The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. An apt expression for the basic conundrum posed by all legacy IT systems. Why upgrade a system when it works? When does the risk of the new diminish to toll the death of the old?
Computer systems that deal in pounds and pence are at the heart of the IT that runs some of the UK's biggest banks. They are inflexible and expensive to maintain, but they get the job done. They are hideously complex to replace, but ill-suited to gaining a single view of each customer.
Banks are turning to middleware to enable them to reuse legacy systems to create new products and services. More radically, Abbey, for example, replaced all legacy systems as it integrated to the global banking platform of its parent Santander, Partenon, in order to gain a single view.
BT also says it wants to get more intimate with its customers. "We want to behave like a small company," chief executive Ian Livingstone has said. Meanwhile, the company's Global Services head François Barrault is evangelising for a strategy that combines a focus on core competence with a mantra of collaboration with suppliers and customers, in a context set by an ever toughening economic climate.
BT is at once enabled and hampered by the force of legacy. Broadband competition, from the likes of Virgin Media, is driving it to plan a £1.5bn investment in a fibre optic network in the UK. For small businesses this could level the playing field, enabling them to behave like large companies. For big companies it could make more of a reality of the videoconferencing dream that fuels the telecommuting fantasies of stressed out office wage slaves.
Whether next-generation broadband will deliver on this promise depends on the strength of the impetus from the market, and the scale of the impact of the technology itself. And whether banks will slough off their legacy systems depends on what specific imperatives are imposed on financial services firms by the worsening economic climate.