Yesterday, CNET News.com posted a story (here) about the amount of time a worm would take to infect an unpatched computer after it connects to the Internet. The analysis, provided by the SANs Institute's Storm Center, clocks survival time at just 20 minutes, according to CNET News.com.
This morning, I checked the Storm Center site, where the time between attacks is listed at 16 minutes. I won't quibble over four minutes. Whether 16 or 20 minutes, new users wouldn't have enough time to download sufficient patches, including Windows XP Service Pack 2, to protect against Internet worms, assuming the Storm Center estimates are correct.
The Storm Center provides a handy guideline, "Windows XP: Surviving the First Day" (here), for setting up an unpatched computer. Basically, the process sidesteps Microsoft's setup procedure, which creates an Internet connection and activates the software, so that the use can enable Windows XP's built-in firewall before connecting to the Internet.
New computers shipping with Windows XP Service Pack 2 would have the firewall on by default. But, SP2 PCs won't start reaching the masses for at least another month. Because of Microsoft's phased SP2 rollout, not all SP1 PCs would get the newest update. A friend bought a computer this week and, rather than being prompted by Windows Update to download SP2, he was prompted to download about 70 post-SP1 individual patches or updates.
My recommendation to users would be the same as Storm Center's: Don't connect an unpatched PC to the Internet without enabling some kind of firewall. For some consumers and small businesses without technical knowhow, the only option might be patching the system via Automatic Update and then running antivirus software to remove any worms or Trojan horses.
Retailers could help consumers buying SP1 systems, by providing SP2 update discs and instructions on how to update the computers before connecting to the Internet.