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Searching for Substance: The Road to Safe Software

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Nigel McFarlane argues that the only useful software guarantee we're ever likely to have will follow practices seen today in the open source movement. Open source addresses the missing link in the process of making software.

It never seemed to matter how the software we used was made. It didn't seem to matter much who made it either. We just grabbed it unquestioningly. That's changing. Today's software can definitely be bad for you, whether it's due to viruses, spyware, dialers, bugs, or merely baroque license agreements. Today you can hardly tell whether a particular piece of software is going to be good for you—or not.

Consumer Purchase the Hard Way

Once upon a time, most of the consumer software you could feasibly acquire was produced by a commercial engineering business, such as Microsoft or Apple. That simple product-distribution model used a wholesale/retail chain like that used for cans of soup. You bought steak from the butcher and bread from the baker.

Now there are many ways to get software. You don't have to go to a corporation or even to a shop. You can download products like Linux, Mozilla, and the Adobe Reader for nothing. You can copy from a friend, or put software together yourself from a pile of source files. You can buy a CD from a flea market hobbyist, or bundled with a magazine. Software comes in our refrigerators, freezers, microwaves, and cars. There's also a viable black market, whether it's the gift culture or Kazaa. If you do acquire a piece of software, more might arrive without you really having much say about it—perhaps a series of patches or a flock of viruses. You don't have the luxury of a stable supply channel anymore.

Once you've got that software, you still can't be sure that it's any good. The people operating the distribution point where you got the software can't tell whether it's any good either. Even the developers who produced the software have at best a fuzzy idea, although their conclusions might be more informed—or anguished—than yours.

There's a complete lack of information about the quality of software for consumers. Instead we have featurism and massive disclaimers in the conditions of sale: "No implied merchantability or fitness for use for any purpose." That can't be right. Overall it's a horribly uncertain experience, a kind of consumer information paralysis, even without the further burden of learning how to use the software.

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