Professional Skipper – September 2002 issue     back to articles menu

“Computers – Boon or Bane?”

It’s almost impossible to run a business – no matter how small – without a computer. Yet years ago we used to do it. Buy a computer today, and you’ve entered the race to keep up.

 “And you run and you run to catch up with the Sun but it’s sinking… racing around, to come up behind you again” – the words of Pink Floyd, circa 1973. I’m writing this in a Hotel room in Paihia, where today my job has taken me. Where the client is, there go I. The notebook computer I’m using was the best thing since sliced bread when I bought it 5 years ago. It was fast, did incredible things, and – here’s a free plug for Toshiba – has never let me down, and neither did its namesake predecessor.  But, five years on, it’s struggling to keep up, and I have to remind myself (when I get irritated at having to wait for it) that it is, in computer terms, ancient. It’s a Pentium 133 which, for those in the know, takes ten times longer to think about things than notebooks on the market right now. In just five years. In computer jargon, this old notebook is ‘maxed out’, meaning that although it is running Windows 98 and Office 2000, those two pieces of software stretch the machine to its full capacity. Windows XP has been on the market for over a year, but this poor old thing would have a hernia if I tried to load XP on it.

So I am forced into a decision here. My clients have lots of money and resources, and update their equipment regularly, which means that unless I buy a new machine (upgrading a notebook is either impossible or not cost-efficient) I am going to have to ask my clients to ‘convert down’ files before they email them to me. I mean, how embarrassing. It’s like having holes in your socks and being asked to take your shoes off, or having an important person arrive in the country, and picking them up at the airport in a Morris minor. Doesn’t do the image any good at all. The love of my life (she who must be obeyed, I mean) has never had to ‘embrace’ computer technology in serious terms, but now wants to help out by playing a support role in my busy business life. Here’s the paradox – the time it will take to bring her from zero to full competence on Outlook, Excel, Word and Publisher seems to outweigh the intended benefit.  While she’s learning the software we use now, the next new version is being released… It seems to me that, in financial terms, buying a computer is an exercise in obsolescence. You know for sure that your recently purchased asset will be obsolete in business terms within about 5 years at the most, with 3 years being more likely. In technical terms, it was obsolete before you bought it – what you see in the shops is already well behind what’s on the design bench. Newer, faster, more capacity. It must be very hard for the manufacturers to maintain high quality when the financial equation is telling the buyer to make a decision based on a three-to-five year life span. Why would you pay for a top-of-the-line computer at $5000, which will be obsolete in 3 years, when you can buy a Kamikaze brand, which will also be obsolete in 3 years, for $2000?  I guess that’s why leasing or renting is attractive (hire purchase is a no-no) since the lease payments are fully tax-deductible, at the end of the lease you probably haven’t paid much more than you would have had you purchased it, and your three year old computer which is now obsolete is the problem of the lease company, not you, and you simply swap it for a new one and carry on.  Then there’s the problem of security, in two forms – learning how to do backups and the discipline of doing that, and then Internet security if you are able to access the Internet. Let’s imagine you’re a small Charter operator, you’ve invested in a computer 2 years ago, and you have an accounts package, a reservations (bookings) package, and a customer database. Two years down the track you will have all your accounts information, required by the IRD to be kept for seven years, a history of past bookings and the forward schedule of this year’s bookings, plus you will by now have a marketing database for keeping in touch with your past and existing clients. What happens in the event the ‘hard drive’ on the computer malfunctions – and I mean permanently, in a way that the data can’t be recovered even by an expert? It happens, and not infrequently either. What about if you have a fire in your office, or a flood? What happens if Bob the Burglar decides he likes your computer more than you do? Firstly, he’s now got the data and you haven’t, secondly if he knows the value of that data, will he then sell it to your competitors? Take my advice – every month back up your information onto another computer in your office (if you’ve got two), and then drop another back up onto disk and send it to a trusted friend or your accountant. Make sure your computer is password protected at start-up; if you don’t know how to do it ask your local computer tech to do it for you. Get it so that when you turn the computer on, after a few bits of text come up, then it asks for a password – and nothing will happen until you type the right one in. Now if Bob the Burglar hits, he’s going to need very high-level technical help to get at your data, and most won’t bother. Don’t rely on the Windows password – it’s pointless, as I found out. All you do is hit cancel, and you’re in! Did you know that? I only found out by accident.

Now, about the Internet. If you’re email capable, or if you can Surf the Net, you’re vulnerable AND you’re a target. Take it from me – I’ve been around people who have learned the hard way, and luckily I learned from that. If you’re in a big organisation with your own IT manager, you will have a ‘firewall’ and internal virus protection and can probably relax. If you’re a small business working either in an office or home, unless you’ve done something about it you won’t have a firewall, and unless you’ve specifically done otherwise, your computer is probably not virus-protected. That means the moment you connect your computer to a telephone line, and the computer is ‘on’, you are vulnerable to attack in at least 3 ways:

Email virus:

I can’t go into detail here about viruses – go here to learn about them: http://www.symantec.com

There are many thousands of them. Produced by malicious idiots wanting the limelight as the creator of the world’s most destructive one, regardless of the misery they cause to millions of people. They should be taken out the back and shot. A 50-cent bullet is cheaper than a trial – and if we send them to prison we have to feed and house them.

Viruses come as attachments to emails. You’ll see it as an email with a ‘paper clip’ sign on it meaning that this email has a file attached to it. They can be perfectly innocent, come from someone you know, and it’s a photo of the new baby or a cartoon or a customer list or something. Then there’s another kind, also appearing to come from someone you know, which often has a file name ending in ‘.exe’ or ‘.scr’. If you delete the file without opening it, you’re probably safe. The moment you open it, the programme hidden in the file unleashes it’s ‘payload’, usually looks for a random file on your hard drive, grabs your email address book, sends that random file to everyone in your address book, and attaches a copy of itself to the file before it goes out – so everyone in your address book gets the virus, and part of one of your documents. Hopefully not the one containing the ‘real’ accounts that the IRD aren’t supposed to see. Or the love-letter to your illicit ‘friend’. Worst still, you may not even know it’s happened until your friends start ringing you. That’s just the ‘embarrassing/irritating’ kind of virus. Then there are the vicious ones, that actually harm the data on your computer, and in some cases renders the data unrecoverable. That’s another reason why you need regular back-ups. Another type of virus hides on a website that you might visit, and is buried in the programme code of a page you look at. You’ll never know it’s happened unless you’ve got protection. The solution? Apart from hanging one or two of the perpetrators in a very public way, as an example to others, go down to your local Computer store and buy the latest version of either Norton Internet Security or McAfee or some other well-known brand. It will ‘screen’ incoming Email, monitor web pages you look at and automatically quarantine any suspicious file, then help you decide what to do, including safely deleting it. Then there are the Hoaxers - emails that tell you you've been attacked, and suggest you delete certain files. All rubbish, of course, but now you've deleted needed, innocent files so your computer won't run properly. Before taking action on one of these 'helpful' emails, check out the Hoax page on the Internet at: http://www.symantec.com

Hackers:

Nasty people. They spend their lives in dark little rooms, permanently wired into the Internet, and use special machines and software to constantly ‘scan’ the Internet, looking for a computer that’s also connected, and unprotected. Look at it this way – on a hot summer evening, you want the windows open, but the lights attract bugs. The air comes in, but so do the bugs. The simple act of being connected to the Internet, with your computer turned on, means ‘your window is open’. While you are looking at email, or surfing the net, this miserable waste-of-space has found your computer ‘open’ and is busily looking around your hard drive – looking at your data, your credit card numbers, your bank records, whatever. Worst still they leave a small programme on your computer, so that every time in the future you ‘go on the ‘net, this hacker gets to know what you’re doing, what you’ve looked at. Download anything ‘free’ from the Internet and it’s 80% likely that hidden in what you’ve downloaded is something called ‘Spyware’, a little programme that reports back to the place you downloaded from everything you do in the future. There’s a little clean-up programme you can get off the Internet for free called Ad-Aware, made by people who hate Spyware and thus provide it free, and it will root out those little nasties and allow you to delete them. You can get it at: http://www.lavasoftusa.com/index.html. I recently got a computer back that had been used by two other people over a two-year period, and couldn’t figure out why this darned machine kept trying to dial the Internet all on it’s own. I ran Ad-Aware over it and found 33 separate Spyware programmes. Nasty stuff.

So, how do you defeat the attackers? Anyone old enough to remember Star Trek, where the Klingons used to be able to make their space-ship invisible”? It was called ‘cloaking’, if my old brain remembers correctly. Well, you can do that too, with your computer. Make it invisible to the Hacker. I do that by using Norton Internet Security, but there are other products out there too, I’m not doing a free plug for Norton. Well, I guess I am actually – I have never had virus damage despite getting attacks at the rate of 4 or 5 a week during a particularly bad period. This package includes a Firewall, which kind of describes what it does – puts a wall up between your computer and the Internet, then manages the traffic going through it. The Firewall ‘conceals’ your computer from the prying eyes of hackers, while you are on the net. It also tells you when a hacker has tried to penetrate it. You will be surprised...

I started talking about the race to keep up, which is what I intended this article to be, but I seem to have focussed more on protecting yourself from nasty people.  I hope you found it helpful either way!

Carpe Diem

Steve Punter ANZIM, Dip Bus (PMER), FHRINZ
Staff Training Associates Ltd, Auckland, New Zealand.
© Steve Punter 2002 All rights reserved by the author.

steve@sta.co.nz                                                                                                                       back to articles menu