In a move that could rankle privacy advocates, Microsoft said Monday that it is adding the PC equivalent of a flight data recorder to the next version of Windows, in an effort to better understand and prevent computer crashes.
The tool will build on the existing Watson error-reporting tool in Windows but will provide Microsoft with much deeper information, including what programs were running at the time of the error and even the contents of documents that were being created. Businesses will also choose whether they want their own technology managers to receive such data when an employee's machine crashes.
"Think of it as a flight data recorder, so that any time there's a problem, that 'black box' is there helping us work together and diagnose what's going on," Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates said during a speech at the Windows Hardware Engineering Conference here. For consumers, the choice of whether to send the data, and how much information to share, will be up to the individual. Though the details are being finalized, Windows lead product manager Greg Sullivan said users will be prompted with a message indicating the information to be sent and giving them an option to alter it, such as removing the contents of the e-mail they were writing when the machine crashed. Also, such reporting will also be anonymous.
"Our stance on this is that the user is in control," Sullivan said. "In the consumer environment, you will be presented with a dialog that clearly gives you the choice whether to share the information and then also provides exactly what the detail is so you can parse character by character what's being sent." With businesses, however, IT managers typically set the policy. If they wanted total information, they could configure systems so that they'd know not only that a user was running Internet Explorer, for example, but also that he or she was watching a video from ESPN.com. Or, they might find out not only that a worker was running Instant Messenger but also that he or she was talking to a co-worker about getting a new job.
And consumers could have a tough time knowing just what information they were sending. Though they'll be able to see the contents of a document, they may not recognize the significance of the technical data--such as register settings--that's being sent. Industry analyst Richard Doherty said he doubted Microsoft got enough feedback on how users might feel about such a feature. Even airplane pilots, Doherty said, have been able to keep from having their routine in-flight dialogue preserved. Microsoft's version of the black box, Doherty said "is begging for more real-world testing." But Sullivan pointed out that businesses can already install third-party software to monitor workers' computer usage and some do.