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Amiga, R.I.P. (sort of)

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Linux believers and any number of web startup companies brimming with good ideas may feel like life has only been unfair to them. The truth is that technology rarely fails due to failures in the idea. Much more often, efforts to coordinate technology, sales, marketing, and the rest of the world result in a failure to communicate.
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We are gathered here today to discuss the demise not only of a fantastic operating system that still fits on a pair of floppies, but also the notion that given time, superior technology will win out in the end by nature of its superiority.

Now, before you succumb to the desire to click away, correct me about the continued existence of the Amiga operating system, or start some sort of flame war on Slashdot, let me digress. The Amiga, the Atari, even XDOS are not merely battered bones in the wake of a certain company's continued drive toward world domination. They exist as allegories that all technologists should heed.

The boundaries of technology extend far beyond the notion of "best tool for the job." Whether XDOS should be manipulating modern filesystems is no longer the issue—it isn't doing so. Nor does the Workbench grace many screens. In more current terms, the lack of widespread adoption of Linux on the desktop is a source of confusion only to Linux developers. Put another way, the fact that it has been successfully argued in court that a browser is an integral part of an operating system may be laughable, but it's also a sign of the times. Windows has not succeeded due to a faster file-seeking algorithm. It has succeeded by understanding the intrinsic need of people to not concern themselves with that which they don't understand—while continually being offered shinier and shinier objects to view.

This is not, however, a tale of woe. It's only a lesson, maybe even a bellwether. The age of technologists concerning themselves with only technology is almost completed. This is not to say that every programmer should take some accounting courses. Rather, it's a call to fellow thinkers to expand beyond building the best software and begin to contemplate the reasons that some organizations—whether the entire company or just the immediate division—succeed, while others whither and fail.

In academic circles, the struggle between time for study and money for continued existence is well known, the common phrase being "publish or perish." Many academics are left asking, "How can I conduct research to produce results when I need to constantly write proposals to obtain money to conduct my research?"

This vicious cycle also persists in politics. As often publicized, many politicians are more adept at raising funds (as required by their respective parties) than at conducting governmental matters at hand. Instead of sound policies based in careful consideration, test balloons of popularity are floated as distractions, while the man behind the curtain is rewarded for proper patronage.

Historically, technology concerns within companies have remained immune to such outside issues. Prior to the Internet boom-and-bust cycle, managers in such organizations either sprang from the ranks as they grew weary of day-to-day coding, or were technological illiterates who meddled less because they knew less. As long as deadlines were satisfied, so were they.

The web entrepreneur was introduced as an uneasy partnership, the joining of savvy creators of software at all levels—from HTML interface designers to programmers of high-speed network switches—to the world of the newly minted Harvard MBA who knew everything. This introduction brought with it the erosion of many time-tested understandings, not the least of which was the belief in each other's superiority.

The union was not all bad. A great deal of very well-considered software was created. A number of brand new business models were tested. Whether anyone could truly be considered a success at this early stage is debatable, but many have retreated to the more familiar territory of corporate IS. The biggest lesson to take away from this experience is that each side underestimated what the other brought to the table, often out of ignorance but also out of arrogance.

As anyone knows who has followed the plight of products such as the Amiga or Macintosh computer brands, it was rarely a failure of the technology. In spite of this fact, the business folks assumed in many cases that the creation of "cool" products would invariably draw enough of a following to propel their company to profitability, while the technology folks waited for the marketing efforts to distinguish their version of remote disk drive, personal address book, or whatever software to the level of sales.

And here we are. On the brink of the phoenix of second-generation web applications, rising from the ashes of first-generation exit strategies. This is a call. Don't keep quiet and wait for things to happen. The days of the isolated coder are numbered. Engineers learned this lesson the hard way, by losing respect and importance. If we don't expand our role into areas of the company most visibly responsible for making money, the same fate will befall us.

It's not even that technologists are unique. Ever since the days of the "man in the gray flannel suit," U.S. management styles have concealed and compartmentalized information. That can be keeping information from making it below the executive level, or it can be the flow between departments.

The unique position of the Dilberts of the world is that they fail to recognize their potential. Even if you don't work in a software company. Even if your company has existed longer than computers, the role of software is almost inescapable. If you understand the role of business process in shaping your work, you must begin to recognize that the reverse is also true. How many data tapes are still hand-carried between buildings simply because no one was ever asked to create an automated mechanism for the transfer?

In other words, learn how to communicate. The better you communicate, the more knowledge you'll receive. It's no simple cliché that knowledge is power. Removing the sarcasm for a moment, every type of employee has their set of language. Managers, marketers, and salespeople all insist on making a vocabulary and even co-opting words that you know and attaching new meanings.

Instead of dismissing people outside your line of work as ignorant or inferior (we've all done it), make an attempt to learn where the disconnect lies. I assure you, just expressing the interest in expanding your horizons will get you noticed. Once you get noticed, your ideas will receive an audience.

In short, instead of being frustrated by decisions, find out how and why they were made. If you can make contributions, maybe you can save the next Amiga.

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