Digital is here to stay

Back in the early days, computers were put in glass rooms so people could actually see them in operation. Tapes whirred and lights flashed. I recall the glass computer room that was a central feature of the new Faculty of Mathematics building at the University of Waterloo in the late 1960s. The computer was special and recognized as being separate from everyday life.

This began to change with the introduction of mini-computers in the 1970s. An average department could afford to have its own computer — the machine wasn’t so special and more a part of everyday life. With the introduction of personal computers, more people could afford to have one. The computer established itself as an everyday fact of life in the office and home.

The Internet effected the next major change. It was now possible to connect computers, regardless of where the physical machines were located. But there were still large areas of life virtually untouched by the new digital reality.

Today, that is changing. Voice is going digital. More and more images and sounds are digital. Entertainment is heading down the digital path, as are automobiles and even refrigerators. The digital umbrella is encompassing increasing numbers of daily activities.

The implications for IT professionals will be profound. Systems will become less isolated. Within systems it’s already common to find word processing document files that can search all of the content stored in the system. Leading systems now include voice and image “documents.” Search on voice is possible today and search on image is becoming increasingly practical. The tidy systems world of the past is fast disappearing.

This expansion of coverage is causing an important shift in the nature of a system’s users. In the good old days, one could assume all users had undergone proper training. Casual users were not allowed to touch the system. Proper training could, and did, reduce the pain inflicted by a poorly designed system. With today’s extended systems, casual users are the norm and user interaction design flaws stand out in stark relief.

Given the increased presence and importance of digital systems, traditional failure is less of an acceptable option. There must be no way for a software bug to make my car’s braking system fail. It’s just not acceptable to require that the user of a cell phone regularly update antivirus software. Even Microsoft has felt the heat. The latest Service Pack for Windows XP is by default far less trusting. It’s a harsh world and systems cannot be charitable in what is assumed.

It’s nothing special to know about digital images and voice over IP. More people are learning how to work with and modify digital systems. More people are programming. The basic knowledge expected of the IT professional continues to increase and the rules are changing. Greater discipline is demanded of professionals who work with systems. As one example, we really need to understand and apply user-centred design. Some might even say, “It’s about time.”

Fabian is a senior management and systems consultant in Toronto. He can be reached at

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