Security and the One Laptop Per Child sensibility

If you're one of the many people itching to try out a certain funny-looking green portable computer, your moment is at hand. The One Laptop per Child project's OLPC XO device went on sale to the general public on Nov. 12 at 6 a.m. ET -- albeit only for those who want to make a "buy two, donate one" deal in the process and only for a couple of weeks. [The "Get 1, Give 1" offer concludes on November 26]

There has been a lot of buzz about the project, not just for the famed (and slightly inaccurate) claim of providing a US$100 computer, but also for the notion that a clean and uncomplicated design promotes better usability and security controls. With limited but well-tested features, the device promises to provide a productive experience for its users -- but not an open-ended system Ted Stevens might liken to a big truck.

The OLPC device is not unique in its approach. Recent news indicated that smart phones are now outselling PCs in Japan for some of the same functions. Apple Inc.'s introduction of the tightly-controlled iPhone caused a stir, mostly because the interface for functions already available on other devices is notably simple and slick. India has over the past couple of years adopted minimalist electronic voting systems that bypass the comparative vulnerabilities and tabulation errors of voting systems based on general-purpose operating systems.

What's the trend in all of these? Simplify, simplify, simplify.

All that baggage

What's driving this? Everywhere we look, we see systems and platforms collapsing under their own weight. That's generally good news for security professionals because complexity is the enemy of security. Windows systems are an easy target for security criticism. Vista is the current poster child for overwrought and obese operating systems that give rise to functional and security vulnerabilities through sheer volume of code.

Metrics often trotted out by Macintosh fanboys and Linux nerdistas indicate that modern Windows machines are subject to far more vulnerabilities with the base operating system. But as much fun as it is to grind Microsoft apologists with those numbers, it's an academic distinction.

A truer measure of risk is the security of the system as it's commonly used. Comparative measures of risk between a domain-member Windows Server against Mac OS X Server should include the likes of Open Directory and Samba, and Microsoft corporate desktop images should be compared with Linux desktops running Open Office and other equivalent corporate applications.

When all the application and interconnectivity baggage is loaded, none of the major operating system competitors comes off looking particularly good or performing well. Sometimes, even the applications intended to keep things safe reduce performance to a crawl, or complex interface tools can confuse users in creative ways.

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