Monday, 7 July 2008

In the Twilight Zone

I’m living in the twilight zone or at least that’s what it looks like to me.

Do you remember, Mitch Kapor, Ray Noorda or even Philippe Khan? If the answer is ”No”, then I’m showing my age as the fourth and greatest software Musketeer, Bill Gates leaves the stage vacant for Google, to spend his retirement doing good works for humanity with the wealth of his Windows revolution.

There was of course a time before Microsoft ruled the earth and today I can look back at episodes of the industry’s history with real nostalgia; such as when four of us started a small company called Novell (UK) in London’s Regent Street or when I shared a Boston taxi, with a chap called Ray Ozzie, who had just been demonstrating a product called ‘Notes’ to the senior management of Lotus Development.

“I’d rather see the Red Army marching down Wall Street than a thousand Visual Basic programmers” Borland’s Philippe Kahn once told me when I met him in California. It didn’t quite happen as he predicted but the 80’s industry heavyweights like Borland, Lotus Development, Word Perfect, or even IBM with OS/2 weren’t in the end a match for Bill Gates.

So now, I’m following Bill’s example and gradually easing out of the industry . I told the Ministry of Justice IT conference at the QEII centre in London last month that you need to have more than one career skill available in this business. The industry is demonstrably unkind to the over forties and India alone, I’m told, is churning-out a quarter of a million software engineers from it’s universities each year, all eager to compete for our overpaid and diminishing European technology jobs.

Too old and possibly too opinionated for the IT industry, I’ve spent the last two years building-up my aviation business, Airads and qualifying as a commercial pilot. The CAA exams were tough and I always hated maths and trigonometry at school but now I’m planning a future flying charter flights in the winter months in-between the technology conferences.

Once upon a time, the IT industry was a lot of fun but ‘fun’ isn’t an adjective I would use to describe it today. Many people I know are chronically overworked and under-resourced and companies seemingly spend their time in endless rounds of re-organisation and workforce ‘streamlining’. The results are only too clear to see in the failure of many of Britain’s largest and most oversold public-sector IT projects.

At the consumer-end of the market, most of us own PC’s now and have a broadband connection of sorts and yet where, in my contract of parenthood did it say that I had to fulfil the role of family IT, security and network manager? Tonight, for example, I’ve just wasted an hour trying to install a tablet driver for my daughter’s PC under Microsoft Vista, an Operating System I detest with a passion normally reserved for Hazel Blears. Sorry Bill, I’ve had it with Windows and I’m now saving up for a Mac!

When I’m flying an aircraft in cloud, I don’t expect the navigation systems to ‘Hang’ or the GPS to announce it was downloading a software update and will re-boot in sixty seconds. That’s how I feel about the industry today. Large mission critical systems are, I’m sure, very reliable the interface at the consumer level has become visibly onerous, unreliable and complex with digital rights management being one of the worst culprits. All our family laptops have failed at least twice over the last eighteen months for one reason or another and have had to have the Operating System re-installed. On each occasion, the reason appeared to involve ‘known’ incompatibilities in Windows Vista and you’ll know that it can take days to re-install and bring a machine back to its original working state.

Bill Gates has arguably done a “Tony Blair”, departing Microsoft at just the right time, leaving Steve Ballmer, to carry-forward the company’s vision in an increasingly ‘cloud-centric’ world.

As, in a fit of despair, I pull the battery out of my daughter’s laptop, after two hours of waiting for Vista to finish logging-off after a critical Windows Update, I would remind him, that twenty years ago, we imagined that PC’s would be as simple and reliable to use as televisions. Instead, one might argue we’ve become slaves to the fickle and unreliable nature of a voracious consumer technology.