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What’s in the latest Firefox update? Firefox 73 adds to usability and accessibility options

Mozilla this week released Firefox 73, a minor upgrade whose most notable addition was a new default setting for page zooming.

Software engineers working on the open-source browser also patched six vulnerabilities, half of them labeled “High,” Mozilla’s second-most-serious threat rating. As usual, some of the flaws might be used by criminals.

“We presume that with enough effort some of these could have been exploited to run arbitrary code,” the firm wrote of two of the bugs.

Firefox 73 can be downloaded for Windows, macOS and Linux from Mozilla’s site. Because Firefox updates in the background, most users need only relaunch the browser to get the latest version. To manually update on Windows, pull up the menu under the three horizontal bars at the upper right, then click the help icon (the question mark within a circle). Choose “About Firefox.” (On macOS, “About Firefox” can be found under the “Firefox” menu.) The resulting page shows that the browser is either up to date or describes the refresh process.

Mozilla last upgraded the browser on Jan. 7, or five weeks ago.

From this point forward, Mozilla will refresh the browser every four weeks. Firefox 74 will end a gradual reduction to the intervals between upgrades: Mozilla announced the release speed-up in September, when it said the original six-week span would be shortened to five weeks, then to four.


Firefox’s faster release tempo comes at a price: the distinct possibility that each upgrade will boast fewer new features, fewer improvements and enhancements. Firefox 73 is proof, as Mozilla was able to highlight just two changes evident to end users.

The first was a new user-set global default for the page zoom level. Rather than monkey with zoom for each site individually – to, for instance, zoom in to make text more readable for older eyes – users can set a default level higher or lower than 100% as the new baseline.

To change the default zoom (which remains at 100% if the user declines to modify it), users must open Preferences (on macOS) or Options (Windows), then under the “General” tab locate “Language and Appearance.” Select the desired default zoom from the box under “Zoom.”

That number – 110%, for instance – becomes the new baseline for all sites. Users can still manually increase or decrease zoom with keystroke combinations or from the menu.

firefox 73 default zoom Mozilla

Firefox 73’s new zoom default lets users set a baseline to, for example, zoom in to 120% on every site. For anyone who is constantly zooming, this saves tons of time.

The other addition trumpeted by Mozilla in Firefox 73’s release notes was labeled “readability backplate” and designed to collaborate with Windows’ high contrast mode. The latter is a setting that replaces the original colors of, say, a website’s text and background, with high contrast combinations for easier reading by people with vision issues.

Previously, Firefox has simply disabled background images when the user enabled high contrast mode. In Firefox 73, the readability backplate “places a block of background color between the text and background image,” Mozilla said. “Now, websites in High Contrast Mode are more readable without disabling background images.”

Days are numbered for TSL 1.0 and TSL 1.1

Mozilla, like other browser makers, is knee-deep in putting an end to the outdated encryption protocols of TLS (Transport Layer Security) 1.0 and 1.1.

More than a year ago, in October 2018, Mozilla announced that the two standards, TLS 1.0 and TLS 1.1, would lose Firefox support in March 2020. That’s next to now.

In a Feb. 6 post, Thyla van der Merwe, the cryptography engineering manager at Mozilla, promised that the upcoming Firefox 74 would give the boot to the pair. “Expect Firefox 74 to offer TLS 1.2 as its minimum version for secure connections when it ships on 10 March 2020,” she wrote.

Although van der Merwe said that Firefox would retain an override button (which has been appearing on warnings when users try to reach a website encrypted by TSL 1.0 or TSL 1.1), she noted that with telemetry trends being what they were, “It’s unlikely that the button will stick around for long.”

The next version, Firefox 74, will release on March 10.

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G Suite vs. Office 365: What’s the best office suite for business?

Once upon a time, Microsoft Office ruled the business world. By the late ‘90s and early 2000s, Microsoft’s office suite had brushed aside rivals such as WordPerfect Office and Lotus SmartSuite, and there was no competition on the horizon. Then in 2006 Google came along with Google Docs & Spreadsheets, a collaborative online word processing and spreadsheet duo that was combined with other business services to form the Google Apps suite, later rebranded as G Suite.

Although Google’s productivity suite didn’t immediately take the business world by storm, over time it has gained both in features and in popularity, now boasting more than 5 million paying customers. Microsoft, meanwhile, has shifted its emphasis away from its traditional licensed Office software to Office 365, a subscription-based version that’s treated more like a service, with frequent updates and new features. Office 365 is what we’ve focused on in this story.

Nowadays, choosing an office suite isn’t as simple as it once was. We’re here to help.

G Suite vs. Office 365: What’s the best productivity suite?

G Suite and Office 365 have much in common. Both are subscription-based, charging businesses per-person fees every month, in varying tiers, depending on the capabilities their customers are looking for. Although G Suite is web-based, it has the capability to work offline as well. And while Office 365 is based on installed desktop software, it also provides (less powerful) web-based versions of its applications.

Both suites work well with a range of devices. Because it’s web-based, G Suite works in most browsers on any operating system, and Google also offers apps for Android and iOS. Microsoft provides Office client apps for Windows, macOS, iOS and Android, and its web-based apps work across browsers.

The suites also offer the same basic core applications. Each has word processing, spreadsheet, presentation, email, calendar and contacts programs, along with videoconferencing, messaging and note-taking software. Each has cloud storage associated with it. But those individual applications are quite different from one suite to the other, as are the management tools for taking care of them in a business environment. And both suites offer scads of additional tools as well. So it can be exceedingly difficult to decide which suite is better for your business.

That’s where this piece comes in. We offer a detailed look at every aspect of the office suites, from an application-by-application comparison to how well each suite handles collaboration, how well their apps integrate, their pricing and support and more. Our focus here is on how the suites work for businesses, rather than individual use.  

Pricing: G Suite and Office 365 subscriptions compared

“Follow the money” is the hallowed refrain of investigators everywhere, and when you’re starting to decide which office suite is better for you, it’s a good place to start as well. Individuals can use several of the online apps from both suites — including Google Docs, Sheets and Slides as well as Microsoft Word Online, Excel Online and PowerPoint Online — for free, but businesses should look to the paid G Suite and Office 365 subscriptions for necessary security and management features. Check out the following charts, first for G Suite, and then for Office 365, to compare plans and pricing.

G Suite pricing options for business

Google Suite comes in three versions: Basic, Business and Enterprise. Basic, at $6 per user per month, comes with the full suite of applications and 30GB of storage. (Nonprofits can use G Suite Basic free of charge.) At $12 per user per month, the Business plan includes all that, plus unlimited storage and archiving, enterprise search capabilities, additional administrative tools, and a low-code application environment. And Enterprise at $25 per user per month includes all of what the Business version offers, plus even more administrative controls.

G Suite business plans

For more detailed information, check out Google’s page comparing pricing plans. And you can download an even more detailed comparison list here. Also note that some features available in higher-level G Suite plans are available for purchase as standalone services.

Microsoft Office 365 pricing options for business

Office 365 business subscriptions are more complicated and range from $5 per user per month for the most basic version, Office 365 Business Essentials, to $35 per user per month for Office 365 E5, the most feature-packed version for enterprises. The table below outlines what you get with each version. The three “Business” plans on the left are for small businesses with up to 300 employees; the four on the right are meant for larger organizations. (Scroll to see the rightmost columns.)

Office 365 business plans

Find out more about Microsoft’s small business and enterprise plans for Office 365. Microsoft also offers an array of Office 365 plans for educational, government, nonprofit and other institutions, as well as Microsoft 365 plans, which combine Office 365, Windows 10, and security management features.

In addition, many Office apps and services are available on an à la carte basis. Some companies prefer to pay for a lower-level plan and then pay for one or two of these items as add-ons rather than paying for a higher-level comprehensive plan.

G Suite vs. Office 365: App by app

Every business has different needs, and yours may place greater value on certain apps than others. For some companies, word processing and email might be the most important apps in an office suite, while others might need a powerful spreadsheet program above everything else.

To help, we’ve compared each major type of app in G Suite and Office 365 so you can zero in on the apps that are most important to your business and let their strengths and weaknesses guide your overall decision. We’ve included only the highlights below; if you want more details about each app, we’ve linked to Computerworld articles that offer in-depth comparisons.

Word processing: Google Docs vs. Microsoft Word

Deciding on whether your business would be better off with Google Docs or Microsoft Word is fairly straightforward: Which is more important to your users: easy-to-use collaboration or the greatest range of document creation and editing features? For collaboration, Google Docs is better. For as fully featured a word processor as you’ll find anywhere, you’ll want Word.

By saying Word has superior features, I don’t mean a bunch of tools that your business may never use. I mean great capabilities that make your workflow easier and more productive. If you’re creating a report, brochure, resume, or almost any other kind of document, Word offers an excellent set of pre-built templates so you can get writing fast, knowing that your document will have a solid, useful design. For example, Word has nearly 50 different report templates, while Google Docs only has five. Word also offers more chart types and styles for embedding into documents.

gsuite vs o365 01 microsoft word IDG

Microsoft Word has far more powerful features than Google Docs, including many pre-built templates from which to choose when creating a new document. (Click image to enlarge it.)

But Google Docs outshines Word when it comes to live collaboration. Collaborating is seamless and has been built into it from the ground up, while in Word it’s more difficult to use, not as comprehensive and feels tacked-on rather than an integral part of the program.

gsuite vs o365 02 google docs IDG

When it comes to live collaboration, Google Docs outshines Microsoft Word by a wide margin. (Click image to enlarge it.)

For non-live collaboration — editing and marking up documents for review by others — Word has always been the gold standard, but Google Docs has come a long way and now is nearly as good as Word. Word’s editing tools have slightly finer-grained controls, but apart from that, they’re about even.

For a more in-depth comparison, head to “Microsoft Word vs. Google Docs: Which works better for business?

Spreadsheets: Google Sheets vs. Microsoft Excel

Do users in your company mostly work alone on spreadsheets, or do they frequently collaborate with others? The answer to that will determine whether Excel or Google Sheets is better for your business.

For those who primarily work by themselves, Excel is the clear winner. As with Word, its wide selection of templates offers an embarrassment of riches. For example, there are more than 60 templates just for different types of budgets. Whether it’s a business budget or a special-purpose budget, such as for a marketing event, you’ll likely find one that fits your needs and that can be easily edited. By contrast, Google Sheets has only three different budget templates.

Excel also offers far more chart types than Google Sheets — 17 in all — including popular ones such as column, line, pie, bar and area; more complex ones such as radar, surface and histogram; and some that are known mainly to data professionals, like box & whisker. And many chart types have multiple subtypes — for example, among the bar charts you’ll find clustered bar, stacked bar, and son on, and each of those has two variations. Google Sheets has only seven main types of charts. It’s also simpler to create charts with Excel than it is in Google Sheets.

gsuite vs o365 03 microsoft excel IDG

Excel has far more sophisticated features than Google Sheets, including many more chart types. (Click image to enlarge it.)

Google Sheets far outpaces Excel in real-time collaboration, though. As with Docs, collaboration is baked directly into Sheets. Not only does it have more powerful tools, but they’re naturally integrated and easy to access. The same holds true for editing and commenting on spreadsheets.

gsuite vs o365 04 google sheets IDG

Google Sheets’ collaboration tools are powerful and easy to use. (Click image to enlarge it.)

For a more in-depth comparison, see “Microsoft Excel vs. Google Sheets: Which works better for business?

Presentations: Google Slides vs. Microsoft PowerPoint

As with word processing and spreadsheet apps, whether Google Slides or PowerPoint is best for your business comes down to a single point: Do you prize collaboration or powerful features in a presentation program? If collaboration is king in your company, Google Slides is better. For every other reason, PowerPoint is.

For example, PowerPoint’s QuickStarter feature makes quick work of starting a presentation.  Choose the topic of your presentation, and QuickStarter walks you through creating an outline, starter slides, templates and themes. Google Slides has no equivalent.

gsuite vs o365 05 micorosft powerpoint IDG

PowerPoint has numerous features Google Slides can’t match, including QuickStarter, which walks you through creating an outline, starter slides, templates and themes. (Click image to enlarge it.)

Similarly, with PowerPoint, it’s easier to add graphics, transitions, animations and multimedia. It has more chart and table types as well. And it has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to giving the presentation itself, with innovative capabilities such as Rehearse Timings, which times how long you take on each individual slide as you rehearse a presentation. That way, you won’t get bogged down on any individual slide, and you can practice giving each slide its just due. Google Slides has nothing like it.

However, Google Slides rules when it comes to collaboration, with far outstrips the kludgy and awkward capabilities built into PowerPoint. And because Slides offers fewer capabilities than Excel, it’s slightly easier to create slides in it, because it doesn’t pack as many features into the interface.

gsuite vs o365 06 google slides IDG

Slides isn’t as powerful as Excel, but its interface is less cluttered and confusing. (Click image to enlarge it.)

For a more in-depth comparison, see “PowerPoint vs. Google Slides: Which works better for business?

Email: Gmail vs. Microsoft Outlook

If you prize simplicity, you’ll favor Gmail over Outlook. Gmail has a much cleaner and less cluttered interface than Outlook’s default one, offering the best balance between ease of use and powerful features. However, Outlook has made some headway towards being more straightforward to use with a new simplified Ribbon you can turn on.

gsuite vs o365 07 google gmail IDG

Gmail offers a streamlined interface and intuitive ways to accomplish your most important email tasks. (Click image to enlarge it.)

Whether it’s creating, responding to or managing email, Gmail offers an intuitive interface with easy-to-use tools for getting your work done fast. Our favorites include an AI-driven option that suggests words and phrases as you type, a “nudge” feature for surfacing forgotten messages, and a handy snooze button for delaying incoming messages.

When it comes to power features, however, Outlook rules. For example, Outlook’s Focused Inbox lets you see and respond to the most important emails first, and its Clean Up feature does a great job of simplifying long email threads so they’re easier to follow. And because the contacts and calendar functions are part of Outlook itself, they’re well integrated with email. Gmail relies on the separate Google Contacts and Calendar apps, which can be a bit more cumbersome to navigate.

gsuite vs o365 08 microsoft outlook IDG

Even with a new, simplified Ribbon, Outlook’s interface can be quite confusing to use. (Click image to enlarge it.)

If your users want every bell and whistle possible, Outlook provides them all. For getting things done quickly, Gmail is a better choice.

For a more in-depth comparison, see “Outlook vs. Gmail: Which works better for business?

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What’s in the latest Firefox update? Firefox 72 nixes fingerprinting, obnoxious notification appeals

Mozilla on Tuesday launched Firefox 72, which expanded picture-in-picture video mode to macOS and by default blocked “fingerprinting,” an advanced tracking method practiced by some sites and advertisers.

The open-source developers also patched 11 vulnerabilities, five labeled “High,” Mozilla’s second-most-serious threat rating. As usual, some of the flaws might be used by criminals. “We presume that with enough effort … it could be exploited to run arbitrary code,” the firm wrote of the CVE-2019-17017 vulnerability.

Firefox 72 can be downloaded for Windows, macOS and Linux from Mozilla’s site. Because Firefox updates in the background, most users need only relaunch the browser to get the latest version. To manually update on Windows, pull up the menu under the three horizontal bars at the upper right, then click the help icon (the question mark within a circle). Choose “About Firefox.” (On macOS, “About Firefox” can be found under the “Firefox” menu.) The resulting page shows that the browser is either up to date or describes the refresh process.

Mozilla now refreshes Firefox every five weeks; it last upgraded the browser on Dec. 3.

(In September 2019, Mozilla said it would reduce the intervals between upgrades. The earlier six-week stretch was shortened to five weeks between Firefox 71 and 72. Starting with March’s Firefox 74, the interval will drop to four weeks.)

PiP-pin for McIntosh?

A month ago, Mozilla introduced Picture-in-Picture (PiP) with Firefox 71, touting the new feature’s ability to display video in a separate, small window while the user continues to surf elsewhere or even works outside the browser. Then, PiP was limited to Firefox running on Windows.

Firefox 72 expanded PiP to macOS – and if Mozilla’s December pledge was honored, Linux as well – and the feature works just as in Windows. Videos that will run in PiP were marked with a small, blue-backed “Picture-in-Picture” message when the mouse cursor hovers over the image. Clicking on that puts a frame on the desktop, video inside, and the frame can be moved and resized at will.

Firefox PiP on macOS Mozilla

Mozilla expanded Picture-in-Picture (PiP) to macOS and Linux with this week’s Firefox 72.

Firefox’s implementation of PiP is significantly smoother than Chrome’s – which requires a pair of right-clicks – in the videos where it’s available.

Scratch sites’ begging to blast you with notices

Another new aspect of Firefox 72 that Mozilla highlighted is its dampening down of the distraction from sites asking users to allow future notifications.

Those irritating pop-ups rarely result in users acquiescing to the request, Mozilla asserted. According to the company’s research, 48% of those prompts are “actively denied by the user” and a whopping 99% go unaccepted. In other words, they’re a vast waste of both websites’ and users’ time.

Firefox 72 blocks the notifications from reaching the screen – and obscuring part of the underlying page – and instead adds a small comic-style speech bubble, one that briefly jiggles for attention no less, to the address bar. Users can click on the bubble to pull up the usual notification pop-up – perhaps to dismiss it entirely and lose the bubble – or just ignore it. (It jiggles just once.)

Users can, of course, check the long-available box marked “Block new requests asking to allow notifications” in Options (Windows) or Preferences (macOS) to avoid all such irritants. (To reach that, from the “Privacy & Security” section, choose “Permissions,” then click the “Settings” button beside “Notifications.”)

Fingering fingerprinters

Mozilla also trumpeted another addition to Firefox’s anti-tracking skillset that it baked into version 72.

“The latest Firefox browser protects you against fingerprinting by blocking third-party requests to companies that are known to participate in fingerprinting,” Mozilla said here.

Like cookie-based tracking, fingerprinting is used by sites and advertisers to follow users as they wander around the web, most infamously to continue to offer a product that an individual looked at previously. It’s akin to a salesperson following a customer not only around the store, dunning them to buy this or that, but leaving the store with them, tracking them across town and even all the way home.

Fingerprinting relies on piecing together clues – ranging from the browser version and device platform to installed fonts and extensions – to create a profile, hopefully one unique enough to distinguish from others’. Unlike cookie-based tracking, fingerprinting can continue to follow a user even after the browser’s been cleared or its privacy mode has been used to, supposedly, surf anonymously.

Firefox 72 has the fingerprinters portion of Enhanced Tracking Protection (ETP), Mozilla’s name for its collection of anti-tracking technologies, turned on by default. Even if the user has switched off ETP by disabling the other tracker types, the “Fingerprinters” option will be engaged.

Mozilla turned to its partner, Disconnect – which already provided the tracker list that served as the foundation of ETP – as the source of the fingerprints. “Disconnect maintains a list of companies that participate in cross-site tracking, as well a list as those that fingerprint users. Firefox blocks all parties that meet both criteria,” Steven Englehardt, a Mozilla senior privacy engineer, said in a Jan. 7 post to a company blog.

“Expect to hear more updates from us as we continue to strengthen the protections provided by ETP,” Englehardt added, without going into specifics.

The next version, Firefox 73, should launch Feb. 11.

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What’s in the latest Firefox update? Firefox 71 plays picture-in-picture catch-up

Mozilla this week released Firefox 71, touting a picture-in-picture video mode and new ways to preview a VPN (virtual private networking) service that will be offered to customers next year.

Security engineers included patches for 11 vulnerabilities, six marked “High,” the second-most-serious threat rating. None were tagged “Critical.” Some of these flaws might be exploitable by cyber criminals, Mozilla said. “This could have caused heap corruption and a potentially exploitable crash,” the firm noted of one vulnerability, labeled CVE-2019-11745.

Firefox 71 can be downloaded for Windows, macOS and Linux from Mozilla’s site. Because Firefox updates in the background, most users need only relaunch the browser to get the latest version. To manually update, pull up the menu under the three horizontal bars at the upper right, then click the help icon (the question mark within a circle). Choose “About Firefox.” The resulting page shows that the browser is either up to date or describes the refresh process.

Mozilla refreshes Firefox every six to eight weeks; it last upgraded the browser Oct. 22.

PiP PiP, and all that

Mozilla trumpeted a new Picture-in-Picture (PiP) mode within Firefox 71. “Picture-in-Picture allows a video to be contained in a separate and small window, and still be viewable whether you switch from tab-to-tab or outside the Firefox browser,” wrote Marissa Wood, vice president of product, in a Dec. 3 post to a company blog._

Although PiP was available only in Windows’ version of Firefox 71, the feature will be baked into the next upgrades for macOS and Linux, Mozilla said. Currently, Firefox 72 has been pegged with a Jan. 7 release date.

(If that January ship date for Firefox 72 seems earlier than it should, it is. In September 2019, Mozilla announced it would speed up Firefox releases by reducing the interval between upgrades. Starting with Firefox 74, set to debut March 10, the interval will drop to just four weeks. Mozilla will shorten the interval in steps; the six-week stretch between Firefox 70 and 71 will be reduced to five weeks between 71 and 72, and between 72 and 73.)

Not every video will play in PiP; those that do will display a small blue-backed “Picture-in-Picture” when the mouse cursor is hovered over the image. Clicking on that message deposits a frame on the desktop, video inside. The frame can be moved and resized at will.

Firefox pip Firefox

Firefox 71 debuts Picture-in-Picture (PiP), letting users pull video off a tab so that viewing can continue even when working in another tab or application.

And as Wood mentioned, the video is independent of the tab from which it spawned; that tab does not need to remain active and, in fact, the user can step outside the browser to another application’s window and the video will continue.

Firefox is somewhat late to the PiP party. Apple’s Safari now has PiP – as of the October upgrade, macOS Catalina – and Google’s browser has had it since Chrome 70 (an October 2018 upgrade). But Firefox’s implementation is significantly easier to use than Chrome’s, which required two right-clicks to initiate in Windows (and Computerworld was never able to successful call up PiP in Chrome on macOS).

Testing, testing of services

Other than PiP, Mozilla’s other Firefox 71 area of attention is further testing of its “Firefox Private Network” (FPN), the browser extension the company released in September. FPN accesses a VPN-like service that encrypts browser-to-site-and-back traffic and was free to Firefox Account holders in the test phase that kicked off then. Website security vendor Cloudflare provided the proxy server for FPV.

That September offer, however, has been shuttered.

Instead, a second testing phase launched alongside the debut of Firefox 71. Like the first, this “limited-time free service” relies on the FPN add-on to encrypt to-and-from-browser transmissions but comes with a major restriction: Usage tops out at 12 hours each month.

After signing up for the free deal, users are given a dozen passes, each good for an hour of encrypted traffic. “To claim a pass, simply turn Private Network on,” the beta’s explanatory page stated. “Use Firefox as usual, and your browsing will be encrypted and sent through a proxy service provided by our trusted partner Cloudflare. Passes expire after one hour, even if you turn Private Network off. You’ll receive 12 new passes at the beginning of each month.”

Mozilla suggested that users switch on FPV (and so use one of the month’s 12 passes) when relying on a public network, such as at a coffee shop or an airport.

As an alternative, Firefox users can request an invitation to a full VPN service, which for $4.99 month encrypts traffic to and from up to five devices. Mozilla called this a “paid beta.” The VPN service uses servers around the globe controlled by Mullvad, a Swedish VPN that sells its services for €5 per month. Initially, the Firefox offer only applies to users running Windows 10, although Mozilla said, “other platforms coming soon.”

Mozilla has struggled to create non-search related revenue streams – in 2018, the vast bulk of its income came from deals that put various search engines as the Firefox default – and this effort is the second time the organization has tapped a paid VPN as one solution.

Elsewhere in Firefox 71, Mozilla added a “kiosk” mode for businesses and the browser now notifies users when Enhanced Tracking Protection (ETP) blocks cryptominers.

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What’s the Most Secure Way to Handle OS Upgrades?

Your computer’s operating system may or may not be designed with security in mind, but without ongoing software updates, your computer is vulnerable. How do operating systems handle sending out these updates and which approaches are the most secure?

Why Do We Need Software Updates?

There are three key reasons software updates are important.

  • New Features: OS developers provide new features all the time. We want them. Gone are the days when you buy a new box to get the new code. Now you get the goods via software updates.
  • Security Patches: It’s impossible to know all of the vulnerabilities in a program before releasing it into the wild. Updates containing security patches bolster the defenses of the code running on our devices. You can mitigate much of your risk by running the latest versions of software.
  • Ongoing Support: These days we declare a device alive or dead not based on whether it still works, but rather if it still receives updates. A device that no longer receives updates is one that will gradually lose access to newer apps, successfully loads fewer websites, and becomes increasingly vulnerable to exploitation.

There are two ways to distribute these updates. One approach is a centralized model, where a single company manages all of the updates that go to your device, regardless of which brand or model you use.

In a decentralized model, the components that go into your OS come from many sources. There is a degree of separation between the developers and those who package all those various parts together for users.

Both approaches have their pros and cons. Proprietary desktop OSes such as Microsoft Windows, Apple macOS, and Google Chrome OS all take a centralized approach. GNU/Linux has a decentralized model.

How Microsoft Windows Distributes OS Updates

Windows 10 on a Dell convertible laptop
Image Credit: Microsoft

Microsoft distributes OS updates to anyone with a Windows PC. These updates go out based on what version of Windows you run.

For most of Windows’ history, switching to a new version of the OS was expensive. This encouraged many people to continue using older versions. With Windows 10, the situation is different. Microsoft provided Windows 10 for free initially and has said that rather than release another major upgrade, the company will now focus on iterating the desktop through software updates.

Microsoft has traditionally supported popular versions of Windows well after the release of one or two successive releases. Windows 7, for example, still received updates half a decade after the release of Windows 10.

Windows Update automatically downloads updates

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and forces users to install them. This can be frustrating, but it keeps computers up to date. Just make sure you create regular backups. While unlikely, system updates can botch your installation of Windows (or any other OS for that matter).

Security Assessment

Microsoft is transparent about how long Windows releases will receive support. This helps users make informed decisions about their hardware purchases. Forced updates also keep users patched and up-to-date, protecting more of us from exploits.

Still, a large number of Windows users aren’t using Windows 10. Some are using versions that are severely out of date, making the Windows landscape as a whole a vulnerable and easy target.

How Apple macOS Distributes OS Updates

macOS on an Apple MacBook

Apple provides OS updates directly to users via a dedicated Software Update tool. Unlike Windows, macOS does not automatically update your OS, but you can turn that feature on. Manual updates give you time to backup your data before getting new software.

Apple doesn’t explicitly state how long it will support each version of macOS. Generally, the three most recent releases will receive security patches. With new versions arriving every year

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, that means you can expect roughly three years of support.

Unfortunately, the end of life for older releases can arrive at any time without any heads up or official announcement. Apple’s security updates page shows what updates have arrived but not how long they will keep coming.

This doesn’t tell the whole story. Generally speaking, there’s little reason not to upgrade to the latest version of macOS. Changes tend to be more iterative compared to the revolutionary changes that took place between Windows 7 to 8 and Windows 8 to 10. Upgrades were relatively cheap in the past, and now they’re free.

Since macOS is only available on Apple hardware, the company can explicitly list which devices it will support. Unfortunately, if your MacBook or iMac is not on the list, you’re out of luck. You must now replace macOS with Windows or Linux to have an OS with ongoing updates, even if your hardware is technically perfectly capable of running the latest version of macOS.

Security Assessment

Manual updates give you time to back up your data, but many people choose to never install updates, leaving them more vulnerable to exploits. Apple also doesn’t tell us when a given OS release will reach the end of its support period.

On the flip side, Apple generally supports a given computer model for many years. Just make sure you consistently upgrade to the latest OS. You can check out Apple’s list of obsolete products.

How Google Chrome OS Distributes OS Updates

Google Chrome OS on a Samsung convertible laptop

On a Chromebook, updates are quiet and automatic. It doesn’t matter which device you buy, if your model is supported, you will receive each update in a matter of days. Google manages most of the software experience, so Chrome OS feels the same regardless of which Chromebook you buy.

Google provides updates on a regular schedule. Maybe OS updates come roughly every six weeks, with security patches and software updates arriving twice as frequently. You have the option to turn off automatic updates if you prefer.

But Google is not transparent about how long each Chromebook or Chromebox will receive support. The company doesn’t actually base support times on operating system version (like Microsoft) or specific devices (like Apple). Instead, Chrome OS support depends on which chipset sits inside your machine. Google promises to support each chipset for six and a half years after launch.

That poses a problem. Most of us do not know what hardware lies underneath our keyboards. We can easily buy a Chromebook using a chipset that’s been around for five years already, without knowing we will only receive one and a half years of support.

Thanks to Chrome OS’s design, the danger of going without software updates is magnified. Since Chrome OS combines the web browser with the rest of the OS, when OS updates stop, your web browser will no longer receive updates. This is not the case on other platforms, where you can update apps separately.

Security Assessment:

Chrome OS strikes a nice balance between keeping users up to date with automatic updates while giving us the freedom to upgrade at our own pace by doing things manually. But the company’s support period is largely obscure and, given Chrome OS’s design, substantially more important.

How GNU/Linux Desktops Distribute OS Updates

Purism Librem 13 privacy laptop
Image Credit: Purism

We usually refer to GNU/Linux simply as Linux, but in this case it’s important to clarify things. Google’s Chrome OS is based on Linux, but how it operates is fundamentally different from other versions of Linux based on GNU software.

There are hundreds of different GNU-based desktops you can download. Most give you a degree of freedom on how you approach software updates. Generally, notifications will arrive automatically, but you must manually download and install the update. You can do so using a simple app or the command line.

How often you receive updates depends on the size of your chosen Linux distribution. You can use a given version of Linux until your machine no longer meets the minimal system requirements, which for a growing number of Linux desktops means a 64-bit processor.

Why Linux Distros Are Ending 32-Bit Versions (And What That Means for You)

Why Linux Distros Are Ending 32-Bit Versions (And What That Means for You)

More and more Linux distros are discontinuing their 32-bit versions. Why are they doing this? And how does it affect you? Here’s all you need to know.
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If you use a more niche version of Linux, you have a greater risk of losing access to updates due to the project ceasing to exist. Under such circumstances, you’re free to switch to another version of Linux and keep on trucking.

Security Assessment

GNU desktops have the longest support life. Your desktop will continue to work for as long as your hardware meets system requirements. And if your preferred Linux distribution does end support, you can just switch to another.

Updates are not automatic, but there are other aspects of the way free software gets distributed that have a larger impact on whether the various parts of your OS are truly up-to-date. Since software is not produced in a central location, new updates and patches may be available for months or years before the people who make your version of Linux get around to packaging and releasing them.

Which Method Is the Most Secure?

In this case, the means is less important than the ends. If you manually update your PC every day or two and keep software up-to-date, then your machine is effectively as secure as one that receives automatic updates.

Making updates automatic primarily prevents machines from going months and years without updates, becoming susceptible to long-fixed vulnerabilities that make not only those machines but, due to botnets

What Is a Botnet and Is Your Computer Part of One?

What Is a Botnet and Is Your Computer Part of One?

Botnets are a major source of malware, ransomware, spam, and more. But what is a botnet? How do they come into existence? Who controls them? And how can we stop them?
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, the rest of us less safe.

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