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Tech Talk: Continue to customize, but be sure of security

Let’s take a quick trip down memory lane. Think way back to 2006 with me, the dark ages before the iPhone and social media. Remember when a phone was just a phone, and a computer was a computer, and so on?

Fast-forward to today, where users can customize the interface for any device or website by simply “clicking and dragging.” Users can add pictures and color schemes to everything, and change font sizes without knowing how to program at all. Companies can customize content management systems for their websites, or tweak the code in a widget used on its homepage.

It’s a wonderful new paradigm of robust, stable software that works so well that we can now spend time focusing on how it interacts with companies and their customers, and address their every whim. But by opening the doors to individual user customization, tech support becomes pretty challenging.

Imagine being the tech on a support call.

The user starts describing a problem they’re having. But the support person has no idea what customization features the user has enabled, or how they’ve changed their interface to suit their personal tastes. The tech support call becomes an exercise in detective work, where techs suss out a solution based on an estimate of how the user has engaged the personalization features. There are thousands of variables at play, so it’s a bit of a guessing game.

Plugging security holes

So should my company continue customizing?

Sure! The customization features are built for companies and their employees to use and enjoy. And today’s software has years of development support behind it, so chances are you won’t need to get a tech on the phone anyway.

We know that the customization you do to the software is part of your personal and corporate brand and we wouldn’t want to have to sacrifice that in the interest of having a successful support call.

So keep customizing, tell us about it, and we’ll keep working on perfecting the software. The goal is to have products that are “stable in any scenario” and to have the support phone remain blissfully silent.

Don’t worry, but do consider this:

We’re miles from where we were in 2006, when software shipped without being fully tested, and code was written from scratch for companies who didn’t know that they had purchased the first draft of the software. What is being shipped today generally does work reliably.

However, we’re seeing a trend in obsolescence, where the software itself doesn’t become obsolete but the version of the software is at risk. It’s not that the version is unstable, the issue is that the security of the software version gets figured out by information thieves and hackers pretty fast, so we need to keep issuing new versions to plug security holes.

So while the software you buy for your company is stable and robust, it’s not a one-and-done purchase anymore. And in order to get companies to upgrade versions for security reasons, programmers often add customization or user-interface features to make sure the version gets installed.

Watch for robot attacks

Hackers are so 1980s.

Yeah, I watched the movies in the ’80s, with teenagers hacking the CIA mainframe with a Commodore 64. But I promise you that real hackers are alive and well today. Many of the hacks we see are robot attacks, where a hacker writes a script that should generally access any website written in [insert your code base here] and then they turn the robot loose on the Web. These are easy to defend against with a quick software version update.

So, yes, focus on customization and demand more and more. And we’ll wrap security in there for you, too. A spoonful of sugar does help the medicine go down.

Marci De Vries is president of MDV Interactive, a Web consulting firm in Baltimore. Her email address is [email protected] Follow her on Twitter, @marcidevries.