Toss it up and see if it flies

The launch season is well upon us, with everyone from Microsoft to obscure start-ups trying to convince you that they have the solution to whatever ails you technologically. Sometimes it’s good to sit back and ruminate about why you would even want some of their newest new thing.

The big Kahuna of course was the Microsoft Office XP launch, and we were frequently reminded that XP stands for “experience.” I don’t know how they handled this “experience” in somewhere like Toronto. Maybe you big city folks got Bill Gates in the flesh or other fleshy delights. Here in the burbs of Calgary (OK, we are pushing a million in population, but we’re part of “the Prairies” for Microsoft,) the XP launch was a rather low-key affair. Several hundred people herded into a room in our newish Telus Convention Centre. Hot pretzels, definitely not imported from New York, chaste looking young ladies with candy floss machines, and, if you made it to the end, ice cream all around. In a bizarre touch, attendees were given a brochure on doing exercises at their workstations, and a $5-off coupon for massage therapy. What’s the message there – that we’ll be spending at lot more time at our desks if we switch from Office 2000 to Office XP? That we’re gonna need a rubdown after we use it?

Programmers certainly will be burning the midnight oil because a lot of the new functionality depends on creating “Smart Tags.” What’s a Smart Tag? For years it’s been the high-tech way to pay your road tolls in suburban Washington, D.C. Now Microsoft has usurped the term, at least in the computer context, for the idea of associating bits of code with pieces of data. Their favourite example revolves around the sacred characters MSFT. If you saw them in a newspaper story, you’d probably recognize the stock ticker symbol for Microsoft. You might then flip to the stock charts to see how Bill’s personal fortune is doing. In a similar fashion, Office XP gives you the chance to associate options (like “Get Stock Quote”) with data items. Click on the phrase and a menu drops down with the options. Typing in something that looks like phone number might trigger an offer to add a new person to your Outlook address book. (Did I mention that all this functionality, at least for now, seems to drive you to using more Microsoft products?)

You can code a smart tag recognizer using XML in association with the smart tag XML list schema, or do it inside a Web page with HTML. But to make the solutions really extensible, Microsoft recommends creating a dynamic-link library (DLL) using something like (you guessed it) Microsoft Visual Basic 6.0 Professional Edition. A decent place to find out more from the horse’s mouth is If you go there, you’ll soon realize that these things take some work to create. If your company wants lots of customized Smart Tags, and you’ve the one who has to do it, you might need that coupon for the at-desk stress massage. Alternatively you can wait until somebody else develops the Smart Tag you want and beg, buy or barter for it. Stealing should definitely be a last resort, but it’s gonna happen.

Other functionality added in Office XP is nice but predictable, such as better ability for teams to share documents, and the fixing of ugly problems like “what happens when you paste something from Word into Excel.” There’s a document recovery feature, so when it crashes – as of course it will – you don’t lose a day’s work. A few of these fix-up features actually drew light applause for the audience of IT folks. This leads me to believe that they’ve been suffering beatings at the hands of their end users for so long that “it will feel good when it stops.” Office XP is available now in the usual assortment of full and upgrade editions.

Cisco took an entirely different approach in launching its AVVID (Architecture for Voice, Video and Integrated Data) product. No pretzels or massage coupons. Instead, they loaded all the new toys into an 18-wheeler and drove it around North America. The bait was a chance to see this stuff in action, plus the tantalizing (frightening to some) statement by International Data Corp. Canada that “more than 50 per cent of Canadian businesses will move from traditional PBX telephone technology to IP/network telephony communications by 2005.” IT and Telecom managers who intend to be gainfully employed in 2005 clearly had a reason to take a tour of the truck.

The exhibit was high on functionality, such as the ability to route phone calls to Mary Lane differently based on time of day, who else is in the office, and probably whether or not it’s Mary’s birthday. That kind of thing is theoretically interesting, but are you really such a creature of habit that your phone can be programmed that way? Maybe if you’re a call centre rodent, but, seriously, will this play in the wider business market? Cisco cited a midsize Calgary energy company and a large Canadian college as reference accounts, so maybe they are finding a way to make it work.

One thing that decidedly isn’t ready for prime time in my opinion is their voice recognition technology. “Call Mary Lane” worked fine for the shiny demo guy but when I tried it several times, even mimicking his phrasing, I didn’t get anywhere. They claim it’s speaker independent but I think they need some drawing board work to make it truly practical. The moral is to try it before you buy it.

Yet another product launch approach is to just print up a bunch of brochures and hope people will come. This was the tack taken by Tenzing Global as they introduced their in flight Internet service on a pilot basis on Air Canada’s planes. It’s kind of a kludge because you’re not really on-line – the thing uses the in-flight phones and, for cost reasons, only makes a call every few minutes. So you won’t be navigating through complex Web pages. You can, however, amuse yourself on a long flight by downloading your latest e-mails, answering them, and knowing that maybe 15 minutes later some poor unfortunates on the ground are hearing from you. It’s on five of the Air Canada planes now (tail numbers starting with 701) and will be free for a while longer. Then it will probably cost $5-$15 per day to register and send a modest amount of data (e.g. 800K). But if you forget that 10MB PowerPoint presentation you’re really gonna pay to get in while in flight.

Which brings us to the philosophical point. All these technologies sound great, but do their features justify the cost and work of understanding, deploying and learning them? Maybe we should leave well enough alone sometimes. You get to choose. All three of these vendors claim their products will give us that Holy Grail – more time around the office. But only Microsoft is honest enough to admit that we’re also gonna need neck massages to deal with the dark side of their latest release.

Dr. Keenan, ISP, is Dean of the Faculty of Continuing Education at the University of Calgary and teaches a course called Hot Issues in Security.