I used to consult for Fortune 100 companies, and it never ceased to amaze me how management could make some of the moves it did. Sometimes plans that were identified as “not well thought out” (i.e., half-baked) saw the light of day — and projects failed. So when Microsoft announced it was changing the way in which Windows 10 semi-annual updates were going to be released, it got my attention.

When Windows 10 was released in July 2015, Microsoft said that it was working towards the concept of “Software as a Service.” It established a strategy of twice-a-year Feature Updates; one in the spring and one in the fall, which were tagged “yymm” (e.g., 1809 or 1903). Each Feature Update had an 18-month lifespan before support would no longer be available, and the computer would be forced to jump to the then current version. For the first couple of iterations, that worked (sort of).

Apparently, it took some time before Microsoft realized that it couldn’t maintain the drumbeat of an update feature every six months. Instead, they are going to implement one Feature Update a year, and another form of update — what used to be called a “service pack.” This is still two major updates a year, but they have not indicated if they plan to change the 18-month support restriction.

I realize that this will be revealed in time, but right now, before the end of July’s Microsoft worldwide partner conference, things are still very much up in the air. Every IT support organization that has tuned the Windows Update settings to protect computers from unexpected updates is going to have to find out what the new settings are and reconfigure them. Every IT support organization is also going to have to figure out how to go from one Feature Update to another without adversely affecting the computer. And everyone is going to have to decide if they want to remain on a merry-go-round where the conductor keeps changing the speed of the carousel.

But what happens when something that another IT provider, or vendor, does is so not aligned with “best practices” that it makes me shudder? What if their actions could cause a serious problem at the client’s (or prospect’s) site that might have otherwise been avoided? Couldn’t I then be forgiven if I mentioned that the other guy’s effort was misguided?

I guess it depends on the circumstances.

I encountered two instances of less than stellar computer infrastructure design in the early part of June, and my frustration was significantly higher than that expressed by the folks who were affected. Could I not be forgiven if I said, “Well, you know, those guys really messed up here, but I have a way to fix it.”

But I can’t explicitly say that because I don’t always know the kind of relationship the client (or prospect) has with that vendor or IT company. Instead, I’m usually turning things around by saying something like, “Well that’s not how I do things, because after 10 years in business, I’ve learned that this approach —whatever this is — works much better.”

Of course finding the appropriate solutions to a client’s – or a prospect’s – problems is the core of my business. The tag line for Heliotropic Systems has been “Computer Systems Analysis & Design” for more than 20 years. My goal is to design and deploy computer and network hardware and software with the understanding that it is supposed to operate properly, based on the client’s requirements. In my very parochial way of thinking, I guess that’s pretty much what anyone would want, never mind expect.

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This month Microsoft will start to gently remind Windows 7 users that it is time to consider switching to Windows 10. According a blog post by Matt Barlow, a Microsoft marketing executive:

“Beginning next month, if you are a Windows 7 customer, you can expect to see a notification appear on your Windows 7 PC. This is a courtesy reminder that you can expect to see a handful of times in 2019. By starting the reminders now, our hope is that you have time to plan and prepare for this transition. These notifications are designed to help provide information only and if you would prefer not to receive them again, you’ll be able to select an option for “do not notify me again,” and we will not send you any further reminders.”

The good news: You will be nagged, but you will be able to turn off the alert. The bad news: I suspect that by November or December, that will no longer be the case. After January 14, 2020, I am certain that if you continue to use Windows 7, you will receive a larger banner regarding the end of support. What that means is your computer, along with Office 2010, will no longer receive any updates, including security updates — and this could expose your computer to potential security threats.

I have written several times that I aim to replace all older computers between now and the end of the year. Anyone who has a newer computer (say, three years old or less) that is running Windows 7 can simply upgrade “in place.” Starting in June, I plan to contact you to schedule this. It entails backing-up your files, downloading Windows 10, and installing the new operating system without replacing your computer. The whole process takes a little over four hours and can be done via remote session.

Thanks and safe computing!

There are days when I simply don’t have the time to read all of the news emails that appear in Outlook, or in the half-dozen computer magazines I subscribe to. In this case, I guess I should have, because I missed a tiny story that turned out to be big news. (A lesson taught by Mrs. Jurow, when I was a fifth-grader at Ogden Elementary School in Valley Stream, NY.) Intel reported in late September 2018 there were “issues” regarding its ability to supply new eighth-generation chips — called Coffee Lake — to computer manufacturers (OEMs). You can read the announcement here: https://newsroom.intel.com/news-releases/supply-update/.

Those eighth-generation chips were the ones I was counting on to be in your new Windows 10 computers. Sad to say, that ain’t gonna happen very soon.

There is currently a “hold” on all those new Coffee Lake-based desktops and laptops. They are not in the pipeline from any of the major OEMs (e.g., Lenovo, Dell, or HP). To meet a higher demand for new computers, they are continuing to produce models with the existing seventh-generation chips (called Kaby Lake). Because of this unexpected need to switch gears at the end of 2018, shipments of all new computers are also being delayed.

How long is the delay? Higher-end models are showing a two to three month lag. In one specific case, the mid-range models I wanted to order as replacements for a client on February 12 (when I originally wrote this article) have an estimated March 25 delivery date — six weeks.

Here’s what this means for you. I am going to have to alter my timeline of deployment to include an additional six to eight weeks. That means I’ll be contacting you sooner than I had originally planned, and that you’ll probably have to wait longer to receive your new computer.

If there is any change in the status of this debacle, I will let you know as soon as possible. I’ll be able to do that because I now have a Google email alert for all things related to Intel Coffee Lake chip status.

After years of creating almost a dozen versions of Internet Explorer, in 2015, Microsoft introduced a new browser called Edge. This was released concurrently with Windows 10. The following year Microsoft announced that there would be no further development (meaning enhancements) to Internet Explorer (IE); only security updates would be issued.

At the start of 2019, according to Net Applications, a company that measures browser usage around the world, almost no one uses the Edge browser (4%) and use of IE has plummeted to 11%. It comes as a stark reminder to realize that only five years ago, IE had almost 85% of the market share.

You are probably asking, “What does this have to do with me?”

I’m getting there, I promise.

As many web developers have discovered, it is increasingly hard to code a web site to support a browser that doesn’t know about the latest features and techniques for displaying web pages. So a number of sites have simply said they are no longer going to run on IE. If you want to view or use their web sites, you’ll have to use another browser. I found this out with one client when she couldn’t get to her AOL mail using IE!

All Windows 10 computers come with the Edge browser by default. But also contained in the operating system is the code to run IE 11. It has been my standard operating practice to remove the Edge icon from the taskbar and replace it with the one for IE. But if Microsoft is not going to issue anything other than security updates, and more web sites decide not to code for IE, I am making a mistake in providing it for you.

So I took a closer look at the Net Applications statistics. To my amazement, my personal favorite browser, Mozilla Firefox has a 10% share – even lower than IE! And to my surprise, Google Chrome has a 64% share. It didn’t take long for me to realize that I need to update my standard deployment task for new computers.

Going forward, I will install Google Chrome on all Windows 10 computers, and set that to be your default browser. I will port over your bookmarks (favorites) and saved information so that you can continue to use this browser instead of Internet Explorer.

I will caution you that that Chrome is slightly different than IE. To help make this transition a little easier, if you want to start using it now, I will offer to install it on your current Windows 7 computer. That way you can compare and contrast how your favorite web sites appear with both browsers, and take at least a few months to wean yourselves away from IE.

PS — After I wrote this article, Microsoft announced that they will be using the Google Chrome framework for future versions of the Edge browser. Notwithstanding that development (which won’t be released until later in 2019), I’m still going to install Chrome.

In plain English, cryptojacking is the stealing the resources of your computer (processing power and electrical power) to mine a cryptocurrency. Data is “mined” on a computer by using special programs to solve complex, encrypted math equations to gain a piece of the currency.

Cybercriminals are always looking for the fastest and easiest way to conduct fraud, and one was revealed in late 2017. There is a company called Coinhive, which launched a service that mines for a digital currency, known as Monero, directly within a web browser. Anyone using the computer is completely unaware that anything is amiss; unless they realize their browser is running very, very, slowly.

According to Symantec, “cryptojacking is a way for cybercriminals to make free money with minimal effort. Cybercriminals can simply hijack someone else’s machine with just a few lines of code. This leaves the
victim bearing the cost of the computations and electricity that are necessary to mine cryptocurrency. The criminals get away with the tokens.”

In early 2018, Malwarebytes published a report on the current state of cryptomining and cryptojacking. Shown below is a map, which depicts the world view and it appears that the United States is greatly affected by this scourge:

According to cyber-guy Brian Krebs, “Monero differs from Bitcoin in that its transactions are virtually untraceable, and there is no way for an outsider to track Monero transactions between two parties. Naturally, this quality makes Monero an especially appealing choice for cybercriminals.”

If you think that something is not quite right with your computer, please give me a call. I want to be sure your computer isn’t running software you didn’t know anything about (and generating profits for crooks).

I have written about this before (and will undoubtedly do so again), but those phone calls you get from someone with a heavy accent, claiming they are from “Microsoft” or “Tech Support,” saying they have received information from your computer about problems that need to be fixed are nothing but pure crap!

I’ll keep this simple: If you get one of these calls, just hang up. You can’t tell them to put you on a “do not call” list, they don’t / won’t listen to that. They don’t care. All they are interested in is scamming people. They get money from spreading FUD (fear, uncertainty, and doubt) to anyone who doesn’t know enough about computers to know better.

These are incredibly vile profiteers, because after they have falsely convinced a suspect that something is wrong with their computer, and while purporting to help, they install malicious software on the computer and then charge — in most cases as much as $150 — to do this.

So, save your breath, and especially your money. Just hang up the phone. Oh, and you really don’t have to call me to tell me you got one of these calls; my phone line would be busy all day.

Microsoft will be ending support for Windows 7 in January 2020, which means there will be no further updates. Shortly thereafter, I will stop support as well. While that date may seem far in the future, I can assure you that’s not the case! It is less than a year and a half away, and the majority of my clients will need new computers (along with associated hardware and software) between now and that deadline. I am affected by this as well; because I have to replace my desktop and laptop.

This early reminder is designed to let you begin planning a budget for a refresh. Based on the current political talk and potentially looming trade tariffs, it is possible that computers could cost more for consumers and businesses before next year. However, I have no idea when (or if) price increases will take place, nor by how much. You can use the following approximate numbers: $800 for a computer, $200 for a monitor, $150 for a printer, and $500 for me to do the necessary work (assessment, procurement, system set up, installation, and file transfer).

I have a chart with the warranty information for each of my clients’ computers. I will send you a letter 60 to 90 days in advance of its expiration to find out how you would like to proceed. Some of you may decide you want to move to an Apple Mac, others may opt for Ubuntu Linux, and still others Google Chromebook. We can discuss those options in the coming months.

Please note that recently purchased Windows 7 computers are eligible to upgrade to Windows 10 for free. I will contact Lenovo to obtain the software update for you. Other Windows 7 computers may not be eligible for free software, but could still run Windows 10 (an additional purchase). Again, I will discuss these options with you as well.

Look for more frequent reminders, along with Windows 10 usage tips, in future editions of this blog.

Cisco Systems earlier this week released a report from its Talos cyber intelligence unit. It contained a warning of 500,000 routers and storage devices in 54 countries that have been infected with malware. Their findings (https://blog.talosintelligence.com/2018/05/VPNFilter.html) pointed to the Russian government as having sponsored the hack, calling it “VPNFilter,” and that the software was simply waiting for activation. With a high preponderance of these devices in the Ukraine, it seems that an attack might be pending, or at least imminent.

I won’t bore you with the details (and they are voluminous), but the recommendations for how to thwart the hackers are quite interesting. End users are instructed to reboot their routers, modems, and network attached storage (NAS) devices to the factory default state and then to install the latest firmware. Internet Service Providers (ISPs) are instructed to reboot routers and cable modems for their customers and to ensure the devices are patched. Those two steps should, for all intents and purposes, knock out any of the malware that may have infected the devices.

Here’s my question: How many home users – or business owners – know how to perform those two steps? I do, because it is something I learned a long time ago as part of my job. But I can’t see asking any of my clients to do that. For one thing, the recommendations didn’t take into account the main task of saving existing settings – or at least writing them down – so they could be recreated after the device was flashed and rebooted.

In a “best case scenario” I can imagine someone was using a Linksys modem they purchased from a big box store and they didn’t configure anything; they simply followed the installation instructions. But in all likelihood, the SSID (i.e., the broadcast name) of their Wi-Fi is going to change. That means all of their wireless devices – computers, printers, tablets, and phones – will also need to be reset.

The report acknowledges that most of these devices are what we frequently call “set it and forget it,” meaning that they are expected to simply do their job once they’ve been installed. My concern about the recommendations centers on the fact that most individuals have no idea how to obtain the current firmware for these network attached devices. It isn’t very obvious from any of the manufacturers’ literature (and these include Linksys, TP-Link, and Netgear) that this is a task anyone should ever consider doing.

Granted a half-million devices is only a small drop in the bucket in terms of world-wide network device distribution. Yet it seems we have entered into a new “normal” for what people need to do – and learn – in order to better protect themselves from cyber security threats.

Thanks and safe computing!

Microsoft issues its monthly updates on “Patch Tuesday,” the second Tuesday of the month. Since the beginning of this year it has tried to fix the critical issues associated with the Spectre and Meltdown problems. But in a totally unexpected turn, the March 2018 monthly update knocked Windows 7 and Windows Server 2008 R2 systems offline because the network drivers get clobbered after the computers were restarted.

As a result, for the past two months I have blacklisted the updates; meaning I prevented them from being installed. In cases where I missed that phase and the computer had not been rebooted, I ran a script to uninstall the update. And in some cases, I was altogether too late and had to manually reinstall the network drivers.

Unfortunately, the May 2018 monthly update was wrapped up with a critical security patch, so it was inevitable that I had to release it. And I regret it, because this last episode has pretty much worn me out – and I’m not done with it yet.

Of all the vaunted software tools I have at my disposal, the most valuable one is remote access. However, when a client’s computer cannot connect to the internet that tool becomes useless; and I am forced into “break/fix” mode.

So the second Thursday of the month has now become a day of running around to client sites and manually reinstalling drivers, getting internet access again, updating the drivers and fixing other elements that are listed as “Unknown” in the Windows Device Manager.

Knowing that I’m shouting into the wind, I’m going to make this plea anyway. “Hey Microsoft! Could you please figure out a way to get this update to work properly without any extraordinary measures on my part?” I would thank you, and my clients would thank you.