% fortune -ae paul murphy

Opting out of IT

One of the minor issues brought out in last week's discussion of the accounting software available to people who might want to consider converting to Linux is the existence of a group of companies which have effectively opted out of the use of IT as a competitive weapon.

These are the companies, typically small and service oriented, to which what we think of as IT is just fundamentally irrelevant and thus whose overt use of computing tends to be limited to an old PC or two used in bookkeeping and perhaps one or two other things they've been doing the same way for years.

I know a guy, for example, who runs a used furniture store, does his books on Windows 98, and once tried to show me an ebay ad his daughter had put up but couldn't do it. He's a chair enthusiast - genuinely an expert on the hundreds of thousands (no kidding!) of different chair designs people have made and sold. To him, the business is more about staying in contact with people who share his passion than it is about the money needed to pursue that passion.

Would Linux help this guy? sure; but would the difference matter? no.

Similarly, I know three brothers who run a seed business with about forty employees. Bookkeeping is done by someone who sells "accounting services" in town - there are only two stand-alone computers on the plant site: one a ten year old Mac they use to keep track of customer orders, the other an HP Pentium Pro running a dispatch application under SCO Unix with a couple of Wyse60 style terminals.

These guys tell me they have no use for computers - and it's true in the sense that they know their customers, conduct most of their business by phone, and consider the government reporting burden they lay off on their bookkeeper a tax - but it's also true that every major function in their business, from the phone system to truck loading and bin monitoring, is supported by (non wintel) embedded systems.

Sooner or later they're going to have to update their office systems and bring the regulatory compliance stuff, including bookkeeping, in-house - but when they do, will the Lintel/Wintel difference matter? I doubt it will even come up - my guess is they'll take advice from their bookkeeper or one of their kids and the difference between the choices they think about and choices they don't, won't amount to much more than a few more hours or a few more dollars a month one way or the other.

What's going on with these guys is that they've opted out: they don't see IT as relevant to them, and have minimized their investment and exposure to IT hassles accordingly. This is fairly common and may or may not be smart depending on the people, the business, and the circumstances - but, and this is the bottom line, their existence tells us absolutely nothing about the acceptability or otherwise of Linux business software.

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.