Kick starting this mess

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1 April 2005 | 0

Long before I had the money to afford a real car, I had an old banger known as ‘Gold Fender’. A James Bond film of a similar name was making the rounds and the name was a good fit because it, err, had one gold fender (the American term for wing). The rest of the car was a lovely shade of metallic purple. As a side effect, I became known as Agent 006.9 for a time but that’s another story.

Like all current and former owners of intermittently self-propelled scrap heaps, I was often inconvenienced by sudden lack of forward movement. Reality usually struck at night when it was raining and once or twice, in order to remove any vestige of inflated self-image from my personal makeup, fate would find me with a yet-to-be-impressed cheerleader on the seat next to me. The reason for the mechanical mayhem was never immediately obvious and past history would indicate any one in a legion of potential faults. And so, at a tender age, I became inured to the logical discipline of figuring out how to get the broken down old nag running again.

The big fix
I now find myself using the same inquisitorial rigour in order to get my mind around what it will take to get Europe’s (or indeed the world’s) economical engine restarted and firing on all cylinders. I suspect that there has been some delayed maintenance, some misguided priorities, a bit of bad luck and a few things that would be painfully obvious in the rear-view mirror.

 

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In times past, the IT industry has been a faithful bellwether for the world at large. When PCs, PDA, new software and networking kit is zooming off the shelves like 57 Chevys then, more or less, the world is moving in the right direction at a good enough clip to sustain the positive, forward-looking mindset. This is all about attitude: you have to be future-focussed to invest in IT and Internet frippery that, to be honest, has never actually demonstrated a hugely evident ROI in many business applications.

Butler Group, which styles itself as the pre-eminent business IT analysts in Europe, has concocted a measure of this IT disposition called the ‘Technology Sentiment Index’, which you can view at www.butlergroup.com. This is a useful, but doubtless idiosyncratic, measure of how IT professionals feel about the state of the industry. As I write, the Butler Group measure is heading upwards, but it is still well into the negative range. The measure emphasises and quantifies what anybody connected with IT already knows – some things are going to have to change before it gets any better.

Hope springs eternal in the technical world and my mailbox (when it is connected to a functioning broadband) overflows with the latest tips and products that are designed to inflame desire in even the most shell shocked IT manager in the deepest bunker. Clearly some products and services are losers full stop and others would work a treat in fairer climes. There are few strong candidates for inflating the clapped out IT jalopy’s tyres sufficiently to allow us to make it safely to the brightly lit service plaza of the future.

One thing is for sure, no amount of chrome plating and go-faster stripes are going to do the trick on this inert lump. New MP3-equipped Palm devices or Microsoft’s deal with MSN to bring better video to broadband users are not going to push the old beater up the hill. 

In fact, the last thing most users need is a better way to eat up bandwidth. The broadband providers in Ireland and elsewhere are sorely vexed by the growing realisation that broadband users may not be content to use their new toys as they had previously used their ISDN or dial-up modem connections. There are public and not so public plans afoot to cap the amount of use for those who feel that ‘unmetered’, always on connections, and (largely theoretical) 512 kbps downloads are something that might be their right for paying a whopping monthly fee. The rumour mill has it that the local providers will start charging extra when a 3Gbyte limit per month is exceeded. For any business of a dozen people or more, a dozen PowerPoints a day and some light web surfing would easily exceed that limit.

Users need to carefully consider their service agreements with their Internet service providers both in terms of the quality of service and the support given when that service level is not reached. And, if there are repeated instances of shortfall, users should cancel their contracts and place their business with an ISP that is perhaps desperate enough to take care of its customers.

The truth dawns
It seems that the telcos are only lately learning what us old farts have suspected all along: the Internet is not and never has been free. What we are going to need to get the motor purring is some old fashioned better, faster, cheaper technology: better miles per gallon, longer service intervals and no-frills enhancements that guarantee a quick return on investment.

Short term ROI is the thing that will attract declining IT budgets and that category cannot be stretched to include grand (but poorly articulated) schemes to bring all Web and business services under a single banner. That’s akin to my giving a wan smile to the simmering cheerleader in the stationary motor and saying ‘I’ll have it running again for a date tomorrow night, sweetheart.’

Fixed wireless broadband, including satellite Internet, may deliver meaningful levels of service at a lower price. On the other hand, this may not happen in all cases. A bucket of money is being saved in lower Manhattan putting laser and radio broadband links in where heretofore extremely expensive fibre optic cables had to be installed.

A newly emerged satellite Internet service is now available in Ireland from two different companies. Cedar Telecommunications, a UK company, charges stg£130 a month for their service, but the company imposes a maximum downloading limit of 3Gbyte a month. An Irish company, Educom, charges £125 (ex VAT) a month for its satellite Internet service which offers connectivity at 400/128Kbyte/s. At present Educom has no formal limit on downloads, but it does have a ‘fair use policy’ and will review cases where ‘the service is abused’. While it is true that you can have this service today in places where Eircom do not plan to touch until months after the Second Coming, the charges seem to be a bit heavy for the privilege of a few fast PowerPoint downloads a day.

Clearly, security improvements are one of the only unslashed tyres left on many IT bangers. While there has never been a faultless piece of software or hardware yet made, there are some that are more resilient to nuisance mongers than others. The key difference may be something that costs the vendor very little: openness. What is required is for a vendor to fess up early and completely when a flaw is discovered and communicate that flaw to the community of users to raise awareness.

And then, in very short course, deliver a patch that works and does not open up any other pitfalls beneath a hard working administrator’s feet. I suppose the foregoing is all the more urgently needed by those vendors who have built their house upon sand, with operating systems that do not provide sufficient security at their heart. Apache running on Linux does not even know that there are other file systems on the same machine or even the same contiguous network, which provides a lot better hack insurance than an operating system that does not even have the equivalent of a lock on the petrol cap.

Must improve
Before we hang the fuzzy dice on the mirror, we have to be sure that there is tread on the tyres. The tyres on any business today has got to be e-mail. Given the problems with the mail, one thing is for sure, e-mail is here to stay. We had better make sure that it is secure and efficient. With all sorts of dangerous stuff circulating in snail-mail (can snails get anthrax?) e-mail will become a ubiquitous official business communication mode, if it hasn’t already.

For e-mail to become even more ubiquitous, we need good encryption and digital signatures and easy to use applications that incorporate them (which are double edged swords, I understand). We have to put air in the tyres to make sure we can roll over any bumps: to make sure that some e-mailed contract was affirmed by the right party and that no one has fiddled about with the contents between transmittal and receipt. That is a major item on my wish list and one unlikely to be fulfilled by any major vendor you would care to name, in the near future or if at all.

Yes, getting the old car rolling again will take a lot of work so you have to be careful to put your money where it will do the most good and ignore the flashy distractions. You will not get to disappoint that cheerleader, twice.

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