Microsoft's Sidewalk rewrites the registry to set a bookmark

Windows users have become used to Microsoft applications which gaily rewrite system information without notice - but how about the Microsoft Website which does the same thing? A Washington MIS director has criticised what he says is the exceedingly risky feature of Microsoft's Sidewalk entertainment guide which invokes the Windows 95 registry editor to add a new line to a PC's registry settings. Charles Kozierok points out that an error in the file sent out from the site could render a user's PC unbootable. And for what? To bookmark Sidewalk as Internet Explorer's start page.

The latest of Microsoft's Sidewalk city entertainment guides came online last week. But a feature at the new San Francisco Sidewalk site may make some visitors vow they'll never come back again.

Like its predecessors in New York, Minneapolis, and Seattle, San Francisco Sidewalk offers residents as well as out-of-town visitors a slick collection of information about entertainment in and around the city.

And also like those other sites, the new San Francisco city guide offers visitors a feature that could potentially damage their PC's system registry.

A section at the site called "Make Us Your Home Page" encourages visitors using Internet Explorer on Windows 95 to follow a simple procedure for making it their browser's start page. According to the instructions, you click a link, instruct the resulting dialog box to open the indicated file, and magically you'll see Sidewalk whenever you launch your browser.

What the site doesn't tell visitors is that they're actually using the Windows 95 registry editor to make a small, one-line change to their PC's registry - a change that one expert says is like needlessly playing with fire.

"You are relying on the person who wrote that file to know what they are doing," says Charles Kozierok, Webmaster of a new site called The PC Guide. "If they've written that file properly, it's most likely not going to cause you any problems because there are programs modifying your Registry all the time. If you were to download a file like that that had the wrong settings in it, it could wipe out your Registry. It is possible because basically one bad setting in the wrong place in the Registry can make your system not boot."

Also MIS director for a Massachusetts manufacturing firm, Kozierok says it's always wise to back up your system Registry prior to using the registry editor to make changes. But the San Francisco Sidewalk site, like its counterparts in other cities, doesn't even warn users about what it's doing.

Brian Fleming, program manager for Microsoft Sidewalk, says the service is consumer-oriented and users would be needlessly intimidated if it spelled out how the site was creating the start page. Fleming says that in the 60 days that the Registry patch has been offered at various Sidewalk sites, there have been no reports of problems.

"Not one single report of anything related to the 'Make me your home page.reg' file," he reports, "not a single peep about this. I can guarantee you the problem reporting mechanisms work and this has never been an issue," he added.

Fleming points out that Sidewalk is not the only popular site on the Web that automates setting a user's start page. ESPN SportsZone offers visitors a downloadable .exe file that they can run from their hard disks to make that site their default home page.

"The reality of the Internet is you're always one click away from something that's potentially not trusted," he says, "but this is an extremely small thing that happens so, to me, this is a very tactical and very sort of balanced approach to this problem."

The decision to offer the Registry patch is made by each individual Sidewalk site, according to Fleming. Only the Boston guide has opted against using the technique, offering visitors instead only the more mundane method of specifying the site as a start page via the browser's Options menu.

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