Computer maintenance is a bugbear. The answer may be automated programming. Simon Vail assesses it.
It is a racing certainty that tomorrow's winning companies will own flexible computer systems. Today's computing realities are rather different. Many businesses are stuck with mainframe programs written 20 years ago, which are now wildly out of step with the realities of the global marketplace. They need armies of programmers to nurse their whims - the Gartner Group IT consultancy estimates there are over 2.7 million commercial programmers around the world who spend no less than 80% of their time maintaining existing systems, rather than developing new programs. It is a huge waste of resources.
Vendors of Computer Aided Software Engineering (CASE) dangle the promise of automated programming in front of companies, lumbered with massive systems. They claim to be able to modernise the 100 billion lines of COBOL code running on the world's mainframes. Programmers will disappear, or become analysts producing flawless computer code automatically. More importantly, they say that CASE overcomes computing's Achilles heel: neither the boardroom nor the information technology department talk each other's language. But the CASE market is fighting to shake off a poor reputation. It is renowned for swallowing as much money as it claims to save, demanding hours of management time and the possible restructuring of business practices. It is too daunting and too expensive for most companies.