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  • The Leopard Report: The Danger of Too Many Prompts

    January 10th, 2008

    Every time you install an application with a traditional installer under Mac OS X, you have to enter your user password first, unless, of course, the installer has no provision for that. And most do.

    When you first run an application that you download from the Internet, Leopard delivers another warning, explaining it is a downloaded file, by which browser and when. You can click Open right now, or Cancel, and try again later. Once you accept the launch request, the prompts go away forever.

    Now both warning messages are supposed to be good things. The first allows only someone with administrator privileges to install applications. The theory being that unwanted or unauthorized software will not be allowed to pollute your Mac’s hard drive. The second affects the actual application, which usually comes in a disk image file, and again you can rethink your decision whether its something you want to use or not.

    With Windows Vista, you may find yourself inundated with “Cancel” or “Allow” prompts when you perform various tasks on your PC. Many of you who have worked with Vista consider the warnings excessive, and it formed the basis of a cute Mac Versus PC TV spot from Apple.

    However, on the Windows side of the fence, you can, at least, turn off the prompts if you tire of them. From the standpoint of your equanimity, I suppose Microsoft has the edge here for those of you who feel you’d simply rather not be annoyed so often.

    On the other hand, both Apple and Microsoft are trying to save you from yourselves, and it’s hard to criticize their good intentions. With Vista, Microsoft touts superior immunity to malware, and added those prompts so you have an opportunity to reconsider what you’re doing in case it will only deliver more system grief for you. The problem here, though, is that those Windows prompts often mention arcane files and processes, and I challenge anyone but a devoted power user to figure out what they all really mean.

    The real danger, though, is that you simply get so accustomed to the warnings that you’ll just ignore their meaning, and run the installer or application without thinking of the potential consequences of your almost subconscious behavior. Sure, you can say that, for now at least, most or all of the potential viral infections come from the Windows platform, but Apple doesn’t supply security patches on a regular basis for no reason. They are designed to plug security leaks as quickly as possible, so Internet criminals won’t find ways to exploit them on a massive scale.

    Indeed, I don’t want to be alarmist, but it is inevitable that more and more of those security issues will be exploited on a wide scale, and they might erupt before malware protection software publishers or Apple can react.

    I suppose Apple could find a way to turn off its warning notices, at least for opening an application you downloaded from the Internet. This can’t be done when you run that installer, unless you engage root access, which is something that only a very careful power user ought to consider. It may even be possible to fiddle with something in the Terminal to disengage such warnings, but that, also, is a bad idea.

    So is there a better way for Apple to protect you against yourself? Maybe, maybe not, but I think a little better user education is called for here. The worst possible thing is for you to grow so accustomed to accepting a process, that you inadvertently place yourself in trouble as a result.

    This is particularly true with files you download from the Internet. Now I don’t know about you, but I often download stuff I want to try out later, and then promptly forget about the files. Maybe a few weeks later, as I’m combing my hard drive in search of stuff to trash, I come across something I want to check out further, so I double click the icon.

    However, when the prompt appears, I stop and take the time to read what it says, just so I can take stock of what I’m about to do. I suggest you do the same. Don’t just react. Count to ten and read the message before you put a process into motion you didn’t really want. And just clicking “Cancel” to give you more time to reconsider your actions isn’t a bad thing.

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