Considering vendors' rapid-fire delivery of product "upgrades" in 1997, perhaps the popular measure of Internet time should be switched from dog years (seven to one) to hamster years (26 to one) or even mosquito years (462 to one).
The software and hardware product churn had some IT managers crying "enough already." In retrospect, 1997 proved that Internet time spawned products faster than users could absorb them.
"The industry is too heated up over getting products shipped. We need to take the pressure off so that companies can come out with more solid releases," said Tim Belvin, vice president at Infotech Solutions, a Ferndale, Wash., company that develops custom corporate applications.
Indeed, many of this year's software releases consisted of bug fixes for products rushed to market before they were thoroughly tested. There were even patches to fix bugs introduced by the patches.
The pinnacle of the folly stemmed from Microsoft's and Netscape's mighty struggle to outdo each other in the Internet market. In its effort to grab browser share, Microsoft tied Internet Explorer 3.0 to Windows. But savvy university students used the connection to exploit security holes so severe that they led nightly news broadcasts throughout February. Microsoft posted bug fix after bug fix, but no sooner did the company fix one hole than Explorer would spring another leak, prompting Microsoft to postpone the launch of Explorer 4.0 several times.
Microsoft also spent 1997 delivering no fewer than six "service packs" (largely composed of bug fixes and drivers) for Windows NT, Visual Studio, and Office 97.
Users got an inkling of what was to come in January when disastrous problems with the second service pack for Windows NT 4.0 led Microsoft officials to promise they would open future fixes to greater scrutiny. A scant five months later, users reported problems, albeit fewer, with the third service pack for NT 4.0. Microsoft outdid itself in August and September when it issued, recalled, and reissued a service pack for Office 97 due to bugs.
"The pace of innovation and the demands to churn out products at a very high speed in this Internet market mean that things are not always tested as fully as they should be," according to Dwight Davis, editorial director of Windows Watcher newsletter, in Redmond, Wash.
Not to be outdone, Netscape had to rush out three bug-resistant updates to its Communicator 4.0 Web client suite within two months of its June launch. The bugs let Web site operators capture information that visitors typed in, including credit card numbers and passwords.
One update spawned a new bug with a widely used beta version of Netscape's Netcaster "push technology" component, requiring yet another patch.
Meanwhile, users complained that Sun was pushing out too many versions of its Java Development Kit (JDK), giving them little time to understand and implement development projects with one version before another was delivered to their door step.
Finally, in early fall, JavaSoft admitted that it was asking developers to absorb too much too quickly and responded by delaying delivery of the final version of the JDK 1.2 from this year to early 1998.
Another area that illustrates the maddening pace of computer industry change was in desktop hardware. Following a Gartner Group report about the astronomical total cost of ownership of PCs in business, vendors everywhere scrambled for an answer.
The race to control PCs' soaring costs spawned no fewer than four product categories built upon server-centric computing architectures. In addition to Oracle's unveiling of the network computer, Microsoft and Intel, both of whom formerly had scoffed at the idea of server-based, thin-client computing, introduced three thin-client specifications.
Now, in addition to the NC, we have the NetPC, the Windows-based Terminal, the Java Network Terminal and the Lean Client, creating one of the most confused marketplaces to date.
On 1997's bright side, users heard encouraging news at a Gartner Group conference in October when Microsoft CEO Bill Gates said his company plans to deliver major upgrades to Windows and Office in the "two-plus years range," with incremental upgrades every other year. That should give Microsoft enough time to work out kinks and slow down the pace of upgrades, and other vendors may follow suit.
Also, technologies appeared on the horizon in 1997 as possible solutions for easing the pain of deploying fast-breeding upgrades, most notably push technologies from companies such as Marimba and IBM and a patch technology due from Microsoft with the arrival of Windows NT 5.0 in 1998.
Will these promises and technologies slow Internet time back down to dog years in 1998? Stay tuned for the answer.