A History of KeyStore Explorer – Part Two

KeyStore Explorer (KSE) has existed, in one form or another, since 2002. These days it is a freeware offering but it has not always been that way. KSE started as an open source project before morphing into a commercial project. It is only relatively recently that it was re-licensed to be free for all to use once again. As the utility is now almost ten years old I feel it is a good time to write a potted history of KSE.

This post continues from Part One.

Money Talks

This history continues in early 2004. At the time version 1.8 of the open source KeyTool GUI (KTG) was under development. Out of the blue I received an email from an IT Security company who had a proposition for me. The company was interested in integrating KTG into one of their products. However, KTG was licensed under the GPL which was not suitable for their purposes. Would I consider, for a fee, re-licensing the source code to them under their own license?

My answer was a maybe and negotiations commenced. This got me thinking. If a proper, grown-up company was prepared to pay good money for a source code license then perhaps end-users would pay for a commercial version of KTG. I decided that they might and started planning a new venture to test this out.

KTG would have to be forked, closed and re-licensed. I also decided to rename it. Firstly because “KeyTool GUI” was a bit of a naff name and secondly to reduce confusion when the tool became a paid-for offering. The plan was to stop working on the open source KTG and start working on the new commercial offering. I settled on the name “KeyStore Explorer” and got to work on finalising the features that had originally been earmarked for KTG 1.8 (notably unencrypted  PKCS #8 private key support). I also had to quickly implement runtime license support and a time-bombed evaluation mode. Source code obfuscation was also added and the code was re-licensed commercially.

(At the time I received some criticism for my decision to re-license the GPL’d KTG source code. Some people suggested that I couldn’t do this. Rather than engage in a debate I left them to their delusions. I own the copyright to the code whether it is licensed under the GPL or not. As such I can re-license it under another license should I choose. In addition my permission is required before any of my GPL code can be re-licensed under any other license. I plan to expand on this and the many other open source misconceptions I have encountered over the years in a future post).

I was determined to run the new venture legitimately and therefore formed a company: Lazgo Software Ltd. I had never run a business before but was looking forward to familiarising myself with the inner workings of a real company. I would have to get to grips with taxes, payroll, dividends, company accounts, marketing and everything else. It may sound perverse but all of this interested me purely because it was all so unfamiliar.

Next came web hosting, the company website and a simple integration with PayPal to enable purchasing. I had to get the hang of PHP and MySQL very quickly to accomplish all of this. Early 2004 proved to be a very busy time for me as I continued with my full-time employment.

Over this time a deal was agreed for a source code license with the IT Security company, contracts were exchanged and a tidy sum materialized in the Lazgo company bank account. I had an initial injection of cash and was ready to release KSE a few weeks later. Selling a single source code license was one thing. Would users pay for runtime licenses? I really had no idea at the time whether or not anyone would be interested in buying a license for KSE.

KeyStore Explorer

Click to enlarge

KSE 2.0 went on sale in May 2004. I offered single, five and ten user licenses as well as site licenses. Over the next few months I was pleasantly surprised to see the sales projections in my business plan smashed. It looked like there was a market for KSE after all and I duly got working on new features.  August and December 2004 saw the release of versions 2.1 and 2.2 respectively. In these versions many UI improvements made an appearance, the Help feature was greatly improved with the introduction of Java Help and functionality relating to CSR, JAR and MIDlet signing were all added.

Providing new features so quickly proved to be a good move when KTG was again forked, but not by me. While I worked on KSE I had abandoned my open source work on KTG. However, there was nothing to stop others from continuing my work. That is, after all, one of the main advantages of open source. I suddenly had competition in the form of Portecle. This was essentially KTG under a another name and again licensed under the GPL. I could also expect the maintainer of Portecle to to start adding new features in future releases. I reckoned that I would have to work very hard to compete with a free offering. To be competing with my own work was odd to say the least.

With sales going well I turned to streamlining the e-commerce side of the business. Initially I had manually fulfilled sales upon notification of purchases from PayPal. This quickly became unsustainable. I moved away from PayPal and signed up with a professional web payments service with a better integration offering. I carried out work to fully automate all aspects of purchasing with license keys and invoices being automatically emailed out on purchase. With most of the drudgery of sales eliminated I had more time to focus on the product.

Click to enlarge

Three more releases followed between March 2005 and February 2006 taking KSE to version 2.5. I focussed on support for new key formats including encrypted PKCS #8, and Microsoft’s hideous PVK private key format. I also invested time and money in making the product look more professional. First impressions are everything and I had to make KSE look as slick as possible if I was going to persuade users to part with their hard-earned cash. It is my belief that the best application in the world will struggle more than it should if it does not look professional.

To describe KTG’s icons as amateurish is being generous and they were still present in KSE up until 2.2. I tackled this by purchasing a license for the excellent Icon Experience icon set and integrated those into version 2.3. I also reworked the splash screen and was quite pleased with the results.

Besides enjoying the development and creative sides of KSE I really thrived on progressing my business skills. During the time KSE was available commercially I experimented with different price-points, promotions and carried out marketing via Adwords. Everything was a new experience to me and that in itself made it all enjoyable.

KSE: TNG

With the release of KSE 2.5 I decided it was time for some major changes in the product. I had basically been piling features onto the same old creaky UI that had been created for KTG. There were many areas ripe for improvement. At the time the tool sported a single document interface which was unacceptable for a modern application. Users could not utilise copy/paste or drag and drop in the application either nor was there any undo/redo support. Installation options were also lacking with only Windows or manual installations available. The application was written in Java and worked perfectly well on Mac OS X and Linux so why not cater directly to those users? As a commercial application, users would expect all of these features and more.

Click to enlarge

KSE versions 3.0 – 3.3 were written and released between March 2006 and November 2009. I included many new features including a tabbed multiple document interface, cut/copy/paste support, drag and drop export, undo/redo, a Mac OS X disk image, a Linux/Unix self-extracting install, a new Quick Start welcome UI, Tip of the Day, support for many new key and certificate formats (PKI Path and SPC certs, Netscape SPKAC CSRs, OpenSSL keys), support to edit X.509 extensions and many more improvements too numerous to mention here. I also continued to improve the look and feel of the application with custom icons commissioned from Iconaholic (see the modern KSE application and KeyStore icons for examples of their awesome work) and continued by obsession with tweaking the splash screen.

Click to enlarge

For the first time KSE felt to me like a grown-up desktop application. In addition I was miles ahead of any of the competition in terms of features (many open source keytool UIs had sprung up in the intervening years). I had invested heavily in terms of my time and reinvested some of the profits wisely in terms of icons, third party libraries and the many books I had studied over the years on general security, PKI, UI design and business. However, it was all worth it. Sales were still good and I could now say that I knew how to run a profitable business.

Unfortunately by late 2009 a lot of the fun and excitement had evaporated. I had greatly enjoyed the experience up until then but was growing a little bored with running Lazgo Software. I had streamlined all I could but increasingly dreaded my quarterly weekend session with the accounts, dealing with the tax man and the plethora of other really dull things that are involved in running a business. Running the business was not a challenge any more, just a bit boring. Worse still I had no idea what direction I could take KSE in. It supported every relevant crypto format and was feature rich. It just seemed done to me.

So the business definitely had to go. When something isn’t fun any more it isn’t worth it no matter the money it brings in (when I told people this at the time they looked at me like I was nuts, maybe I am). I still had to decide what to do with KSE, however. I will detail what happened next when I conclude this history in part three.

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2 Comments on “A History of KeyStore Explorer – Part Two”


  1. You are absolutely right in the perhaps “bold” claim that KSE was (and is) miles ahead of the competition in terms of features. Also the UI of the others I’ve tried (most of them) is of very varied quality.

    IBMs KeyManager is perhaps the most comparable in terms of features but the UI is still clunky compared to KSE. And IBMs got zillions of $$$ 🙂

    • waynedgrant Says:

      IBM’s iKeyMan has some sweet features. I haven’t used it in years so its probably even more feature-rich now. I was also impressed with SSKeyTool which was around way back when I started on KeyTool GUI. It, unfortunately, disappeared some years ago.


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