When information technology users are in doubt about what to buy, who to buy it from and whether or not they can afford it, they are apt to buy nothing at all, writes Di Palframan.
Confusion and insecurity abound in today's information technology industry. Users around the world are trying to assess the newer, cheaper and more open computers to decide when or whether to invest in them. Some computer makers are going through a similar analysis but in their case the question is how to survive on the thinner margins that these machines command. Their uncertain future adds further complications for the users, who now also have to consider which supplier to back. Then some countries, notably the UK, are in the midst of a recession - yet another imponderable.
The result will be a slowdown in spending on computer hardware and software. There is ample evidence to support this in Price Waterhouse's latest International Information Technology Review which tracks investment intentions in 10 countries around the world.
First, looking at hardware spending plans this year, the review shows cutbacks in Britain, the United States, France, Canada and Spain compared with the year before. But, as in 1990, Japan stands head and shoulders above the rest in hardware investment intentions this year.
The tighter hardware budgets in some countries could, Price Waterhouse points out, simply reflect the declining price/performance ratio of computers. In other words, companies now spend fewer pounds to get a million instructions per second (mips) from their machines.
For software the review shows a downward trend in the UK, Canada and Spain this year. Japan, once again, is on the up, as are the US and Denmark. The rest of the countries show little movement. One obvious conclusion that could be drawn from the review is that the Japanese are steaming ahead with well defined information technology plans. Another is that the UK is abandoning its plans as it slides further into economic and technological turmoil.
Undoubtedly there is a great deal of confusion in the UK about so-called open systems - computers that will use a common UNIX operating system so that, in theory, an applications software package developed for one brand of UNIX computer will run on all others. Such hardware is very appealing. It is cheaper than the proprietary machines that most organisations use and it means that users have a wide choice of suppliers.
As yet there is no single standard version of UNIX, but an increasing number of application software packages are being developed for these computers. Initially much of the UNIX-based software was for technical applications but more and more commercial packages are emerging. It is now more feasible than ever for organisations to switch from their expensive proprietary machines to lower-cost UNIX computers.
Unfortunately, the cost of the equipment is not the only variable in the equation. Keeping it up and running is probably a higher priority. With UNIX or open systems, where the hardware and software are often bought from several different suppliers, "information technology management is much more complex", according to Roger Pavitt, a Price Waterhouse consultant. Weighing up the pros and cons of open systems is not easy and some information technology departments are ill equipped to do the job.