How Password Management Software Works

History of the Password Management Problem

If all you have is one computer, one user and no Internet connection, a single password protecting access to said computer might be sufficient. That's what some of the earliest home computers were like. You could write your password on a sticky note, put it on your monitor and no one would find it unless they broke into your home or office.

Soon, though, people found ways to connect computers on a network, and the need arose for ways to better secure the data on each system. Suddenly, you needed more sticky notes than you could fit on your monitor just to keep up with all the usernames and passwords you had to remember across the network. As we pointed out earlier, though, writing these things down is risky.

To address this problem, a new kind of software was designed: password management software. From the beginning, these applications have had a simple, straightforward goal: Manage a list of accounts along with the username and password for each account. In most cases, this software also protects that list from hackers, both on the local computer and over network connections. Later, when we scan through the list of password management features, you'll see how past and present password management software has tackled these goals.

The password management problem has grown exponentially since the early 1990s because of the World Wide Web. Each Web site has its own user account system requiring a username and password. Some have extra thresholds to deter password-guessing software. In addition, many Web sites require users to follow certain password rules for length and content, and these rules can vary between sites in a way that forces you to create several different passwords. For example, one site may require you to use special characters like exclamation points or asterisks in your password, while another site doesn't recognize or allow those symbols.

Mobile computing has also added to password management challenges. Laptops make it easy to use the Web from anywhere. However, they also increase your chances of losing your data as a result of damage or theft. Add smartphones and tablets into the mix, and you could be managing your passwords among several devices, not just one or two.

Today's password management solutions take these Web and mobile challenges into consideration. They've also added tie-ins with Web browsers, such as automatically filling in the blanks on login forms when you visit sites you've specified in your setup preferences. The password management problem is likely to grow as Web applications built around cloud computing replace the need for many locally installed utilities. Today, you can even find password management software in the form of Web apps.

Now that we've scoped out the challenges of password management, let's look at the basic features of different types of password management software.