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 www.bmw.com/e65/id14/3_a91_idrive.jsp
(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 www.microsoft.com/windows/ 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
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.