What Technology Was Meant to Do

The more technology changes, the more the problems remain the same

It's hard not to be awed by the sizzling pace of technological change. But even so, most organizational challenges remain the same: Do more with less, make computers easier to use, extend computing power closer to the front line of work, find that precious information needle in the haystack of data dreck. How and if new technology products confront these challenges remain open questions. One needn't be a Luddite to conclude that the sizzle of new technology has burnt as many customers as it has benefited. Just think of all the billions planted fruitlessly to create the paperless office.

So arguably, new technologies and related applications raise expectations for solving problems as much as they actually solve the problems themselves. There is something of both criteria -- of raising expectations and solving problems -- behind Washington Technology's Star Tech Awards. Consider last year's four winners. They won for products in the network modeling and simulation, online database servers, natural language search engines and mission-planning simulation. The first product attempted to make networked computers easier to manage; the second promised database software to tap the capabilities of cheaper alternatives to mainframes; the third promised an easier way to search the thicket of electronic data now flooding computer networks; and the fourth supplied a simulation package for turning desktop computers into simulated environments for meticulously planning aircraft missions.

Promises, promises, promises -- and perhaps an equal measure of problems solved and happy customers. The point is this: Rarely are there definitive technological solutions to human organizational problems. This year's Star Tech award winners may support this conclusion, at least in so much as most do much the same thing as last year's winners.

Silicon Graphics was a hands-down winner with its slick Power Onyx graphics computer, a workhorse for computer simulation and visualization. Network management and simulation also got a nod, with American Hytech Corp.'s NetGuru product. Echoing comments from last year's panel of judges, this year's panel agreed that network management continues to give information technologists migraine-sized headaches.

Another such area is online search and retrieval. The challenge is swiftly shifting from getting information into a digital format to doing something with it once it's encoded. That means finding a document once it's been digitized and dropped in the ether. Verity Inc., a longtime supplier to intelligence customers, won with a product called Topic Agents. The product provides a technology for searching information on the exploding World Wide Web. Likewise, this year's editor's choice was for an online information retrieval product known as Pathfinder.

If there is one product that stands virtual realities above the rest it is Kodak's DCS 460 digital camera. It promises as much for photography as the jet engine did for air travel. Consider how microprocessors have worked their way into our daily life. Few writers could pursue their craft without word processors. Computer-aided drafting tools are standard in engineering and design. But images, and the processes that create them, have stubbornly refused to go digital. Even the zippiest computer chips lack the power to create images with the clarity and tone of analog counterparts. But the relentless shrinkage of transistors, which doubles chip-processing power roughly every 18 months, will change the stifling economics of the above equation.

So Kodak's digital camera will create another wave of digitization, meaning the amount of digital information to be managed, stored and searched will jump another order of magnitude. No doubt, this digitization will be a boon, but data-intensive digital images will also gummy up databases and grind ill-equipped networks to a crashing halt.

There is some irony here. The success of Kodak's digital camera will demand better network management tools, search engines, simulation techniques and computer processors than those offered by this year's other winners.

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