Free to Choose

Now is the time to define it industry stability on a higher level.

On this anniversary of bastille day, its not too much of a stretch to note that were at the threshold of revolutionary liberation in computing platforms. The choices that are presented by 64-bit processor competition, open-source operating systems and cross-platform application technologies bring with them a degree of freedom thats in the spirit of the peoples assault on the notorious Parisian prison.

Emerging from years of security in deploying Windows-based x86 systems, users may feel uncomfortable at first with so many choices. However, diversity of enterprise options is the new order. Intels Itanium offers a blank-paper design

that radically shifts complexity from the processor hardware to the executable code, albeit at the cost of building a new software base almost from scratch. AMD64, in the form of the Opteron and this falls much-anticipated Athlon 64 CPUs, offers continued performance improvement for the worlds massive base of 32-bit x86 code—while also opening an easy path for 64-bit rehosting of applications that need the breathing room, though possibly lacking Itaniums long-range potential for hardware speed.

IBMs Power4 on servers and high-end workstations and its G5 sibling on affordable Apple workstations expected this fall are efficient, high-throughput designs with an established software base. The Power4/G5 option lacks, however, the relentless downward price pressure and the economies of high-volume production that weve seen in the commoditized Wintel world so far—and that Intel hopes to carry forward to the Itanium as well. But still, the choice is there.

Linux and its growing application base running on all three platforms promises an integration layer that was once promised, but never fully realized, by Unix and Windows NT. Web services technologies further dissolve cross-platform boundaries, not by mandating another choice such as Java but by using open-standard protocols accessible to all.

Certainly, the reign of Wintel had many benefits. It allowed many smaller players to find useful roles. And the Windows standard made basic PC skills a pervasive lingua franca. No one should underestimate the value to this industry, during the past two decades, of a common core processor architecture—the x86 instruction set—as the focus of mass- market software or deprecate the benefits of API convergence.

However, we suggest that now is the time to define IT industry stability on a higher level than that of one operating environment running on one hardware platform. It would be a mistake, though, to enter a revolution without being prepared to pay the transition price. The July 14 rebellion of 1789 did not quickly usher in The Republic; IT buyers must manage expectations if they hope to change the world while keeping their heads. But the chance is there to remake their environments on a new basis of freedom.

Send your comments to