Fireflies and Underdone Technologies

By Bruce F. Webster  |  Posted 2009-03-04 Print this article Print

A brief taxonomy of technology lifecycles.

“Firefly” Technologies

Have you ever lived around fireflies? The first time I moved back east, to Virginia, I was fascinated by them. It’s one thing to read about fireflies, or to see the various (and usually unconvincing) attempts to represent them in movies and TV shows. It’s another thing to have a bright green dot light up in mid-air a few feet away from you, move along for a few seconds, then vanish again, only to reappear some distance away.

That behavior is fun when it’s fireflies in your front yard; it’s maddening when it’s information technology that you’re trying to adopt. But some technologies are like that: they light up with promise, but turn out to be inadequate for your use.

Then a new version is released which appears to fix the former problems, but it turns out to be flawed as well. But wait! A new version is coming out which will fix those problems, and so on. In the meantime, months or years go by as you chase after the firefly, hoping that the next version will be the one that works. 

Many of the dot.com technologies of the late 1990s turned out to be firefly technologies, promising wondrous things but never really materializing into usable tools and services.

“Underdone” Technologies

Roughly twenty years ago, while attending the Macworld Conference, I interviewed for an article I was writing the Apple product manager in charge of the forthcoming release of System 7.0 (the Mac operating system). After he gave me his spiel about all the improvements and new features in 7.0, he asked me what I thought. I told him that I had seen a conference attendee wearing a t-shirt that read, “I’m waiting for System 7.0.1” The product manager winced visibly, but chuckled at the truism.

Underdone technologies are available now but lack the stability for deployment and reliance. They differ from firefly technologies in that they often have a proven track record, but the newest X.0 version just isn’t quite ready for prime time. Sometime you can wait for the next dot-release, but sometimes you can’t – you need to make a choice now and get the project or deployment moving.

Webster is Principal and Founder at at Bruce F. Webster & Associates LLC. He works with organizations to help them evaluate troubled or failed information technology (IT) projects, or to assess IT systems and products for possible investment/acquisition. He has also worked in several dozen legal cases as a consultant and as a testifying expert, both in the United States and Japan.

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