RSA Opening Keynoters

The sun had barely cleared the hills on this unseasonably warm Valentine's Day morning when hundreds of RSA 2006 Conference attendees and dozens of reporters began queuing outside the San Jose Civic Auditorium, backpacks bulging and lattes steaming, hoping for a good seat--any seat--at Bill Gates's conference-opening keynote.

This is the third year in a row that Microsoft's chairman and chief software architect has kicked off the annual RSA show. He spoke to the packed auditorium about his company's security agenda in broad terms, highlighting some security features of the upcoming Windows Vista OS.

His presentation also included the first public demo of Microsoft's InfoCard identification and authentication services, which Gates and company are proposing as a replacement for existing password systems. Gates sees passwords as the ''weak link'' in the ''trust ecosystem,'' and he argued for a trust-based, multifactor authentication systems. Gates said InfoCard will be delivered as part of WinFX, Microsoft's managed code programming model, and will support Internet Explorer 7 on Vista, Windows XP Service Pack 2, and Windows Server 2003 Service Pack 1 and R2.

He also talked about the problem of complexity in the current crop of security systems. He acknowledged that his own company had room improvement in this area. ''If you look at the security systems that are out there,'' he said, ''we are not achieving simplicity. The number of things people have to keep track of is probably an order of magnitude more than it needs to be. If there's an area where we absolutely have to do dramatically better, this is it.''

Gates is definitely getting funnier with age. He delivered a pretty good joke during his intro: ''My other invitation was to go quail hunting with Dick Cheney.' he said. 'I'm feeling very safe now.''

Okay, not that much funnier.

But it was a nice set up for Sun Microsystems CEO Scott McNealy, who gave the third keynote of the morning and gleefully used Gates's quip about the Vice President's hunting accident to take a shot of his own at Sun's rival-cum-partner from Redmond.

''He [Gates] forgot to mention my invitation to go duck hunting with him,'' McNealy said. The line got a big laugh.

I hate to sound like a theater critic, but McNealy was really on today. Gone was the goofy crankiness that has informed so many of his recent interactions with the public. He riffled through the infomercial stuff at the end, but the bulk of his speech was an actual keynote focused on the security role of open-source software in an increasingly recorded, monitored, and networked world.

Some highlights:

- McNealy cited a staggering statistic (390 gigs of content created every second) to underscore the literal size of the data-protection challenge. ''At some point, you're just going to put your cell phone in your pocket facing out and do a full motion video chronicle and archive of your day,'' he said. ''There's nothing that isn't captured today. And it's going to be a scary world if we don't come up with technology and rules to appropriately protect privacy and secure the data we value.''

- He talked about the digital divide, a term we don't hear that often these days, and the importance of bridging it. ''If we add several million people a week through 2007, we'll still have three out of four people on the planet not connected to the Internet,'' he said. ''We won't bridge the digital divide if we don't solve the security, privacy, and conditionally access issues...''

- Best line: ''I've always argued that the computer industry is more screwed up than any industry in the world, except health care, which kills everybody eventually. So the bar is fairly low.''

- He talked about a ''crisis on the desktop and the server.' On the server side are ''Frankensteins'' created from multivendor ''body parts.'' ''You have 87 suppliers, half of whom have been bought by Oracle recently, and a third who have gone out of business, and you wonder why you have security problems.'' On the client side are the desktop 'Dollys,' a reference to the famous cloned sheep. ''There's not enough genetic diversity on the desktop. That's driven by the desktop monopoly.''

- Another problem: ''Technology has the shelf life of a banana,'' he said. ‘‘When you buy software from us or anybody, my basic assumption is that it'll be obsolete within six months, or maybe even before you can install it.'' Proprietary environments, he added, create what amount to ''barriers to exit,'' that prevent companies from moving forward, and inhibit the adoption of the latest security technologies.''

The solution? ''We believe that the way this is going to be solved is by creating communities, open interfaces, open implementations of open software, and community development,'' he said. That remark drew applause.

I even liked the latest edition of his very long-in-the-tooth Top-10 List. This time the subject was ''Top  Scurity Mnagers' Nghtmares:''

10. First line of defense is to pull the power plug.

9. Worn-out CTRL+ALT+DEL keys.

8. Wearing an orange jumpsuit for the next five to seven years.

7. You just got a new job at an all-Microsoft shop.

6. Laptops.

5. You're the only one who opens funnybunny.exe

4. Company policy allows root-level access for all.

3. Blue Screen of Death.

2. Being told there's a patch to patch.

1. Having a virus named in your honor.

Now that's funny.

Self indulgent non-sequitur: Okay, what's with the sweaters? Both Gates and McNealy sported what I've begun to think of as The Executive Pullover (gray and red, respectively). I have nothing against business casual; I thank God and the young hippie Steve Jobs every morning that I don't have to thread a necktie into the cramped space between my head and shoulders where most people have a neck. And I'm sure that these two high-powered execs couldn't care less about their wardrobes. I'm just wondering about the message the image consultants are tying to send with these outfits. I mean, they looked like dueling Mr. Rogerses.

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About the Author

John K. Waters is a freelance writer based in Silicon Valley. He can be reached at john@watersworks.com.

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