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Sun 15 Oct 2006

Why Bother?

Category : Commentary/whybother.txt

Coming back to a question I posed last week :

Is it possible to understand and thereby manage the software development process (and make decisions on what platforms to standardise on, what directions to take, technologies to adopt, etc.), if you're not yourself a competent programmer?

Sometimes I think the answer is, yes. After all, we drive our cars without knowing how they actually work. And we use our computers without knowing anything about the physics that govern the workings of semi-conductors.

There is a level of abstraction we can take that will allow us to understand things conceptually without knowing the details, and that is enough to allow us to make comparisons and decide on what car to buy, etc, or what computer systems to use.

But then look at this piece from a week ago : "Macs - Why bother?"

I'm highlighting this because the author's argument is so typical of that used to justify PCs and (not inconsequentially) marginalise Macs in organisations :

"I asked all of my students yesterday how many of them owned a Macintosh. The answer of course was zero."

The author is trying is establish that he has truth on his side. "Everybody" thinks one way and therefore that way must be true. But must it?

"... the overwhelming majority were using Windows-based laptops. I did notice one girl hiding in a corner with her iBook, but the cool kids were all sporting Dells, HPs, Lenovos, and the occasional Gateway.".

"... our job in Ed Tech (especially in K-12) is to provide the most relevant educational tools for our students. In many cases, relevance means Windows."

"For many years, Apple dominated the educational market. Now, extremely aggressive pricing among Window-based OEMs and, for some, the emergence of mature Linux distributions, makes Macintosh far less relevant, and far too pricey for this area. I challenge readers to talk back below and make a case for Macintosh in Ed Tech. Why should I bother? And why should I pay more for a machine and OS aimed at digital entertainment far more than productivity and business applications? [italics added] Let me know. Because those new HPs are looking pretty attractive, even if their boardroom isn't."

This argument is so typical. Yet it is also so wrong.

Macs are not more expensive, are actually more relevant to the world the students will find themselves in - a world where the arts meld seamlessly with science - and Macs are not only good for digital entertainment but also trump everything else in productivty applications, and all these can be demonstrated, not just argued.

But the fact is that the PC-biased argument works, and continues to work, is proof enough that it's not so easy to make good decisions on technology in organisations. And we need to ask why.

I think there's a way to understand technology from a conceptual viewpoint, even if it's not possible to know all the details like a programmer. But we've got to care enough to see that things can go wrong with the technological choices in organisations, and be able to see through the motives or agendas that led to those choices. We need to be curious enough to work out what questions one needs to ask in order to be wiser the next time, and be constantly motivated to improve this skill (at questioning) because the stakes are so high, as far as technology management is concerned.

Posted at 1:47PM UTC | permalink


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