Stuck on the Treadmill

How do we know when we've had enough of product and certification upgrades?

Auntie was at the health club last week, taking a much-needed break from the daily grind of systems administration. It was somewhere around my second mile on the Internet-browser-equipped treadmill when I realized the awful truth: This “break” was exactly like my day-to-day job.

No matter what part of the computer industry you’re in, you probably recognize the feeling instantly. If you’re managing networks, you follow the Windows 2000 upgrade on the server with the new version of SQL Server, with the integration of Exchange server, with your Active Directory with a rash of new service packs…and then it’s time to install Windows .NET Server. If you’re a developer, you learn the new features in VB 6.0, then get a grip on ADO, then figure out how XML fits into the picture…and then it’s time for VB .NET.

And, of course, in our own little certification world there’s barely time to study for and pass all of the exams for your MCSD or MCSE credential before Microsoft announces the new and improved version of the same certification (with all new exams, of course).

As we all know, it’s not just the software industry that boasts this pattern. Why, just yesterday Fabio was lusting after the new BMW 745i because it’s got the new iDrive control as seen at (there’s a column to be written there about gratuitous user interface changes, but I digress). The point is that our existing Ferrari still does just fine for cruising to the grocery store.

Whether you’re a systems admin or developer, I’m sure you’ve wished for at least a few moments that you could get off the treadmill. Isn’t that e-mail server good enough? Can’t that application get along without a Web services interface?

In a perfect world, the answer would be “yes.” Think back to your first 386 desktop computer (or, depending on how long you’ve been in this business, your first “tin can” teletype). Certainly it worked well for some things. Take word processing. Auntie remembers loading Borland’s Sprint from the floppy disk, composing a letter on the other floppy and sending it to the printer. The total time elapsed was far less than it now takes to boot my fabulous dual-Athlon system and load Word.

But this isn’t a perfect world. My dual-floppy computer isn’t still around and neither, for that matter, is Sprint (or the operating system it ran on). The real factor that controls our relentless need to upgrade isn’t the attractive features in new versions, but the planned obsolescence of old versions.

Take Microsoft, for example—not because it’s worse than any other vendor in this regard (it isn’t), but because it’s willing to lay out the details in print. Visit lifecycle.asp and you can see exactly when your favorite version of Windows will expire. Oh, it won’t suddenly stop working; but after June 30, 2003, Windows NT 4.0 will be officially “non-supported.” Even if NT 4.0 still does everything you need at that date, you’ll want to upgrade just for the peace of mind of being able to call support.

The same thing happens with development tools. Tried to find a copy of VB 4.0 lately?

This is the point at which Auntie should offer a solution. While I have ideas on ending world hunger, traveling to Mars and creating the perfect gazebo, the answer to ending software obsolescence eludes me. What we need is some way to say “enough!” without depriving software companies of the revenue to keep coming up with actual innovations. Until that happens, we’ll keep having to upgrade to get the virtual equivalent of this year’s sexy new automobile doodad.

In the meantime, I’m going back to the treadmill—real or virtual, take your pick.

About the Author

Em C. Pea, MCP, is a technology consultant, writer and now budding nanotechnologist who you can expect to turn up somewhere writing about technology once again.

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