Back-seat drivers

What's driving IT at your company these days? We all know the politically correct answer: IT should be driven by business needs and opportunities. We also know the realities that are as old as IT itself: IT is also driven by politics, fads, personal preferences and the ability of some darn friendly sales guys to close some darn friendly deals.

But it doesn't end there. Today there are lots of other people grabbing for your steering wheel. They want to drive IT too.

For example, Microsoft Corp. announced that it's making changes to the way Internet Explorer handles Web site content that depends on browser plug-ins -- which includes Java, Macromedia Flash and ActiveX content. If you use that kind of content and don't make the changes Microsoft specifies, your content won't always display the way you designed it to.

Microsoft isn't grabbing the wheel merely to show that it can; the company just lost a half-billion-dollar patent-infringement lawsuit related to those plug-ins. So Eolas Technologies Inc. and the University of California, which control that patent, are doing some of the driving too.

Microsoft was awarded a patent of its own last week -- this one having to do with how instant messaging programs notify users of activity. The patent may also apply to other instant messaging programs, such as the ones from America Online Inc. and Yahoo Inc. If those vendors decide to make changes, and you've built applications that depend on the way they were, you might find yourself with still more hands on the wheel.

It's not just patents driving those changes, either. Two years ago, Microsoft and Sun Microsystems Inc. settled part of their running legal battle over Java, and Microsoft agreed that it would stop all Java support at the beginning of 2004. Last week the two companies agreed that Microsoft will keep doing security updates on its Java implementation through next September, giving customers more time to migrate away from it -- and for now, a little more flexibility in their steering.

And last month, VeriSign Inc., which controls the domain name databases that let computers find one another over the Internet, forced some companies to scramble when it unilaterally changed the way the system works, breaking some applications. VeriSign has temporarily stopped what it was doing but is making no promises about how long the respite will last before it grabs the wheel again.

And those are just the pure-technology drivers. There's also a long history of customers forcing technology changes on their suppliers. (Remember EDI?)

That process started again, when the US Defense Department announced plans to require all suppliers to use radio frequency identification tags on everything sold to the military by 2005. Wal-Mart and other companies are experimenting with RFID technology too, which means you may soon be turning in that direction whether you want to or not.

And that's only about a week's worth of extra IT drivers. They'll keep piling up -- drivers that aren't aimed at using IT for efficiency or innovation, but just one thing after another that you'll have to make decisions about and maybe spend money on, regardless of whether they benefit your business.

You can't afford to let them get control of where your IT work is going. Yes, it's important not to lose track of these extra drivers. Keep scanning the news for them. Follow the ones that might affect your projects. Make contingency plans. Stay prepared.

But don't let them pull you off course. The demand for IT to stay sharply focused on business needs and opportunities will only increase in the months ahead. Plan for those unexpected hands on the wheel, but keep a firm grip on it yourself.

That's the only way to make sure business stays in the IT driver's seat.