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Are Bugs Acceptable In Net Software? 17 July 2000 Edition
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Another version of Microsoft's Internet Explorer web browser was released last week -- and already the first of what will undoubtedly be yet another wave of security bugs has been uncovered -- it happens every time!

Also angering some in the Net community is Microsoft's decision to usurp the standards organisations by implementing, once again, it's own set of extensions to the commands used by web designers to lay-out and control web pages -- thus further widening the compatibility gap between IE and its competitors.

Of course Microsoft and its supporters will probably say "who cares?" after all, IE is now used by more than 80 percent of web surfers and so it is the standard -- like it or not.

No doubt AOL (who own Netscape) will be somewhat less than swayed by such a comment, as will the many sensible web designers who realise that to be truly effective, a website must work reliably with at least the three major browsers: IE, Netscape and Opera.

I can see both sides of the argument -- but my real bitch is with the massive level of complexity and bloat that has crept into both IE and, to a slightly lesser degree, Netscape.

Given that these browsers are "give-aways" and loss-leaders for the companies that produce them, it's unlikely that we'll ever see a truly reliable browser from Microsoft or Netscape. Just ask NASA, or any experienced software engineer how impossible it is to produce anything other than very trivial software that is perfectly reliable in the "real world" and you'll see that the latest crop of browsers are already way beyond the size at which reliability can be ensured.

Of course we've learned to live with software bugs -- they're a fact of life and in most cases they tend to be relatively minor and irritating rather than devastating. Well that was the case -- until the world decided to connect many of its computers together via the Internet.

Because of this connectivity, the kind of bugs that simply irritated in the past now have the potential to spell total disaster. A bug is, by definition, an unexpected behaviour or response by a piece of software -- and when we get such deviation from the norm on a computer connected to the Net, there are always potential security implications.

If your copy of Microsoft Word would occasionally crash and cause you to loose the last 2 minutes of typing that was not so bad -- but if your copy of IE has some strange abhorrent behaviour lurking deep in its bowels it could allow a malevolent hacker to gain access to critical or valuable data on your system without your knowledge.

Until recently, productivity was the key determining factor in deciding the acceptability of applications software. So long as the software provided a reasonable return on the investment by saving time or providing extra benefits then it was a prime candidate for the job. Today however, even the most productive software may be an extremely poor investment if it opens your system to intrusion by other unauthorised parties.

But how will you know?

Very few business users of the Net have the time to scour the industry media for security alerts and update or change their browser software accordingly -- but you can be sure that the hackers do. The very fact that so many of the recent viruses have proliferated at break-neck speed is a clear indication that the vast majority of business Net-users simply don't maintain an adequate awareness of security issues. It's also a good indicator that relying on the "it'll never happen to me" mindset is a totally inadequate excuse for not being aware of the risks.

So, what's the answer?

Modular browsers that are built around a small and proven-secure core with individually certified modules attached to provide extra functionality?

An independently assigned security rating system (such as the one used by the US military) for all browsers?

You tell me!

As always, your feedback is welcomed.

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