A Marriage Made in Heaven?

This article is unique to me in that the deadline for it happens to also be my wedding day. Needless to say, I prepared it before the actual delivery date, but it did cause me to think more than a little about an appropriate subject. As I thought about it, and as my mind is wont to do, patterns began to emerge, and parallels between the institution of marriage and the use of software in the enterprise became apparent.

Although the thought of marrying software may be foreign, if you look at the relationship at a high level of abstraction, the similarities are remarkable. Removing the emotional components (although many users absolutely LOVE their software) what is involved is a long-term relationship, trust between the parties, and mutual benefit.

Similar to a marriage, a choice in software will tend to be long-term. The users will begin to get used to the particular behavior of the software, and will adapt their own behavior somewhat in order to accommodate and get along with their partner. And over time, while human partners may have created a family, experience and wealth, software and its users may have created data, experience and wealth.

Trust is a critical component of any relationship, and it must be earned. In the software realm, this means knowing the the software tools will be able to do the job they’re called upon to do. Be it Photoshop with that 100 megabyte graphics file, or Apache with your web-server, knowing that the tool you’ve got doing the job is ready and able to do so.

Lastly, mutual benefit. A good partnership can bring the very best out of each participant, each supporting the other such that the whole is greater than the parts. With software, this relationship can take many forms. The users should gain some advantage or they wouldn’t use the software, but the software also generally benefits from use by way of generating revenue for the publishers, or developing a user/developer base in the case of an open source project.

Now, just as with human relationships, not all experiences with software will be positive. Some may show their stripes right off the bat, and crash or loose data almost immediately. Others may be more insidious, and not reveal hidden costs and obligations until after a great deal is already invested in the relationship. Software can have an annoying way of not working the way it was suggested it might, and some even insists the entire family move in too. It’s even been told that some software refuses to let it’s users talk to any other unless they breaks up first. Rather disfunctional, but some put up with it.

Advise which might be appropriate for a young person entering the social arena, counsel to the IT manager would suggest advantage in not committing too quickly, but instead taking time to see what the market has to offer. While the prettiest and richest may be be quick to turn one’s head, there is often little behind the facade. Look for substance behind the surface; look for honor and commitment among the lineage.

Perhaps that slightly older media streaming format is better supported and more open than that format from down south. Could that lesser known directory server be more appropriate for your enterprise than that sexy new server which seems to say the most inappropriate things (like, secrets) to the wrong people? Or possibly a new browser, written in the open, may be a better choice than an older model which likes to limit who you speak to.

Further related threads include full disclosure between the parties before becoming committed, as well as getting to know the history and the family. Are there any hidden tie-ins you don’t know about, or are you going to be limited with whom you can talk? And if things don’t go as well as it seemed they might, are you going to be able to get back what you’ve put in? Can you get your data back?

Obviously, the parallels are not perfect, as software will never be an equal partner in a relationship, but I think they are interesting enough to be worth thinking about. A lot more can be at stake than might be at first apparent in a software selection, so make sure you’re completely comfortable with the long-term prospects before making a commitment. A good partnership is be a wonderful thing, but it can take a while to find the right match.

Published in the Victoria Business Examiner.

Hand-held Computers — The Last Meter.

There has been a lot of activity lately in the field of mobile computing. This is being driving by advancements in several key areas, all coming together at once: fast low-power processors, low-cost LCD displays and huge memory cores. Advanced digital wireless networks, back-end server software and a newly introduced processor family are going to be accelerating development even faster.

Breaking away from the idea of having to run the same environment on the go as one does in the office, the Palm Pilot was introduced in 1996. Instead of a keyboard, you write on an area at the bottom of the display. Avoiding cost and risk, programs and information are stored in non-volatile random access memory (RAM) instead of a fragile hard-drive. And unlike a laptop, you literally hold the Palm in your palm.

The Palm Pilots have processors which are about twice as powerful as the first model of Macintosh computers, and at 160 pixels square grey-scale the display is approximately a quarter the size one is used to in a desktop or laptop. You might think this would be too limiting for practical applications, until you actually try one. The Palm has the largest collection of third party applications of any Personal Digital Assistance (PDA) platform, and no matter how specialized the need there’s likely already a program available to solve it.

Not intended to replace a desktop or laptop, with their full environments, Pilots and their applications are designed to be satellite computing devices supporting people while they’re away from their desk. You synchronize the Palm with your main computing environment, exchanging information between them as needed; notes jotted into the Palm in a meeting automatically get e-mailed to others who need to receive them. The day’s meetings and up-to-date Internet news is uploaded to the Palm to be reviewed on the bus ride to the office.

The Palm Pilot is certainly not the only player in the PDA space, but it does enjoy the dominate position. Apple tried, and failed, in this market with their Newton devices, using an advanced handwriting recognition technology which never quite worked right. Microsoft have an OS called “CE” (just recently renamed “Windows Powered”) which has failed to gain much of a following, and several smaller companies all are also giving it a go.

The PDA market is expected to explode in the second half of this year with the introduction of new machines based on a new processor family called Crusoe. A closely guarded secret (as part of a brilliant marketing campaign), Transmeta have just released the first two versions of the processor which are designed to be used in mobile devices. Using ground-breaking techniques, the processors deliver Pentium-II level computing power with very low power consumption. See www.transmeta.com for details.

Not to be left out, IBM and Intel both have new low-power, high-performance processors in the pipeline. The availability dove-tails nicely with new wireless protocols leveraging on the existing, and fairly inexpensive, digital cellular networks. These protocols, for example WAP, communicate with back-end servers to support applications on the devices. Standard TCP/IP is often also supported, and thus the wealth of data that is the Internet is available from a device sitting in your hand.

Colour displays continue to consume more power than monochrome, but with advanced power management available from the new processors, overall battery life from future devices should allow all-day use solely from on-board power. For those devices that don’t need colour though, monochrome displays will remain the norm, and for good reason. A little further out, voice recognition and prompting will allow the complete elimination of the traditional input/output devices.

Should you get a PDA now, or wait for the new devices to come out? My advise would be jump in soon, since the entry level hand-held devices currently available are functional and quite inexpensive while the new units will be at the high-end of the price spectrum for some time. And while the Palm devices are the most popular and have the most software, the other brands have some abilities which might fit your situation better. Talk to others who use a hand-held and get their feedback. You’ll be surprised by how positive it tends to be.

Published in the Victoria Business Examiner.