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- A (non) eventful year - (December 1999)
Ian Murphy looks back at what should have been a very eventful year for technology

This has been an interesting year for technology. The perennial battle between Microsoft and the rest of the world is beginning to display all the farce of a Mike Tyson boxing match. Microsoft is convinced that it is purely envy that has brought its rivals together to tell tales about its business practices and believes that without such practices competition would be harmed. I find it difficult to understand how faking video evidence and coercing people into shipping your product is in the consumer interest but maybe that’s why I’m not worth several millions. On the other hand, the US DoJ sees an easy target but doesn’t seem to display a real grasp of the issues. Never mind, think of all the journalists, commentators, analysts, lawyers and other people who have been gainfully employed for the last few years and who can probably expect to still be employed come this time next year.

Broken promises

Like most years, it has also been the year of broken promises. Four years ago we were told that 1995 was the year that fibre, in the form of FC-AL (Fibre Controlled – Arbitrated Loop) would come of age. Whilst storage vendors have continued to increase the number of FC-AL products, interoperability has been as easy as the local pub team beating the All Blacks. We have seen some very good SAN (Storage Area Networking) solutions come to market but try buying from more than one vendor and then trying to make them work together and you’ll discover that 2001 may finally be the year of FC-AL. Of course, this was also supposed to be the year that Windows NT 5.0 or Windows 2000 as it is now known, was due to appear.

After a lot of criticism over delays in issuing beta code, Microsoft took the line that the product would only appear when it was ready. Ready was then further defined as when the product met strict quality goals. No one can argue that such an achievement is long overdue except that the software industry has spent a considerable amount of marketing resource over the last two decades, convincing us that perfect software conflicts with commercial reality. As such, like the Pavlovian software users we are we have come to accept the inadequacies of the software vendors. Now we are asked to put that aside in what can only be seen as perhaps Microsoft’s boldest ever move.

What’s in store

What we don’t yet know, however, is just how high the bar will be set for the final code. Certainly the existing code is better than any other Microsoft product at this stage of development and to a great degree, better than any finished production code, but the issue is one of expectation. Having set the level of expectation, Microsoft must now deliver but 7 weeks after the Veritest labs opened to test and accredit software, only one program had publicly achieved accreditation. A lot of people were booking lab time but Microsoft needs certified applications to ensure that Windows 2000 carries through the quality statement.

That said, the fact that the Microsoft BackOffice components are not expected to ship in a fully certified version until six months after the launch of Windows 2000 (source: Joel Sloss, BackOffice Product Manager at Tech Ed 1999) must worry Microsoft. More importantly, if you are prepared to wait for an operating system that has been produced to "very high standards" why would you want to run any application on it that has not met the same rigorous and demanding standards? After all, assuming you could afford a MacLaren F1 (or even just the insurance!), would you fill it full of diesel? It’s very unlikely unless you have too much money to burn.

Windows CE finally came of age in 1999 with Microsoft finally releasing the Common Executable Format so that developers were able to run their code on all Windows CE platforms without having to rewrite and recompile. This lowers the cost of entry and should provide more applications for end users. Yet just as Microsoft achieves this breakthrough, the dominant player in the PDA market, 3Com with its Palm range, has signed a deal with the Symbian consortium to bring the two together in a common environment. This is likely to mean an acceleration of telephony devices with PDA functionality and with most of the major mobile phone vendors already committed to the Symbian project it looks like being an extremely dominant move. Microsoft has countered by announcing a deal with British Telecom but this is unlikely to cause many people at Ericsson, Nokia, Motorola and Matsushita to lose much sleep. So maybe Santa will leave me one of those new Ericsson mobile phone/PDA thingys.