% fortune -ae paul murphy

The nastiest, most pernicious, Windows advantage yet

Back in the 1980s everybody with any serious management experience assumed that IT development projects would fail to meet budget, timeline, and functional expectations but would eventually deliver something - and something, of course, was believed to be better than nothing.

That expectation of failure resulted from experience: most projects did, and do, fail to meet expectations - and the failures themselves arose, I think, mainly because the people generally put in charge of the projects had no idea of their actual complexity, no clue that electronic data processing should be structurally different from the electro-mechanical processing under which their problem perceptions, methods, and organisational structures evolved, and relatively weak incentives to change.

Then along came the PC enabled user rebellion against data processing - but it turned into a trillion dollar exercise in ignorance sold to the unthinking by the unscrupulous.

Today Wintel management has more or less morphed into the old data processing management and both failure and centralised control are again assumed and accepted components of big organization IT. As a result things that should be simple, usually aren't. Making a Solaris based Java identity management component work with a couple of hundred Windows servers scattered around the organization is actually fairly simple, but testing it is virtually impossible because some have to be discovered, there are always some that are inaccessible for unknown reasons, and some simply don't work as advertised.

The whole big picture thing is utterly depressing: the Linux rebellion against poor software and big company control has become the creature of those same companies, Apple, long a bastion of support for more effective desktop computing, seems to be falling to the Wintel way with the current hardware convergence almost certain to be followed by a similar software convergence as Microsoft more or less catches up on the GUI front.

But what I think is worst of all is that the cultural expectation of failure bred first by data processing and then amplified by Wintel experience is now being exploited for political gains - and hardly anyone has noticed.

One example of this is the current campaign across the U.S. to build a public expectation of bias and dishonesty with respect to electronic voting. Stories like this one from the Maimi Herald, blandly capitalise on both reader ignorance and reader expectations of computer failure to build public support for using the courts to overturn election results:

Debra A. Reed voted with her boss on Wednesday at African-American Research Library and Cultural Center near Fort Lauderdale. Her vote went smoothly, but boss Gary Rudolf called her over to look at what was happening on his machine. He touched the screen for gubernatorial candidate Jim Davis, a Democrat, but the review screen repeatedly registered the Republican, Charlie Crist.

That's exactly the kind of problem that sends conspiracy theorists into high gear -- especially in South Florida, where a history of problems at the polls have made voters particularly skittish.

A poll worker then helped Rudolf, but it took three tries to get it right, Reed said.

"I'm shocked because I really want . . . to trust that the issues with irregularities with voting machines have been resolved," said Reed, a paralegal. "It worries me because the races are so close."

Broward Supervisor of Elections spokeswoman Mary Cooney said it's not uncommon for screens on heavily used machines to slip out of sync, making votes register incorrectly. Poll workers are trained to recalibrate them on the spot -- essentially, to realign the video screen with the electronics inside. The 15-step process is outlined in the poll-workers manual.

"It is resolved right there at the early-voting site," Cooney said.

Could happen, right? Well, actually, no -because sloppy manufacturing and poor set-up could produce the effect, but the impact on electoral results depends on the ballot order, not malfunctioning hardware or programming. In other words a mob response along the lines of dragging these machines into the street and setting fire to them might seem attractive, but only because they're junk, not because they're being used to intentionally falsify election outcomes.

So what's really going on with stories like this one is an attempt to exploit the public expectation of computer failure to gain a political end: discredit unacceptable election results to clear the way for having the courts, not the voters, choose the winners. And that's a challenge to democracy: not just a productivity loser, a corporate cost, or a source of personal frustration - but the direct exploitation of the Windows experience to erode voting rights in the biggest real democracy on earth.

Paul Murphy wrote and published The Unix Guide to Defenestration. Murphy is a 25-year veteran of the I.T. consulting industry, specializing in Unix and Unix-related management issues.