When will the IT industry come of age? asks Jonathan Mitchell.
It has been 50 years since computers started to appear on the corporate agenda, but it often seems that the industry is still in the rebellious, adolescent stage of its development. Isn't it time for it to mature and become more responsible?
IT suppliers allegedly improve products while discontinuing support for others that may only be three or four years old. What would happen if garages refused to service a four-year-old car?
Justification for such behaviour usually centres on the alleged rapid march of technology.
Technology may indeed be marching, but it is not entirely clear in what direction. It is still not obvious how a word processor is any better than the products of five years ago. There may be more obscure functionality and the software may consume more disc space and memory, but this cannot be called value-add.
Moreover, technological tricks such as clustering computers together in the Unix world still seem far more primitive than the Vax computers that were abundant in computer rooms 20 years ago. The genuine advances in hardware are being only weakly exploited by the software industry.
Security is also an issue. In recent months there have been at least three major virus scares that caused IT departments to patch network devices, operating systems and e-mail services. So why is software not designed around the tenets of safety and fitness - a practice that is endemic in other industries?
Simple attacks such as the exploitation of buffer overflow deficiencies are the result of bad design.
The industry's response to these problems has been disappointing.
To issue patches as the vulnerabilities become apparent simply exacerbates the problem, as hackers are then encouraged to have a go. It turns into a straight race between the hackers and the hapless corporate IT department to see whether a virus appears before the IT specialists can patch and test vulnerable devices.
For a supplier to sit smugly by and point out that end-users should have upgraded their systems is not acceptable when upgrades and patches appear like confetti.
For example, one Unix supplier issued more than 600 patches for its operating systems in the second half of 2002. In a responsible corporate IT group, each patch has to be assessed for risk and tested before production systems can be updated. Safety-critical applications are a particular nightmare in this regard. This process adds unacceptable cost, complexity and risk to the management of corporate IT systems.
Suppliers also need to focus on adding value to businesses by ensuring that upgrades provide meaningful improvements.
Corporate users of IT are becoming increasingly intolerant of suppliers who pump out shaky software and attempt to lock customers into endless expensive cycles of patching and upgrading. They should develop well-designed systems and implement sensible continuous improvement policies so that user companies can extract the maximum value from their IT investment.
It is time for the IT industry to start designing products properly with the same level of care that we see in other industries and for users and suppliers to work together to solve problems.
Through knowledge-sharing organisations such as Tif, users are already comparing information about suppliers and levels of service. It will not be long before the kick-back starts and corporate users of IT begin to demand a higher level of professionalism and maturity from their key suppliers. The writing is on the wall.
What do you think?
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Jonathan Mitchell is chairman of The Corporate IT Forum and director, business improvement at Rolls-Royce