Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programmers

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Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Follow-up-and-slightly-over on safety/security

The one thing which makes this a less-than-standard follow-up is that the original was not posted here, but over on paranym Graham Cluley’s blog. I originally wrote about the (fictitious) difference between safety and security. For those who didn’t clickety the linkelode, I wrote that Jon Gruber’s distinction between safety and security was just a neat lexical game to sidestep popular Mac-press opinion. I also wrote that I wanted to cover the original article, Snow Leopard security is all relative. Well, now I shall.

So Dennis Fisher argues that “very few users will switch to a Mac or from a Mac because of security”…”But if Snow Leopard turns out to be a major security upgrade over the current versions, that’s an important step for Apple and its customers.” I’m not sure I agree there. As far as I can see, the fundamental place where Fisher and I start to disagree is on what value security marketing has.

I infer from the article that Fisher takes security marketing to be a zero-sum game between the competitors: every time Apple wins, Microsoft necessarily loses: Microsoft have “out-secured” Apple and it’s up to Apple to “out-secure” them back. I believe that many consumers consider security as a “hygiene factor”; invisible most of the time, but unacceptable when it becomes an issue. That would make it hard to market a secure OS, but impossible to sell an insecure one. An important distinction, let me explain. People will not consider security as a factor in any product which seems secure enough, but will not touch any product which does not seem secure enough. Therefore a loss for any one company pulls its rep down with respect to the competitors, but there isn’t really any such thing as a security marketing “win”.

Where does that leave Apple? Well, a “major security upgrade” could go in one of two directions. Either it means moving from 0 concern over Mac security to a smaller value of 0 concern; or it could lead people to think that there were some security holes in Leopard that Apple decided not to tell us about and patched up in Snow Leopard. It seems to me that there is, at best, no value in marketing based on the security posture of the OS (though security features are, admittedly, different), however there certainly is value in improving the security posture to avoid the negative market perception of vulnerabilities. There is also value in responding openly and quickly to security issues to stem the rep bleeding any problem would cause.

Knowing Apple, though, they’ll find the other way; the way of making security posture a winnable marketing game and winning that game.

Fisher’s article states that the real question “is whether Snow Leopard will be more secure than the current version of OS X” – whereas for the moment the real question is whether Snow Leopard will continue to be secure enough.

posted by Graham Lee at 23:17  

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