Strategy & Operations » Leadership & Management » IT STRATEGY REVIEW – A richer blend of computer systems.

There is a saying in the computer industry that if cars had evolved as fast as computers, today people would be driving automobiles that could speed along at a thousand miles an hour and give a thousand miles to the gallon. What makes the computer world so dynamic and able to metamorphose so quickly is that, unlike the motor industry, by and large there are no fixed rules or regulations – or speed limits. This has resulted in an industry whose sole purpose is to churn out new and innovative technology and invent increasingly obscure acronyms. One buzzword which is currently hard to avoid in the industry is Java – as in the coffee bean – and the computer industry has fallen head over heels in love with it. What is all the fuss about? Java represents an IT Utopia: it makes the brand of your computer system largely irrelevant to the application software which it runs. Any computer system from any manufacturer should be able to use any piece of software. Conversely, software for one type of computer system should be able to work on another without modification. This is a courageous step for the industry because, should it succeed, people will have far more choice over which IT system and which software to purchase. An IT director would no longer have to be concerned about whether application software was available for the company’s existing IT infrastructure. The application software would be available on all IT systems. Also, when purchasing new IT hardware, the IT director could weigh up factors such as cost and performance rather than be restricted by the availability of suitable software. Java makes the choice of IT infrastructure irrelevant which, in the long run, will drive down the cost of IT hardware to the detriment of the entire industry. In its September 1997 report on Java and associated technologies, IT analyst group Ovum states that the write-once, run-anywhere message of Java makes no sense to the industry as a whole. The report argues that if every new application is written in Java, the buying decision for a new IT system becomes “Which runs Java the best?”. However, in the short term it is the IT industry which has the most to gain from Java. A major cost in developing new application software is writing different versions for each type of computer system, or platform, that the software is expected to run on. Often, a completely separate team will undertake the daunting task of rewriting the application for individual platforms. If several computer systems are supported, then each requires its own team of software developers, which, in turn, makes the cost of software development prohibitively expensive. Now, in the Utopian Java world, software need only be written once, effectively removing multi-platform development cost from the pricing equation. This saving could result in a lower cost for application software, but this is likely to be dwarfed in comparison to the immense savings the IT industry would be making as a result of using Java to develop the software in the first place. One could argue that these same cost saving benefits could apply equally to in-house software development as to the whole technology industry. If a company’s IT infrastructure was as dysfunctional as the whole IT industry, developing Java software would certainly cut the cost of IT. However, as Ovum analyst Gary Barnett points out: “Companies with well thought-out IT strategies will not benefit from Java in the short term.” In such companies, generations of IT staff have learnt how their systems fit together and how to maintain the status quo. Asking them to throw out what they know and rewrite everything in Java is like throwing out all the books in a library and replacing them with CD-ROMs. There may be some long-term benefit, but the cost and risks involved make such an undertaking totally unworkable. Of course, not all companies have the luxury of a well thought-out IT system. Furthermore, when companies merge, it is not just corporate cultures that must learn to live as one: independently developed IT systems must somehow be glued together. Merging IT systems is fraught with pitfalls and often hugely expensive. In these situations, Java can plaster over the cracks. Java is an ideological view of IT. In spite of being over three years old, even in the fast-moving world of computers, it is still a relatively immature technology. This is the view of Ovum and many IT industry watchers. “It is likely to take 12 months before all the pieces fall into place,” explains Barnett. He adds that while there are many examples of UK plcs using Java, the number producing anything meaningful can be counted on the fingers of one hand. Taking all these factors into account, there is one conclusive fact concerning Java which is worth bearing in mind: it is best to wait and see what happens. Pros and cons of Java PROs – Java software can run on any computer system – Choice of computer system is not restricted by availability of software – IT directors can base purchasing decisions for computer systems purely on price and performance – Application software will become cheaper – In-house software development for multiple IT systems will be cheaper CONs – Java is immature technology – UK plcs are not doing anything meaningful in Java – It will take 12 months before Java is stable enough for people to use – The IT industry sees Java as a way to cut its own costs dramatically – Java has no short-term benefits to companies with well thought-out IT.