Martinis, napkins and IT strategy

Sanity Clause

“Let us redefine progress to mean that just because we can do a thing, it does not necessarily follow that we must … do that thing.”

President, United Federation of Planets, Star Trek VI The Undiscovered Country

After a discussion with a friend who started a new contract with exciting new technology (the latest Macromedia products to be precise) the above quotation from that movie started to rattle around my head. It took days to figure out where the line came from. The reason why I remember it at all is because it doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the movie.

The point of all this lateral musing is just because we can hook (finally) a decent GUI to a Web page doesn’t mean that it’s a good idea. I’ve wanted HTML to catch up to Visual Basic 3 for years, but now that there is a way, the timing might still not be good.

Many IT people are still so thrilled by the new cool stuff that they forget some basics. On the Internet, if you make a web page accessible to relatively new browsers only, you will lose customers. For example, forcing a customer to download a plug-in will lose that customer. A JavaScript message saying, “your browser is old; do something” will lose your customers. I don’t know about you, but the term backwards compatibility may be a joke (or improbability) to Microsoft (home of the killer server patch) but it shouldn’t be to you.

But the sheer allure of new toys may outweigh common sense. Another odd quotation from the arts made me dig out a CD of a wild Scottish musician/comedian/nutcase named Billy Connolly. He expressed the idea of the urgency of trying new things in a standup segment about nuclear weapons. “Face it, the nutters are in charge and it [nuclear war] is going to happen…they paid so much for it, they’re going to try to see if it’s gonna work.” (Due to the need for profanity management, that last part was paraphrased.) And IT is like that; we want to see if it’s going to work.

Insanely, we want to see if it will work when there are corporate firewalls in place that limit the use of things like Flash. Certainly the plug-in can provide useful tools, but it also can bring in monster-sized bandwidth gobbling multimedia presentations. Furthermore, some of those presentations just might not run on the corporate standard IE 4.01 for which the budget to upgrade was suspended again.

Some days I feel that most IT projects start with a couple of martinis and end with the sentence, “That’s a great idea; let’s see if it works.” Ten million dollars later, a special investigative committee is looking into the project and wondering to where the original business justification disappeared. But sadly, the napkin from the bar on which the original justification was written is not in the file.

I have an idea. Why not, for a couple of years, stop releasing new software and hardware and spend a bit of time understanding what we have in our hands. If we better understand the present, maybe the future will be clearer.

Robert Ford is a consultant in Vancouver who insists that the Netscape 4.x product line is not so bad. He can be reached at [email protected].

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