Use email to save the world

A while ago I was writing about the development of newsbots that would take over the function of editors, but I don't think the machines could cope with the last week or two.

It doesn’t rain but it pours. First Hewlett-Packard and Compaq announce their intentions to merge, the biggest IT company marriage ever. A week or so later the cataclysmic events in the US push all other news into the background (including the turbulence Air New Zealand is flying through). And then the government does a $10 million deal with Microsoft to supply its software to every state school in the country.

A while ago I was writing about the development of newsbots that would take over the function of editors, but I don’t think the machines could cope. It would be impossible to program them to wave their arms around wildly while shouting incoherently, as editors must do to ensure deadlines are missed.

The newspaper business has a bad habit of reducing world-changing events to a commodity, for which you might forgive us since our basic task is to fill a certain number of pages each week. In normal circumstances any of these stories would keep us supplied for weeks but, coming one top of the other, they’re in danger of squeezing each other into the margins.

The HP-Compaq merger will keep, for now, since it’s going to be months before anyone knows for sure whether the deal will go ahead. At that time, plenty will be said about which of their overlapping product lines will be sacrificed and how that will affect customers. It’s sure to be messy.

In the meantime, we need to save the world. Plenty’s already been said about the terrorist attack in the US, including how it highlights the need for preparedness in the face of disaster, and the resilience of telecomms networks. I would add a couple of things.

Firstly, where would we be without the internet? We’d have a dangerously narrow view of events and the possible aftermath. We could be left thinking the US was hell-bent on the destruction of swathes of humanity as it took revenge. Instead, websites like Salon show that there are cooler heads ready to argue that wholesale death and destruction might not be the best response.

Secondly, email is a tool we might all use to add our voices to calls for restraint. I wouldn’t normally advocate getting up an email campaign (and many might think it an inappropriate action for an IT publication to involve itself in). But we work in a rich industry, and money is power. And with the threat of even greater disaster hanging over the world, the stakes are high. So those of us who work for large, successful US companies might send a message to our bosses urging them to have a calming word in the ear of their friendly congressman. I emailed mine, IDG chairman Pat McGovern, to be assured that he was doing all he could “to solve this problem”. Wars might be good for business but they’re bad for civilisation.

Microsoft chairman Bill Gates might be all the more receptive to such pleas from New Zealand after the government last week committed to spending $10 million on its software. The two-year deal covers licences for a range of software which all state schools can avail themselves of without eating into their existing budgets. It’s the kind of arrangement Corel, which used to give Microsoft a run for its money in the business application suite market, tried to pull off here. It managed to do so in Mexico, but we were having none of it.

I just hope the Microsoft deal leaves open the thin client computing option, so schools which take advantage of it aren’t locked into the hardware upgrade trap.

Doesburg is Computerworld’s editor. Send email to Anthony Doesburg. Send letters for publication to Computerworld Letters.

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