On ‘productivity,’ keyboard shortcuts, futzing and automation

Oil IT Journal editor Neil McNaughton wonders what it means when an oil company ‘standardizes’ on Microsoft. Futzing with Office 2007 he wonders what happened to ‘productivity,’ elaborates a conspiracy theory and offers a snapshot of the interoperability situation in oil and gas IT today.

Reading through this month’s issue I was struck by the extent of Microsoft’s penetration into the oil and gas vertical—from Total’s use of BizTalk orchestration (page 1) to Saudi Aramco’s SharePoint Server and the ubiquitous WebParts in evidence at the OSIsoft user group conference (page 6). It is either frustrating, fantastic or just puzzling (depending on your viewpoint) to reflect on the fact that Microsoft’s penetration is riding high on the web services bandwagon. The fact is that the web services ‘standard’ adopted by the upstream seems to be most all Microsoft .NET. I’m not sure that ‘standardizing’ on Microsoft’s technology was what was intended when the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) started laying down the SOA law.

But there is another interesting facet of Microsoft’s penetration into our technologically focused vertical—the paradox of a user-focused operating system penetrating an automation-focused environment. Let me try to explain...

To take a really high level view of IT you might ask what is information technology really about? Is it about helping knowledge workers do their jobs, or about eliminating tiresome, repetitive jobs (and users) entirely? A tough question. One significant claim for IT is increased productivity. Although this is something of a contentious statement, it is pretty clear that it holds true in many fields. A good example is e-commerce. When you buy something online, a plethora of IT systems replace old fashioned human intervention with electronic payment systems, inventory management, mail routing and web-based tracking systems. In the end, the employment picture is not too bleak, since although automation has eliminated many jobs, others have appeared as, for instance, banking personnel are re-allocated from checking checks to selling insurance and household alarm systems on the front desk. But I digress.

What is the effect of eliminating jobs to a vendor of a personal computer software? It means less ‘bums on seats’ and less licenses sold! Microsoft’s answer has been to re-invent ‘productivity,’ notably though the marketing of its flagship Office Suite. I submit that ‘productivity’ in this context does not mean removing the person sitting at the keyboard! In fact, my recent experience with Vista and Office 2007 suggests that productivity is actually on the wane.

Ask any secretary (oops—they went with the IT revolution too!) what slows down typing and they (would) reply, the mouse! Keyboard shortcuts are the way to write fast and accurately. But keyboard shortcuts get dreadful support from Microsoft, with inconsistencies across different tools—and this seems to have gotten worse with Office 2007. It sounds like a crazy conspiracy theory, but I wonder if there are people in Redmond saying, ‘if we drop this and introduce that, we’ll increase our worldwide bums on seats time by so many zillion hours per year!’ How long can we count on CTRL X,C,V and Z?

So if ‘productivity’ is in the eye of the beholder what of ‘standards?’ It’s pretty much the same thing I’m afraid. Standards, like the above cut and paste shortcuts, are also about productivity. By standardizing stuff, you hope that your knowledge workers will be able to get on with their real jobs instead of futzing with work-arounds and data re-formatting. SOA is the latest manifestation of a long battle for interoperability between different hardware and software vendor’s tools. What has caused previous attempts at upstream interoperability to come unstuck has been the devil in the detail. Fine grained incompatibility between different versions of databases, of middleware and operating systems plagued previous COM and CORBA attempts to make it work. The drive to a ‘service oriented architecture’ involved decoupling systems to make them less prone to the versioning ‘gotchas.’

I was therefore surprised as I traipsed around the SPE and SEG tradeshow floors to hear from several WITS/PRODML vendors that these protocols are also prone to versioning problems. Maybe that’s why, as Chevron’s Jim Crompton reported at the Energistics Standards Summit (page 5), WITSML take-up is somewhat less than hoped-for.

But assuming that all the detailed devilry can be overcome, there remains an interesting tension between the ‘bums on seats’ business model and automation. Software marketing departments are doing a great job of selling notions like ‘empowerment,’ ‘collaboration’ and ‘visualization.’ These notions go down better that ‘efficiency,’ ‘head count reduction’ and ‘automation,’ which is almost a taboo in the upstream.

What makes the whole thing so fascinating is that Microsoft has had a pretty successful role in automation too, as Christian Roller described at the OSIsoft meet, with the first Windows-based HMI in 1985 and the later OLE for process control (OPC) standard in the 1990s.

To temper the impression that Microsoft has taken over the upstream I offer the following. First, despite Microsoft’s arrival in the ‘Top10,’ (page 3 of this issue), it’s still Linux that ‘dominates’ high performance computing in oil and gas. Second, in the interpretation arena, we report (page 12) on a study by Welling & Co.* that found a majority of users in the majors see Linux as the ‘way forward’ for geoscience interpretation—although this perception is reversed for smaller companies. And finally, following pressure from automation vendors, the latest flavor of the ISA’s standard for process control—the ‘unified architecture’ (UA) consolidates a move away from the older Microsoft OLE-based technology to a vendor-neutral standard.

In the end, standards are a cat and mouse game—with the purists trying to level the playing field and push technologies into the ‘commodity’ category. The vendors, even when they are ‘on board,’ are genetically programmed to wriggle their way out of this commoditization. But to ‘standardize’ on a proprietary infrastructure like .NET seems a bit like letting the cat catch the mouse!

* 2008 Welling Survey of the Worldwide Seismic Market—www.welling.com/studies/seismic.html.

Click here to comment on this article

Click here to view this article in context on a desktop

© Oil IT Journal - all rights reserved.