January 04, 2017
Future Vision: Too complex for the impatient
Seeing the future clearly is not simple, and planning for our tomorrows is a crucial mission for most HP 3000 owners and allies. Changes easily cloud the vision of any futurist—people who dream up scenarios and strategies instead of writing science fiction.
Or as Yoda said, "Difficult to tell; always in motion is the future."
Economics makes every future vision more compelling. A friend who just became a city council member reminded me of this when she talked about taxis and hotel checkouts. These things are the equivalent of COBOL and batch job streaming—just to remind you this post is an IT report. Disruption surrounds them. COBOL, batch, hotels, and taxis still keep our world on its feet. Nearly all of us reach for a legacy solution when we're finished sitting in the bathroom, too.
The new council member forwarded a futurist's article on Facebook—where so many get their news today, alas—an article that pegged so many bits of the economy that are supposed to be going the way of MPE V. (I think we can all agree it's really over for the OS that powered 3000s before PA-RISC.) The Facebook article says we need only to look at Kodak in 1998 when it "had 170,000 employees and sold 85 percent of all photo paper worldwide. Within just a few years, their business model disappeared and they went bankrupt." The timing is wrong, just like the timeframe predicted for total migration of the 3000 base. Was: 2008. Now in 2017: still incomplete.
The futurism you hear predicts things like "What happened to Kodak will happen in a lot of industries in the next 10 years — and most people won't see it coming. Did you think in 1998 that three years later you would never take pictures on film again?" Nobody did, because it wasn't true in 2001 that film disappeared. Neither had MPE disappeared by 2006. These predictions get mangled as they are retold. This year's IT skills must include patience to see the future's interlocking parts—a skill that a 3000 owner and manager can call upon right now. Since it's 2017, in one decade we'll be facing the final year of the date-handling in MPE that works as HP designed it. I'll only be 70 and will be looking for the story on who will fix the ultimate HP 3000 bug.
I love reading futurist predictions. They have to concoct a perfect world to make sense, and the timing is almost always wrong. Kodak took another 14 years after 1998 to file for bankruptcy. But after I disagreed with my friend, she reached for her own success at using disruptive tech to make her point. Even an anecdotal report is better than retelling abstracted stories. The danger with anecdotes is that they can be outliers. We heard them called corner cases in support calls with HP. You don't hear the phrase "corner case" during an independent support call. The independent legacy support company is accountable to a customer in the intense way a hotel operator commits to a guest. A guest is essential to keeping a hotel open. A lodger at an Airbnb is not keeping the doors open, or keeping jobs alive for a staff of housekeepers. There can be unexpected results to disrupting legacies. People demand things change back from a future vision. Ask voters in the US how that turned out last year.
You can call the OS running Amazon an environment, but Linux doesn't much care if you succeed with it or not. Investing in your success was what brought companies to HP's 3000. It's too much to hope for benevolence from a corporation. However, if we can all stop peeling the paint off of future visions, if only we can stick to the details and know that change doesn't come easily, or quickly, we'll be okay. They're still building hotels in spite of Airbnb, just like you're still maintaining COBOL code and modifying those jobstreams first written in the previous century.
It helps to get the facts right. AirbnB isn't a hotel company at all, and faces laws to curtail its business in US states including New York. It has few provisions for safety and fraud that can stand the test of a court matter. Watch out for auto-driving cars, auto industry. Another slice of folly is that this industry is headed for the scrapyard by the time MPE/iX gets to the end of its CALENDAR function. Auto-drive car tech is more decade away if it can evade the non-auto-drive cars that will litter the roads for decades.
Onward the bright future goes, with tech saving the day by saving lives and shutting down medicine as we know it. Who needs so many doctors when you have a Tricorder X? Revised rules for that tech-doctor device contest say the Tricorder X won't have to detect tubercolosis, hepatitis A, or stroke. "Goodbye, medical establishment," so long as you don't need those conditions detected. 3D-printed houses might be built, but who will assemble them: robots that cost no more than today's tradesman labor? You can get a 3D selfie today, and a gun's parts printed 3D. We were promised code that writes itself, weren't we, when object-oriented computing and Java swept in?
A sweep of futurism helped HP put away its 3000 business. The lives that are changed and jobs lost are not a concern of the futurist. Then another change enveloped the futurist who was certain that selling systems was a secure spot. This year there are rumors Hewlett-Packard could sell off its servers business. That one is a piece of data like those ever-present reports of HP splitting up. They were just rumors for years. Then it came true. Economics, not technology, made that come true.
Nothing is impervious to change, and to celebrate the marvel of technology upending legacy leads us astray. The future is a blend, not nonsense like "Facebook now has a pattern recognition software that can recognize faces better than humans." Or, "In 2030, computers will become more intelligent than humans." How many faces, and how many humans? I'm still waiting on the flying cars I was promised at the World's Fair of 1964.
My council member says that while in Amsterdam last spring she was struck by the stark difference between ornate 16th Century architecture downtown and the simple square box apartment buildings in the suburbs. "I asked our Airbnb host about it and suggested this: There has not been a reduction in human creative intelligence. It's just that in the 1500s all that creative energy was being put into architecture, and today it's being put into the digital world. Our host, a bright young Dutch digital engineer, smiled and said he agreed with me." As every good host does.
Then Uber arrived for the ride to the airport, I presume, using a car that the company wasn't invested in, driven by a person who was working a 12-hour day pitted against a fleet of freelancers that keep Uber's business model thriving for the corporation. "And no money changes hands" was my friend's punchline, overlooking the part of the Dutch economy using ATMs and currency, or the fact that you tip your housekeeper in currency unless you don't pay one.
The futurists want you to be wary. If you don't prepare for the future, "you're going down with Kodak, the cable companies, landline phone makers, Macy's, video rental places, printed books and tape backup media." Or you can find a life keeping yourself in the present, the happiness of the now. Making good things last longer is resourceful and sometimes inventive work. If the last 15 years have taught our community anything, it's that the future arrives slowly and looks nothing like we expect. Even my council member knows the value of legacy, asking "If we close down all our paper mills, who will make our toilet paper?"
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