Checking Up on Vendor Consistency

IBM, Microsoft and HP serve different flavors of consistency.

The hard drive in my much-abused laptop recently had its consistency checked for the umpteenth time. During the checking process, I suspected—and was correct—that this time, consistency would be one goal this drive would never achieve again.

I didnt get upset, since Ive learned to run regular backups to the corporate storage system. And despite my disappointment, I decided not to write another column urging USB storage vendors, Microsoft and laptop manufacturers to come up with a way to boot and run a laptop from the USB port. Instead of reaching for my trusty tiny tool set and taking apart the laptop—thereby really getting deep in the weeds—I decided to run a consistency check on vendors.

The easiest candidate for a consistency check was IBM—in particular, the middleware business under the aegis of Steve Mills. This one was easy, as I was driving back from a day of briefings in Armonk and Somers, N.Y., and could perform my consistency check on a napkin while waiting for my pastrami sandwich at Reins Deli—the halfway mark on my drive back to Boston.

Mills built the middleware business on three legs. The first is recognition that in a period of corporate consolidation and the eternal search for increased productivity, the middleware business of stitching together disparate systems will always be a good and growing business. The second is recognition that being a glue supplier and not an application builder will make you a friend to system builders that rely on applications for their livelihood and are only too happy to leave the glue goo to others. The third is officially unstated, but I view it as recognition from the very higher-ups at IBM that middleware is a necessary but incomprehensible world of adapters and acronyms; thus, they leave Mills alone to ply his trade.

Consistency does not mean complacency. After spending several years building the tools and procedures for broad horizontal middleware offerings (Im going to avoid using the terms Web services and on-demand computing), Mills and his team are thinking vertical—not vertical applications but vertical middleware offerings that make it easier for banks, hospitals, manufacturers and other industry types to tie their businesses together. This strategy exemplifies the greatest value of consistency: If the original decision makes sense, you can build on the previous foundation rather than backtracking.

/zimages/1/28571.gifClick here to read an eWEEK interview with Mills.

As I finished my sandwich and ordered a huge cup of coffee for the road, I scribbled an equation where Microsoft equaled backtracking. The consistency exhibited by Microsoft since the earliest days of Windows has been the companys advocacy that deeply integrated operating system and application environments form the model of modern computing. That consistent integrated message has been sorely tested over the past few years as security concerns have rearranged Microsofts development priorities.

Windows XP Service Pack 2 is a backtrack move to try to fix issues that should have been addressed previously, and the release has been going about as expected. For some people, the experience works fine, but for others, applications are being shattered. Hackers are having fun finding new holes in what was promised to be a supersecure update. Most corporate IT folks I speak with are starting a long process of testing before they even think about deployment. Maybe the launch of the "Longhorn" operating system in a few years will provide some consistent forward motion once again.

/zimages/1/28571.gifClick here for the latest on Longhorn.

The third consistency check was of the recent, very public activities of Hewlett-Packard. HP has been consistent in claiming that a broad technology and marketing strategy featuring a range of products and services spanning the spectrum from consumer products to enterprise systems will yield a new corporate model. An unpleasant financial surprise from the enterprise side of HPs business has called that model into question. I suspect that right now, Carly Fiorina and company are performing a consistency check to make sure the unpleasant surprise was a hiccup and not evidence of a deeper bug in the program.

Editor in Chief Eric Lundquist can be reached at

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