously dragged its feet in the matter. The federal government actually restricted AOL's right to add new features to its IM service until it made progress toward interoperability.

The other day, the feds dropped those restrictions. The reaction? Dead silence. It seems that nobody cares any more that AOL's software is incompatible. That's largely because Microsoft and Web portal titan Yahoo have gotten millions of users for their own IM software. Competitors feared that consumers would choose only one IM client -- AOL's. But millions of people happily use two or three of them at a time. It turns out that compatibility to a single global standard might have been ever so slightly overrated.

Alas, IM software is one thing -- massive, complex operating systems are another. We're locked into the Windows monoculture because it does make life simpler than running a variety of incompatible systems. It would be immensely costly and difficult to diversify our computing platforms with a Linux machine here and an iMac there.

On the other hand, how much did last month's worms cost the world economy? Maybe not enough to justify a mass migration from Windows. But what about next time? With each infection, the price of bananas keeps going up.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.

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