Friday, June 17, 2005

Security features for fun and profit

(I posted a version of this on Slashdot as a reply to someone's comment expressing doubt about Microsoft's true level of interest in shifting their corporate focus to securing their software).

To Microsoft, security is about features. A builtin "firewall", VPN, encryption of this or that, trusted something or other. Applets and wizards.

They're basically stuck in that position, too. The cash cow is actually layer upon layer of such features, fundamentally designed for a different, and far less ambitious, job than it's now asked to perform.

I'd better stop, or I'll go into full-on rant mode. Oops, too late.

Windows needs a complete rewrite, but that's not enough. If they did that now, they'd wind up with the same sorts of problems they currently have.

Even a total refocus on security is not enough. They have to change who they are as a company.

It's my understanding that at Microsoft, as at many software companies, the prestige and resources allotted to a group of programmers is determined by how much revenue their piece of the product will produce.

To make software customers can trust, they will have to change that mindset.

To a software business the value of a product can be measured by how much money it makes, but it's an unholy error of the stupidest freshman sort to value individual parts of the design by how much they'll bring in. Some parts are so essential, and some phases of design so vital, that without proper attention paid to them the overall product falls on its face.

The marketplace doesn't know enough about the inner workings of your product to tell you what value to place on any particular phase of design. The market (eventually) tells you how well it likes the finished product versus your competitor's, but hidden design processes aren't part of the comparison.

Security has got to be considered at every step of the design process. It follows along with robustness, portability, scalability, and overall algorithmic soundness.

I have a suggestion for you Microsoft design managers out there, for the next time your boss says, "Hey, let's make [X] really easy - that would really sell!". Don't just nod. Look at them and say, "Maybe, but it would also be simple to exploit."

The response will tell you how far the focus has really shifted.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Election Recounts and the System

In sports, each coach has his own system. Sometimes they're really well crafted, honed over years of experience, and work. Sometimes they're stupid. However, even a crappy system can result in victory if the players all play within it.

A business works the same way, usually. A crappy boss can ruin efficiency, but a boss in business is really one of the players. Adherence to the system is the surest path to success, since only by adhering to it can you tell if it's working.

And so it is with elections in democratic republics. The election may have various kinds of errors, but generally the errors will be divided equally among the candidates. The voters can be "wrong", but since it's an election the voters are by definition "right", even when they make a mistake on their ballot.

My advice to candidates in close elections: ask for a recount, accept the results and if you lose ... go back to chasing ambulances.

Monday, June 06, 2005

The Green Tennis Shoes Principle

Before the Industrial Revolution, people had to create and sell things that appealed to those around them. It took a long time to find people who were interested in an obscure product, especially since the more obscure the product the more likely a person was to keep their interest in it hidden.

After the Industrial Revolution, with more efficient means of production and delivery, a factory could satisfy the market for a particular kind of item in a larger and larger geographical area. Still, only those products with a known market were produced in quantity. The advertizing industry flourished in this environment, since there was a need to attract people to a product and convince them that they needed it.

One of the first uses of the Internet was Usenet, a method of transporting and categorizing electronic discussions for anyone connected to the network. At first the topics were related to computing technology, but topic areas soon branched into every area from Art to Zoology. The people discussing those topics often could not find anyone in their locality who was interested in their particular topic.

With the explosion of the World Wide Web in the mid 1990's, this trend also exploded. Every imaginable niche of interest is, or quickly can be, filled with a web site or blog devoted to that niche.

Which brings me to the Green Tennis Shoes Principle:
Somewhere in every geographical area there is a person whose life revolves around green tennis shoes.
That's not to say merely that his life revolves around tennis shoes and he likes green ones the best, or that her hot button is the color green and she also really likes sneakers. No, these folks have green tennis shoes in their minds and on their feet all day long. Please note that while the GTP may be literally true, I'm primarily using green tennis shoes metaphorically here.

The Internet allows people who like green tennis shoes to find one another and to easily communicate about their favorite topic. That has the effect of increasing their boldness, setting aside social pressure they may feel to keep their verdant passion secret.

Groups of all kinds are coalescing independently of advertizing. While many people have interests that are traditional and well-known, there are others that have found their life's passion but have no one to supply the materials they need to pursue it.

Companies looking to exploit the Internet now need to invert their mindet from trying to convince customers that they need the company's product to finding the niches that are under-served by current production.

If your company is trying to figure out how to use the Internet to make money, you would do well to rely on the GTP.

Friday, June 03, 2005

The Disconnected

I live in a little town in the midwestern United States. I suspect it's like a lot of other towns in the world.

In my little town, everybody knows everybody else, mostly. There is a core of people who have lived here their whole lives, and who know everyone else who's always lived here. The friendly members of the core group also know the newcomers. If your parents didn't grow up in town, you're a newcomer. You're Disconnected.

In my little town there aren't muggings, car jackings, or other violent crime. There are domestic disputes, and a while back an arsonist got to a few empty mobile homes out at the trailer park. They never officially accused park management.

I drive an hour each way to work every day. I don't mind the drive itself, nor really the expense of the drive or what it does to the environment. I'm used to the hour in the car. The cost of living in my little town is a lot lower than in a city, so I'm keeping the oil companies in business instead of some landlord or bank. And I think the fields of corn and soybeans I drive past look fairly healthy despite, or the cynic in me says because of, my production of greenhouse gases.

As a result of working an hour away from where I live, I'm Disconnected from my little town. My kids go to school there, and I try to be involved in the social life of the town, which revolves around church socials and softball games. But it's not the same as living and working around the same people.

I suspect a lot of people are in the same boat. Fewer people these days live in the same town that produced their parents. Fewer children spend much time around their grandparents and extended family. Fewer married couples have the dense web of relationships to bind them together. Fewer old people have adult children nearby, which often forces them into a nursing home before it would otherwise be necessary.

Looking back, I don't know what I'd do differently to stay connected, or if I really even want to.