The Measure That Matters

 
 
By Peter Coffee  |  Posted 2001-12-31 Email Print this article Print
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

In his keynote speech this month at the Internet World Exhibition in New York, Compaq Chairman and CEO Michael Capellas proposed a dangerously self-serving view of the mission of IT vendors.

In his keynote speech this month at the Internet World Exhibition in New York, Compaq Chairman and CEO Michael Capellas proposed a dangerously self-serving view of the mission of IT vendors.

Predicting greater enterprise emphasis on what he called "rich media," Capellas said, "Were used to looking at data that has nice rows and columns ... [but] unstructured data means new user interfaces." Oh, please, no.

I understand Compaqs temptation to define progress in terms of ability to deliver more—and more and more. The easy way to improve IT hardwares price/performance ratio is to define performance in terms of what gets cheaper, that is, in terms of pumping bits.

A voice mail uses more bits than an e-mail of equal content, and video mail is even more extravagant. When an inventory report is a video walk-through of the warehouse, instead of a table of quantities and part numbers, Compaq sells more network and storage hardware; when someone has to skim quickly through that video or turn it into something that can be searched or compared with other "unstructured" reports, Compaq sells more CPU power.

But the true performance measure of IT must include a human element as well, and human performance rises when fewer bits occupy our attention. Thats the value-add of software, especially when supported by professional services.

We think better, as well as communicate better, in systems that enable abstraction. Consider the Roman alphabet: It shapes our way of thinking into one based on encoding and classification, including the simple but powerful notion of sorting lists in alphabetic order. The ordering of Chinese pictographic dictionaries can follow any of several principles—none of them manifest in the symbols themselves. Is this the model Capellas has in mind?

Interfaces should clarify; data should be (in the words of Polonius) "rich, not gaudy." Hardware vendors may long for the demise of rows and columns, but developers should be finding order and distilling meaning in new data as in old.

Whats wrong with rows and columns? Tell me at peter_coffee@ziffdavis.com.

 
 
 
 
Peter Coffee is Director of Platform Research at salesforce.com, where he serves as a liaison with the developer community to define the opportunity and clarify developers' technical requirements on the company's evolving Apex Platform. Peter previously spent 18 years with eWEEK (formerly PC Week), the national news magazine of enterprise technology practice, where he reviewed software development tools and methods and wrote regular columns on emerging technologies and professional community issues.Before he began writing full-time in 1989, Peter spent eleven years in technical and management positions at Exxon and The Aerospace Corporation, including management of the latter company's first desktop computing planning team and applied research in applications of artificial intelligence techniques. He holds an engineering degree from MIT and an MBA from Pepperdine University, he has held teaching appointments in computer science, business analytics and information systems management at Pepperdine, UCLA, and Chapman College.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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