Prediction: RSA Conference Will Shrink Like a Punctured Balloon

By Bruce Schneier
Wired News
April 17, 2008

Last week was the RSA Conference, easily the largest information security conference in the world. More than 17,000 people descended on San Francisco's Moscone Center to hear some of the more than 250 talks, attend I-didn't-try-to-count parties, and try to evade over 350 exhibitors vying to sell them stuff.

Talk to the exhibitors, though, and the most common complaint is that the attendees aren't buying.

It's not the quality of the wares. The show floor is filled with new security products, new technologies, and new ideas. Many of these are products that will make the attendees' companies more secure in all sorts of different ways. The problem is that most of the people attending the RSA Conference can't understand what the products do or why they should buy them. So they don't.

I spoke with one person whose trip was paid for by a smallish security firm. He was one of the company's first customers, and the company was proud to parade him in front of the press. I asked him whether he walked through the show floor, looking at the company's competitors to see if there was any benefit to switching.

"I can't figure out what any of those companies do," he replied.

I believe him. The booths are filled with broad product claims, meaningless security platitudes and unintelligible marketing literature. You could walk into a booth, listen to a five-minute sales pitch by a marketing type, and still not know what the company does. Even seasoned security professionals are confused.

Commerce requires a meeting of the minds between buyer and seller, and it's just not happening. The sellers can't explain what they're selling to the buyers, and the buyers don't buy because they don't understand what the sellers are selling. There's a mismatch between the two; they're so far apart that they're barely speaking the same language.

This is a bad thing in the near term -- some good companies will go bankrupt and some good security technologies won't get deployed -- but it's a good thing in the long run. It demonstrates that the computer industry is maturing: IT is getting complicated and subtle, and users are starting to treat it like infrastructure.

For a while now I have predicted the death of the security industry. Not the death of information security as a vital requirement, of course, but the death of the end-user security industry that gathers at the RSA Conference. When something becomes infrastructure -- power, water, cleaning service, tax preparation -- customers care less about details and more about results. Technological innovations become something the infrastructure providers pay attention to, and they package it for their customers.

No one wants to buy security. They want to buy something truly useful -- database management systems, Web 2.0 collaboration tools, a company-wide network -- and they want it to be secure. They don't want to have to become IT security experts. They don't want to have to go to the RSA Conference. This is the future of IT security.

You can see it in the large IT outsourcing contracts that companies are signing -- not security outsourcing contracts, but more general IT contracts that include security. You can see it in the current wave of industry consolidation: not large security companies buying small security companies, but non-security companies buying security companies. And you can see it in the new popularity of software as a service: Customers want solutions; who cares about the details?

Imagine if the inventor of antilock brakes -- or any automobile safety or security feature -- had to sell them directly to the consumer. It would be an uphill battle convincing the average driver that he needed to buy them; maybe that technology would have succeeded and maybe it wouldn't. But that's not what happens. Antilock brakes, airbags and that annoying sensor that beeps when you're backing up too close to another object are sold to automobile companies, and those companies bundle them together into cars that are sold to consumers. This doesn't mean that automobile safety isn't important, and often these new features are touted by the car manufacturers.

The RSA Conference won't die, of course. Security is too important for that. There will still be new technologies, new products and new startups. But it will become inward-facing, slowly turning into an industry conference. It'll be security companies selling to the companies who sell to corporate and home users -- and will no longer be a 17,000-person user conference.

earlier essay: Secret Questions Blow a Hole in Security
later essay: The Ethics of Vulnerability Research
categories: Business of Security
back to Essays and Op Eds

Photo of Bruce Schneier by Per Ervland.

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