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Another Perspective


General Electric, a company nearly twice the size of IBM, is in an Obamic situation, a position so deeply disappointing that it makes one's heart break.  Its Mark I nuclear reactors lie at the heart of a catastrophe in Japan.  Its agility at tax avoidance has become a target of the New York Times, which trims its taxes the old fashioned way, by not making money.  Meanwhile, GE's chairman, Jeffrey Immelt, is trying to help run the USA.  IBM is pointing out, with a straight face, that we need a smarter planet.  Who would want a stupider one?

The problem IBM has with its PR and marketing effort is the same problem puzzling user organizations thinking about their information technology strategies.  It's not merely possible but in many cases very easy to persuade customers, whether consumers or corporate entities, that intensive use of networked technologies combined with the fruits of analytical processes can help providers of goods and services do more and get it done for less.  The pushback, from consumers as well as corporate entities, comes from inertia.  People and institutions resist change.  And the parties in favor of progress, or at least attempts at progress, keep falling back on the idea that they will save everyone money.  Well, that may be true and it certainly is important, but pushing spreadsheet results to the exclusion of everything else is a weak use of a strong hand.

If getting more for less was enough, how come the costly iPhone and iPad, along with the premium wireless services they require, are such a success around the globe, including lots of places where money is kinda scarce compared to, for example, Silicon Valley? How come Windows 7 is a hit in business offices when sticking with Windows XP still looks like the cheap choice? Why, despite IBM's premium pricing of mainframe systems (along with drag-along software and services), is that product line booming? And why hasn't whatever makes sales of the System z mainframe line so healthy also giving the PowerSystems-IBM i combo a nice boost?

If you are a computer professional or a manager trying to cope with information technology, maybe you are too close to the situation to really see what's going on.  But if you look afar, perhaps all the way to Japan, you can see how bean-counting done to the exclusion of pretty much everything else is a flawed strategy.

Technologies that can affect whole societies in ways that we can predict and in ways we cannot are simply not amenable to one-dimensional analysis.  Sure, getting more of any technology at a more attractive price is attractive.  Everyone who buys disk drives would like more capacity, greater speed, and a smaller price tag.  But that doesn't explain why solid state disks are such a huge success.  SSDs are hot not because they store more data for less money but because they make end users get more done in the same time, and provide a performance snap that makes computing not just easier but actually kind of fun.

A nuclear reactor may or may not provide more electricity for less money; that's an argument that seems never to have been settled.  But nukes sure make a lot of electricity without adding carbon to the atmosphere.  That presumed green angle has been promoted by companies that make reactors, by power producers that believe in nukes (or cannot get permits for carbon fuel plants), and lots of other people, many of them really sincere.  But step back.  The more general criticism of fossil fuel power plants is not that they create huge amounts of carbon dioxide or sulfur but that they produce vast quantities of waste that gets in our faces.  And that exact same problem afflicts nukes.

Public suspicion and even condemnation of nukes, and by extension widespread disapproval of other technologies that have noxious or obnoxious byproducts, a class that includes information technology, is hardly a little problem that can be oiled away with clever promotion, the way BP keeps trying to get people to forget about the consequences of its big oil spill while dead baby dolphins wash up on beaches.  There may be no proven connection between the oil spill and the dolphin kill, but suspicion isn't helping BP get back on its corporate feet.

The same is true with the way the hazard containment effort at Fukushima is proceeding in an atmosphere that may be as politically poisonous as it is physically unhealthy.  The civilized, diligent, orderly, educated, and hygienic Japanese don't seem to trust the electric power company, its regulatory overseers, or even the supervisors of the team that is fighting the radiation hazards.  It is natural enough for there to be name-calling in the wake of any industrial accident, but when key players such as, in this case, General Electric, also seem to be keen on cutting corners and influencing legislators, the criticism becomes louder and more credible.  Every party involved in the Japanese situation and, right now at least, every party involved in the nuclear power industry, is getting tarred or perhaps irradiated with the same brush.  (GE can't find refuge in the black swan cause of the Japanese nuclear crisis because it is still battling government authorities and public interest groups at home over the Hudson River cleanup in which it is attempting to rid the river of PCB discharges.)

Critics of the way nuclear power generation is done in New York are trying to shut down the Indian Point plant that is on the Hudson just 35 miles upriver of Manhattan.  As it stands, there are plenty of loud voices calling for the facility to be mothballed but not any people shouting out instructions for safely and cleanly lighting up New York City, America's power-hungry (in many ways) financial dynamo.

If IT folks think all this trouble is confined to the power generation industry or more narrowly to its nuclear segment, they are wrong.  Computing is a drudge and it can be dangerous, too, even if it isn't amidst the kind of nearly apocalyptic disaster that has hit Japan.  The other day an air traffic controller at Reagan National Airport dozed off at his station, which is basically an elaborate computer terminal, and a couple of big passenger planes had to land practically on their own.  They did this without incident, but not without creating a stir.

Emerging interactive presentation technologies, principally but not exclusively the stuff that has bloomed around Apple's wireless clients, can offset the dulling experience provided to most computer users.  Every kind of server platform, and particularly those that, like IBM's i platform, seem to often deliver a sluggish user experience, are in need of fresh ideas.

IBM really ought to get to work on this.  After all, it's still on this planet, whether it's a smart one or not.

— Hesh Wiener April 2011

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