PS Consultants - ideas & solutions

What a year itís been

Well chaps, stuff is happening, eh? This Internet lark has only been going "supernova" around 18 months as a media phenomenon, yet the nouveau pundits are flooding into the market with all manner of soothes and predictions. So while it is traditional to have year-end round ups at the end of the year, I'll indulge myself to coincide roughly with the first anniversary of this magazine to take a look back over the story so far...

Yes, I know it all started 25 years ago etc., but the bit we all now understand as the start of the revolution began with the visual attraction of the web, and Mosaic.

It is plain that many people outside the anorak community have caught on to the notion that the Internet is something a good deal more fundamental than just another techno-hoola-hoop, much beloved of the IT fraternity. It has moved beyond anoraks to serious commentators, and the BBC, to give its due, apart from the dreadful "The Net" has done a good job of handling its ideas on the web. Especially with the crew of Radio 5; but does anyone know why radio 5 has an obtuse ibm.net address? I don't.

Some (most?) of the "Net Specific" shows are cringe-worthy, but the true essence of this whole thing is the way in which the Internet should start to infiltrate "normal" programming and it's doing that quite nicely at present. The arrival of an email address for Points of View was a small but highly significant victory for "us", albeit that the terminally condescending Ann Robinson did a predictable "don't bother my pretty little head with technology" dismissal when remarking on its appearance.

The biggest enabling "thing" about the Internet is the use of standards that allow cross platform integration. This means, to borrow the BBC slogan, that Macs shall speak peace unto PCs, Amigas - just about any computing platform you care to mention has some level of Internet connectivity available these days. But standards are only standards when everyone agrees that they are standards. There are two ways of doing this: Bill Gates' way, and everyone else's way. The Microsoft technique is to monopolise a marketplace in spite of legislation both in the US and Europe that is supposed to prevent people taking the 80% share of desktop computing operating systems currently claimed for MSDOS/Windows. How and why they do this is the subject of constant discussion, but all that bothers us here is that they do it, and as result, control desktop computing in the minds of many.

For the rest of us not blessed with arbitrary control of 80% of a marketplace, the Internet standards evolved from the communication channels of the net itself - the famous RFC process of collecting ideas and refining them into directives worked pretty well for 25 years. OK, Bill Gates is impatient for progress, and like Mussolini, believes that a little benevolent dictatorship can make the trains on the time more easily than putting it all to a vote. But there is a very fine dividing line between the Gates view of the world, and that of the malevolent despot where the enormous power and influence wielded is used to things like suppress competition by doing something like announcing an operating system two years before you ship it, simply to show all your competitors that they are wasting their time because you already have the world's press sheepishly penned up and waiting for it.

The Internet hates this sort of thing: it will route around it if it can, and so just look at Linux, and the site being operated by Caldera at www.caldera.com. This is a company being funded by Ray Noorda to collate and popularise Linux as a desktop operating system. OK, so it's o, but it's free, and all that claptrap about UNIX being large and unwieldy is now offset by the awful realisation than any 32 bit operating system that supports multitasking and solid operational functionality is equally as grumpy to install and set up. Just try installing Windows 95 on a machine not specifically "certificated" for it if you don't believe me.

Installing Linux from CD was actually simpler and the end result was a great deal more solid, with support available from other Linux users from around the net. It's not outrageous to say that Linux support is better than any MS support because the users are generally more skilled and passionate about sharing their wonderful discovery. But Linux doesn't put a buck in the MS cash register, and thus it gets no press mindshare and marketing hype.

Well, at least it hasn't up to now, but you can expect that to change. The big issue remains the absence of applications for Linux - but then again, any operating system that isn't called Windows is stuck for apps - at the moment. But consider this: Microsoft has already shown the world's press the W95 killer application (Office 95). It is indeed wonderful, and if I were a large software company thinking of competing with it, I think I might be looking for a quieter life raising pigs in the country right around now.

But if just one of two of these displaced developers start to support the X and Linux environments with applications, then I suspect that the Internet will provide the evidence that it really can start to undo the unhealthy monopolies of the current US-centric IT markets.

I suppose no one can really to afford to ignore IBM despite however gruesome and unlovely it manages to be, it still has a turnover that ranks it somewhere around the 30th largest country in the world. Can OS/2 hack it as a serious competitor? Well, not if my experience of installing OS/2 Connect was anything to go by. It really was much simpler to install Linux. Since OS/2 cannot provide simple compatibility for Windows 95 applications, then I fear it is doomed. Nice OS, shame about the applications. And shame about the self delusions of too many at IBM who seem incapable of communicating the reality to those that matter.

And beware of the heretic browser...
The other big standards issue facing the net is that of NetScape. I happen to think that NetScape is setting an extremely bad example by perverting any attempt at supporting the agreed standards, and creating a breed of NetScape-speciifc sites. Other browser developers looked on aghast at first, and then quickly accepted that if they were to have a prayer, then at the very least they had to follow the "NetScape" standard.

I for one hope that NetScape doesn't succeed by perverting everything the Internet stands for. The users clearly don't give a stuff for the deeper issues involved here, and if NetScape is apparently faster and sexier, then they will use it, if the web sites encourage them.

But did the web operators really come to the Internet to find yet another form of IT tyranny and exploitation after being roundly rogered over the years by the icy grip of IBM, Intel and Microsoft on the desktop..?

But the Internet is much more than browsing, so these combatants in the browser wars are quite possibly going to find themselves competing in a bleeding contest.

So I'll let the Internet sort this one out, and let's all hope that the people are properly aware that open standards are vital. Those who pretend to pay lip service to open standards yet foist their own agenda upon us need to be routed around. If the model of the selfish IT corporation no longer works in the world of the Internet, then maybe, like the dinosaurs, we should leave them to perish with the feet stuck in their tar pits while the rest take to the air in altogether lighter and less encumbered commercial vehicles than the megacorp of old?