Library Journal "Digital Libraries" Columns 1997-2007, Roy Tennant
Please note: these columns are an archive of my Library Journal column from 1997-2007. They have not been altered in content, so please keep in mind some of this content will be out of date.
Technology Decision-Making: A Guide for the Perplexed
Technological change is rapid and constant. Yet our organizations now depend on technology to serve our clientele as they wish to and should be served. But choosing the technologies that will form the foundation of our future services from among the plethora available can be difficult and nerve-racking. Part of what makes it so difficult is that no one can predict the future with any accuracy. However, we can identify criteria and strategies for making good decisions no matter what technological wonders come down the road. In a previous column ("I Know This Much Is True," LJ 11/15/99), I offered some advice (for example, "Neither an early adopter nor a latecomer be") among other comments about the state of information technology. Here's some more. Keep an ear to the ground and an eye on the horizon. Monitor key publications, current awareness services, and trend-spotters. Current awareness publications such as Current Cites can cut down on the number of publications you need to scan. But don't limit yourself to library publications. Take a look at MIT's Technology Review and commercial publications such as the ZDNet Anchordesk and BYTE. Hold new technologies up to the light of your mission and priorities. Just because a new technology is "cool" doesn't make it right for your clientele. Make sure any new technology improves public service or efficiency. You can make very impressive web sites using Macromedia Flash, but your users must first download and install a viewer. Libraries may achieve a more animated web experience only for a few patrons, while the rest see the site as a barrier. Watch out for 800-pound gorillas. Large corporations that dominate a market (can you say "Microsoft"?) can shape the trajectories of technologies, sometimes regardless of usefulness or merit. For example, when Netscape began developing its web browser, it created its own HTML tags. Web developers began using these proprietary tags, which partly derailed and harmed the existing HTML standards process. Microsoft's entry into the market made it even worse, adding new proprietary tags. Even though the World Wide Web Consortium has attempted to establish and promulgate a markup standard, some proprietary HTML still works in only one brand of web browser. Don't ignore the upstart with a compelling new product. Syquest dominated the removable storage market until Iomega started shipping the 100 MB Zip drive in 1995. Far cheaper per megabyte and with more capacity than a standard floppy disk, it took the market by storm. By the time Syquest released a faster, higher-capacity product at the same price (the EZ135 MB drive), Iomega had already established an unsurpassable lead, and Syquest filed for bankruptcy last year. Don't bet the farm on things you can't control. For example, client-side technologies should not be used when a server-side technology will do. Also, site developers who depend on web users having particular plug-ins installed with their web browser are courting disaster. Get good advice. To keep up to date, consult experts, such as the "LITA Leaders" (including myself) of the Library and Information Technology Association (LITA) of the American Library Association. The LITA Top Technology Trends web site cites trends to watch, and Tech Experts' Reading Habits suggests useful publications. Watch for helpful workshops and programs. Human assistance is useful. OCLC offers a workshop tailored for library decision-makers, "Technology Planning in a Time of Rapid Change." All things being equal, open is better than proprietary. Open-source software allows you to alter software to your needs, as well as further develop the code base for others. It can also be used as the basis for cooperative development projects with other libraries. Know your source of support. Before adopting a technology, be certain that appropriate support is available. Don't assume that good support comes with all commercial applications. Not that free software lacks support; some of the best support can come from a network of open-source software users. You must make the best decision you can, given constraints of time and information. There is no magic formula or crystal ball. Do the best you can and learn as you go. LINK LIST BYTE http://www.byte.com/ Current Cites http://sunsite.berkeley.edu/ CurrentCites/ LITA Top Technology Trends http://www.lita.org/committe/ toptech/mainpage.htm Tech Experts' Reading Habits http://www.lita.org/committe/ toptech/expertsread.htm Technology Planning in a Time of Rapid Change http://www.oclc.org/institute/ courses/techplan.htm Technology Review http://www.techreview.com/ ZDNet Anchordesk http://www.zdnet.com/ anchordesk/