Pretty Good News

Holy shit, the PGP product line has been brought back from dead, and is now safely in the hands of the new PGP Corporation. (The previous purveyors of the PGP product line, Network Associates, were a bunch of morons who probably couldn’t have done a worse job marketing and selling PGP if they tried.)

This is huge news, because it includes the announcement that PGP Desktop Security for Mac OS X is going to be released before the end of 2002. It’s no secret that the PGP engineering team completed work on Mac OS X and Windows XP updates to PGP Desktop Security before Network Associates pulled the plug on the product line. The software has been sitting there, completed, taunting Mac OS X users who seek industrial-strength encryption technology.

The mantra from the open source peanut gallery, repeated ad nauseam, has been that “PGP doesn’t matter because GPG is here, is free, and is cryptographically compatible with PGP.” That’s all true, but misses the point. What’s wrong with GPG is what’s wrong with so much open source software — the user interface. Open source software has proven itself to be fantastic for creating developer-level technology, and horrible at creating end-user software.

As developer-level crypto technology, GPG is great. But it stinks as end user software. No matter how noble the efforts of the MacGPG contributors, their software pales in comparison to the real PGP.

There’s no shame in that, and I don’t mean to disparage their efforts. But user interface design is hard work, and implementing a good design takes a long time. This is where so many arguments for open source fall off track. There is a widespread misconception in the Unix world that a GUI is something that sits on top of “real” software; that all the real engineering work is done at low levels, producing APIs and command-line tools, and that one can reasonably expect to wrap a GUI around the completed low level technologies in short order. And, that the difference between a good GUI and a bad one is merely skin deep.

Take for example, last month’s widely-noted CNet story by Joe Wilcox, which had quotes from Sun marketeer Tony Siress claiming that Apple was collaborating with Sun on a Mac OS X version of their StarOffice suite. The article was, of course, completely bogus. But there’s a telling quote from Siress at the end:

“I don’t want to sell StarOffice for OS X,” Siress said. “I want Apple to bundle it. I’ll give them the code. I’d love it if I could get the team at Apple to do joint development and they distribute it at no cost — that it’s their product. Nobody makes a product more beautiful on Apple than Apple.”

Sure, that’s the problem: the current StarOffice interface isn’t “beautiful”. It doesn’t have anything to do with being unintuitive, unwieldy, and not conforming to any standard Mac UI guidelines. It’s just that it’s ugly, and Mac users are a bunch of fashion-conscious prisses. Sun thinks that the only thing StarOffice needs to achieve popularity on Mac OS X is better graphic design.

Someday MacGPG may well provide an end-user experience just as good as PGP’s. But that day is not today, which means that PGP’s resurrection is very good news indeed for Mac OS X users.

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