Prisoners of Legacy

Prisoners of Legacy

Is it right that impoverished third-world children have more innovative technology than corporate users? Don't answer yet. First, take a look at the slew of recent news articles, reviews and blog posts about the XO, that little green educational laptop developed by the nonprofit organization One Laptop Per Child.

U.S. gadget hounds started getting their hands on the XO over the past month through the OLPC's "Give One, Get One" program, under which a donor paid US$399 for two XOs and got to keep one while the other one went to a third-world child.

The consensus: The XO has lots of neat, highly innovative features, including a radical new user interface and miraculously easy wireless networking. It also has a small screen, a tiny keyboard that makes touch-typing almost impossible and no support for Microsoft Office. Oh, and it looks too cute for serious office use.

You might almost think it wasn't designed for people like us.

Now consider the other recent batch of reviews of a little laptop: The Asus Eee, a commercial product that also sells for around $400. That's if you can find a retailer with an Eee in stock; Computerworld's Eric Lai went to Taiwan to buy his.

Lai's conclusion: The Eee has some neat, innovative features. It also has a screen even smaller than the XO's, a shrunken keyboard, poor battery life, a fan that's too loud and, because it runs on Linux, no support for Microsoft Office. And it was designed for kids and women, so "cute" is high on the spec sheet, too.

But Lai also reports that lots of Eees are being sold to young Taiwanese businessmen who use them for sales presentations. And Eees are selling as fast as Asus can make them.

So it's not just third-world kids who get more innovation than our users. It's kids, women and Taiwanese salesmen.

But wait -- there's also that other widely reviewed $399 device, Apple's iPhone. In Applespeak, cute is pronounced "elegant," but the iPhone is still packed with innovative features, it won't run Microsoft Office, and all the big analyst outfits pronounced it not ready for corporate use.

In other words, everyone from third-world kids to Wall Street yuppies can get more innovation than corporate users.

And we in corporate IT are the ones who saddle users with PCs that really haven't changed much since the 1980s.

Yes, we have an excuse: Our huge IT legacy creates lots of requirements that these small, cheap, innovative gadgets can't fulfill. To support them, we'd have to rethink our approaches to security, usability, storage, networking -- practically everything in IT.

But our excuse is no longer enough. It's time to start that rethinking.

We're now at the point where the most innovative technology for users really is being created in the nonbusiness space. Corporate IT has become the prisoner of legacy technology, and the result isn't just stodginess -- we're missing out on innovation that could make our users more productive, more effective and more successful.

When that happens, we're failing at our job.

If you want a rallying cry for the new year, here's one: None of our users should have to make do with tech that's second-rate compared with what an impoverished third-world child gets.

If you don't like that rallying cry, just remember this: Our users already know about the XO, the Eee and the iPhone. They know what's possible, and what we're not delivering.

And, right or not, they'll know who to blame.

Frank Hayes is Computerworld's senior news columnist. Contact him at

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