Software orientation and the IT Phanerozoic time scale

PDM’s editor Neil McNaughton discusses the distinction between horizontal and vertical software and argues that this frayed boundary is where the IT action really is at. Tying software development to a rough and ready geological time scale, he concludes that the action is hotting up as we approach the end of the “Quaternary.”

Many moons ago, when I was actually a software buyer, rather than a scribe, I saw a demonstration of some intriguing software. If my memory serves me well (unlikely) I think the company was Landmark, and I think the product was called Smart Windows. Just to situate how long ago this was, I propose we map the 50 years or so of Information Technology’s history to the 4,000 million of the Phanerozoic time scale.


This puts the late ’80’s back in the Paleozoic of the information age. These were interesting times; there was the advent of graphical computing and the emergence of “open standards” which would shortly lead to the demise of the platform of choice of the time, Digital Equipment’s VAX. At the dawn of the IT Cambrian, the open standards movement came up with its first real success story, X-Windows, the graphical API of the Unix world.

Too smart?

The Smart Windows product allowed individual X-Windows to share data and events in real time. Changing a parameter in one window made computations in another window - such as a log cross plot - change simultaneously. What intrigued me about the software was that it was too smart! Heck this functionality went way beyond the world of E&P computing and had potential applications wherever X-Windows was used. It was in short horizontal, not vertical software.


But what does a vertical developer do when it stumbles of some key horizontal software? Suddenly the potential market is no longer E&P, but the IT world at large. Chasing the new market would involve quite a shift in corporate focus, and of course require in-depth analysis of the potential new market. I guess that Smart Windows did not pass muster as a world-beating idea. I imagine that such functionality is now given away free with the X-Windows API. And that Landmark (if indeed it was them) continued to focus on its core, vertical sector.

Going horizontal

But another company has reacted differently to similar circumstances. Back around the IT cretaceous period, Prism Technologies were developers of Business Objects for the E&P gentry. But in the middle of the tertiary, PrismTech faced a horizontal/vertical turning point. To support E&P business objects, PrismTech had to develop a lot of horizontal infrastructure. In the end it was this stuff that PrismTech pursued - in a multi-million dollar deal with Inprise (ex-Borland). PrismTech have gone horizontal, and Open Spirit is now reborn as an independent Corporation (see page 4 of this issue).

Frayed boundary

On close inspection, the fine line between horizontal and vertical software becomes a frayed boundary. All software uses other tools - widgets, operating system functionalities, and shell scripting glue to keep the ship afloat. Nowhere is this more evident than in internet portal development. I would encourage you to refer to our coverage of the First Conferences Internet Portal Strategy conference on pages 6&7 of this issue. I personally was fascinated by the interplay of horizontal web technologies and vertical bespoke development that emerged from the presentations. As organizations dash to deploy information portals the question arises - do we develop our own from the ground up or do we use some horizontal tools to jump start development.


The second great success of the open software movement is the Apache web server. All you need to get your portal up and running is an Apache server and some “commodity” (the ultimate accolade for horizontal software) tools for web page development. Front Page, Navigator are all your users need to know to do useful work. Commodity internet hardware provides hitherto elusive scalability. So while the vertical vendors bang on about the knowledge management revolution, really it is already here thanks to these powerful tools.

Cost benefit

Which leads me to another aspect of the horizontal vertical divide. Just as commodity hardware benefits from the economies of scale that bring you supercomputer graphics performance from your Playstation II, commodity software is cheap AND powerful. Or rather it should be. Not all of it is. Occupying the IT space right alongside the portal, and in some instances, actually owning it, the newly re-invented document management vendors manage to provide commodity-type services at a very high price tag. Is this sustainable?

What’s Next?

You may have noticed that my geological time scale analogy failed me as I approach the present and begin to speculating about the future. Which led me to wonder - when does the Quaternary actually end? What comes next? Do we go on for ever living in the last millisecond of the Pleistocene?

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