The Big Fix

The Big Fix

Insecure software is forcing vendors to do what they've never done before: make good software.

Let's start where conversations about software usually end: basically, software sucks. In fact, if software were an office building, it would be built by a thousand carpenters, electricians and plumbers. Without architects. Or blueprints. It would look spectacular, but inside, the lifts would fail regularly. Thieves would have unfettered access through open vents at street level. Tenants would need consultants to move in. They would discover that the doors unlock whenever someone brews a pot of coffee. The builders would provide a repair kit and promise that such idiosyncrasies would not exist in the next skyscraper they build (which, by the way, tenants will be forced to move into).

Strangely, the tenants would be OK with all this. They'd tolerate the costs and the oddly comforting rhythm of failure and repair that came to dominate their lives. If someone asked: "Why do we put up with this building?" shoulders would be shrugged, hands tossed and sighs heaved. "That's just how it is. Basically, buildings suck."

The absurdity of this is the point, and it's universal, because the software industry is strangely irrational and antithetical to common sense. It is perhaps the first industry ever in which shoddiness is not anathema - it's simply expected. In many ways, shoddiness is the goal. "Don't worry, be crappy," Guy Kawasaki wrote in 2000 in his book, Rules for Revolutionaries: The Capitalist Manifesto for Creating and Marketing New Products and Services. "Revolutionary means you ship and then test," he writes. "Lots of things made the first Mac in 1984 a piece of crap - but it was a revolutionary piece of crap."

The only thing more shocking than the fact that Kawasaki's iconoclasm passes as wisdom is that executives have spent billions of dollars endorsing it. They've invested - and reinvested - in software built to be revolutionary and not necessarily good. And when those products fail, or break, or allow bad guys in, the blame finds its way everywhere except to where it should go: on flawed products and the vendors that create them.

"We've developed a culture in which we don't expect software to work well, where it's OK for the marketplace to pay to serve as beta testers for software," says Steve Cross, director and CEO of the Software Engineering Institute (SEI) at Carnegie Mellon University. "We just don't apply the same demands that we do from other engineered artefacts. We pay for Windows the same as we would a toaster, and we expect the toaster to work every time. But if Windows crashes, well, that's just how it is."

Application security - until now an oxymoron of the highest order, like the US appellation "jumbo shrimp" - is why we're starting here, where we usually end. Because it's finally changing.

A complex set of factors is conspiring to create a cultural shift away from the defeatist tolerance of "that's just how it is" toward a new era of empowerment. Not only can software get better, it must get better, say executives. They wonder, Why is software so insecure? and then, What are we doing about it?

In fact, there's good news when it comes to application security, but it's not the good news you might expect. In fact, application security is changing for the better in a far more fundamental and profound way. Observers invoke the automotive industry's quality wake-up call in the 70s. One security expert summed up the quiet revolution with a giddy, "It's happening. It's finally happening."

Even Kawasaki seems to be changing his rules. He says security is a migraine headache that has to be solved. "Don't tell me how to make my Web site cooler," he says. "Tell me how I can make it secure."

"Don't worry, be crappy" has evolved into "Don't be crappy." Software that doesn't suck. What a revolutionary concept.

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