Four Kitchens

The hidden costs of proprietary software #2: Your vendor is an adversary

1 Min. ReadDigital strategy

On December 2, 2008, customers of SonicWALL woke up to broken firewalls. This wasn’t the result of a real problem in the firewalls; it was a result of SonicWALL’s DRM server malfunctioning and deactivating all customer firewalls.

The relationship between customers and vendors of proprietary software is fundamentally adversarial: Proprietary vendors have business models where customer activity (like installing Windows on a desktop) requires payment to the vendor. Because the activity happens entirely on the customer side and paying the vendor conflicts with the customer’s desire to save money, proprietary software vendors don’t trust their customers to pay them.

So, they’ve developed strategies based on customer distrust. One of these strategies is embedding DRM, software their customers run that looks out for the vendor’s interests. DRM systems, like Microsoft’s activation tools, continually threaten to disable the software customers rely on. And, with few exceptions, they run on code the customers cannot inspect.

Microsoft has removed activation code from many of their server products, but it remains common in their desktop products, like Windows and Office. Other proprietary vendors (like SonicWALL) still have it in their server and infrastructure code. Any software that has secret failure mechanisms integrated for the vendor’s sake has no place in important business infrastructure.

Software fails often enough without being defective by design.