New computer, old software

New computers come with old, dangerously buggy, software.

Michael Horowitz

Michael Horowitz wrote his first computer program in 1973 and has been a computer nerd ever since. He spent more than 20 years working in an IBM mainframe (MVS) environment. He has worked in the research and development group of a large Wall Street financial company, and has been a technical writer for a mainframe software company.

He teaches a large range of self-developed classes, the underlying theme being Defensive Computing. Michael is an independent computer consultant, working with small businesses and the self-employed. He can be heard weekly on The Personal Computer Show on WBAI.


Michael Horowitz
3 min read

New computers come with old software, a situation that, considering the recent slew of critical bug fixes, can be quite dangerous.

To illustrate just how old some of the software is, consider a new Windows XP machine that I got yesterday. The computer, a ThinkCentre A61 tower, was ordered from Lenovo on January 6, 2008. It was delivered to someone on January 16th, exactly who I'll never know. As I wrote about last month, UPS lost my computer. But that's another story.

I've got my new computer routine down pat at this point. First, I run a slew of hardware diagnostics, then I make a disk image backup. Next, I remove the pre-installed software that I don't want, followed by updating the pre-installed software that I'm keeping.

The first update is to Windows itself. I start by manually running Windows Update at www.update.microsoft.com. The Windows Update software is always old. Every new Windows XP computer I've touched required a couple software updates to Windows Update itself before it would even start scanning for missing bug fixes (a.k.a. patches and updates).

The machine was missing 60 fixes to Windows XP. I installed them, re-booted and went back to Windows Update. Experience has shown that Windows Update is far from perfect. Running it a second time often reports a new bug fix that was either missed the first time or is needed because the first go-round installed buggy software. Sure enough, a custom scan shows the machine is missing the .NET Framework version 1.1 Service Pack 1.

After dealing with Windows, I tried the Adobe Flash tester page, which reported that Internet Explorer was using Flash version 7.0.68. This is a really old version of Flash (the latest is 9,0,115,0).

The other popular Adobe product, the Acrobat Reader, was the only reasonably recent software. That said, the pre-installed version, 8.1.0, is missing critical bug fixes that make it too, a security risk.

At this point I turn to the online Secunia Software Inspector to see what other software is missing security patches.

In addition to the ancient version 7 of Flash, the machine also came with the downright pre-historic, and buggy, versions 4 and 6 pre-installed.

Java too, was missing security fixes. Secunia reported that Java was at version 1.5.0_6, which was released about December 2005. The latest version of the 1.5.x family, version 1.5.0_14 is secure, according to Secunia. However, the current version of Java is 1.6.0_4. You can see which version you have at javatester.org.

Lenovo has their own version of Windows Update called ThinkVantage System Update that updates the software they pre-install. It also seems to update other software, but exactly what it targets is not at all clear from the supplied instructions. Just like Windows Update, the first update it finds is to itself.

After self-updating, ThinkVantage System Update finds about a dozen or so software updates, mostly to Lenovo applications. The number would have probably been larger, but I had already un-installed some of the Lenovo software. Interestingly, it offered to install the latest version of the Adobe Flash player, despite the fact that Internet Explorer was already using the latest version at this point, at least according to Adobe's Flash tester page. The updates I chose to accept were 422 megabytes.

Finally, the computer came with Picasa version 2 from Google. The first time I ran Picasa, it wanted to update itself to a newer version.

The hardware in a new computer may be new, but the software never is.

See a summary of all my Defensive Computing postings.