The fashionable world of IT

I write Network World (US)’s Web Applications e-mail newsletter, and in a recent issue on Viador, a company offering a general-purpose tool for building portals, I wrote the following as a means of introduction:

Gad but we are a fashion driven industry. First it was the Internet, then Web sites, then portals and business-to-business and — on a parallel track — intranets, which were followed by business-to-employee and employee portals. Whew.

You’re probably on the fashion fast track whether you like it or not and starting to look at how to go about building a business-to-business portal and/or an employee portal (according to Meta Group Inc., 85 per cent of Global 2000 companies have either deployed, or are deploying, an employee portal).

One of my subscribers wrote in complaining, “Supporting a serious enterprise, one that stakeholders depend upon for some portion of their livelihood, is decidedly not a fashion issue. For employees in particular, pursuing technological ‘fashion’ is very risky to living indoors and eating regularly.”

Allow me to go down a side track briefly and note that I would have replied to the reader this evening but my Pacific Bell DSL connection went down a few hours ago and stayed that way, so I am rather isolated. Of course, the installation engineer didn’t leave a manual on the DSL modem, so I wind up calling SBC Communications Inc.’s tech support whenever the thing stops working.

But call SBC DSL support and they route you around most of the known universe until you talk to someone who, while very pleasant, eventually admits she knows nothing about DSL and gives me the number for DSL technical services, which curiously is the same number that I was using when I got transferred to her. Can she transfer me? Nope.

So I call in again and get through to DSL support. Their technician is nice but essentially unhelpful. In fact, he admits his system is running slowly and that there’s no consistency between his applications, so finding all of my information is apparently akin to arranging a leveraged buy-out of a major corporation.

Anyway, fashion. Do you think fashion plays no part in your IT life? Of course it does.

Fashion is all about what is stylish, what is hot and what is cool. Take Java. Is Java fashionable? You bet. Now consider Cobol. Unfashionable? Absolutely.

Yet which language has the most history? Which language is best understood? Which language is truly standardized? (Hint: The answer starts with a “C.”)

So which language is the better vehicle for, say, handling financial transactions? Well, it looks as though Cobol might fit the bill rather nicely. “Ah-ha,” you might say, “but Cobol doesn’t support all the fancy input/output and libraries I need.”

Rubbish! You can make modern Cobol do almost anything you need, and anything that isn’t easily accommodated by Cobol can be handled by external libraries. Despite all that, everybody is jumping on the Java bandwagon.

Now don’t get me wrong. I think Java is great in many ways, but the fact remains that we have a number of perfectly serviceable languages (such as C and Perl) that could be easily used and offer the benefit of being well understood.

But do we use them? Nope. Like demented test pilots we go and strap ourselves onto the Java testbed. That tendency is, if anything, more prevalent in the large IT shops than in small ones. And if that isn’t fashion, I don’t know what is.

Anyway, my point is not to put Java down but to illustrate that fashion is, whether we like it or not, a crucial part of our industry, just as it is in every other sphere of human endeavor.

Gibbs is a contributing editor at Network World (US). He is at