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Lotus Notes: The Prius of Information Technology

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PriusNotes.pngHere's an Idea: Stop Rewarding Waste and Inefficiency.

Yesterday morning during my usual transition out of dreamworld, National Public Radio aired a segment called Home Prices Drop Most in Areas with Long Commute which discussed the far more jarring wake-up call that America has received as a result of the collapse of the housing market and the run-up in gas prices. Turns out the "American Dream" of a big house with a nice yard way out in the peaceful suburbs within walking distance of 200 similar houses (and not much else) isn't so affordable after all. One of the examples provided was Ashburn, Virginia, which is a sprawling, fairly affluent bedroom community about 40 miles west of Washington, DC, not far from Dulles Airport and the many high tech businesses located nearby.  This is a place that essentially didn't exist 20 years ago, and whose explosive growth was fueled by the crazy money spun out from the late-90s dot.com fever. If you're looking for real brick and mortar examples of McMansions and runaway suburban sprawl, you need look no further than Ashburn.

Listening to the story about houses in Ashburn which two years ago sold for $550,000 and now list for $350,000, I couldn't help but feel a sense of morbid vindication, since I have believed for quite a while that this day would come. As a long time student and advocate of "Smart Growth" I have given a great deal of thought to the devastating environmental, social, financial and other effects of America's largely successful attempt to abolish walking. Ashburn's real estate collapse was almost inevitable since it and many similar communities were viable only because low gas prices subsidized the immensely wasteful land development pattern that characterizes suburban sprawl. The smart thing to have done would have been to discourage excessive driving through a heavy tax on gasoline and use the funds collected to support mass transit.  The current mess only proves the assertion that sprawl development is much harder to sustain when no one can afford to live in it. Unfortunately for many foreclosed homeowners, America is learning that lesson the hard way, and too late for them.

As the title of this post suggests, this lesson applies to the IT world as well, and reinforces the points I made last Summer, just as Notes 8 was launching, about the impact of the economic downturn on IT decision making:

If we accept that many of the decisions made by organizations to switch from Notes/Domino to Outlook/Exchange/.NET/Sharepoint in recent years were based more on emotion than on technical or financial merit (and I do), the next question is how did all those extra costs not raise more red flags on the balance sheet?  Well, my theory is that as financially foolish decisions like this become increasingly hard to justify amidst the overall economic belt-tightening, we'll start to see a lot less of them.  From that standpoint, Notes 8 couldn't have come at a better time.  Even if the downturn suppresses overall worldwide IT spending for awhile, it seems likely that Lotus will be getting a bigger share of what's left.


Clearly I see Lotus Notes as an extremely efficient vehicle for delivering business value with technology (although a Lexus hybrid might be a better metaphor than a Prius). Even today I was chatting with a colleague at a former client, hearing yet another story about the million$ that management keep spending on a foolish exercise to recreate several Notes applications (that I built).  In fairness, once you've spent this kind of money on a boondoggle it's really hard to stop - too many people's reputations are on the line. But as Ashburn's plight has vividly demonstrated, nature has a way of forcing things back into balance when we try to stretch them too far.  I guess we'll see if I called this one right as well.

Comments

1 - I've been thinking about this a lot lately, and it's interesting to me how the cycles turn. They fall very closely to generational lines, at least since the Industrial Revolution got into full swing.

Just before the turn of last century the Industrial Revolution brought the transition from agrarian to urban living. The automobile spread people back out in the early part of the 1900's, and the Great Depression brought them back to the city in the late 1920's. After WWII the tide shifted back to less dense living and introduced the current model of planned developments. Then the 60's and 70's made city living chic, and in the late 80's and early 90's new-found wealth meant people could afford even more sprawl - minus the community-focused aspects of the Levittown model.

Throughout all this, technology played a role. The impact of the Industrial Revolution is still being felt, and the continuous flurry of invention an innovation has enabled each of these social cycles. The two biggest developments were the automobile, which made long distance travel possible, and the ever-evolving communications technologies, which let people keep in touch over vast distances.

With today's planes, trains, buses, and cars coupled with mobile communications technologies, we're entering an era where the traditional workplace is being replaced at the same time both workers and employers are understanding the importance of an appropriate work-life balance. Technologies that allow workers to be productive when they want are becoming increasingly important. The city is sexy again, and mixed-use communities are making a comeback.

It's interesting to say the least. Emoticon

2 - Good post Kevin.

One important factor regarding suburban sprawl in today's, and more importantly, tomorrow's economy that you neglected to mention is the distance worker.

Home offices for high-tech workers are already quite common, and as high-speed communications become more prevalent, I predict that they will increase to the point where they, and the employees who use them, become the standard for many companies. This doesn't negate the need for traveling to the office on a regular basis, but it does mean that such travel need not be a daily event.

The nice thing about this is that Lotus Notes, by virtue of it's core design, supports distance workers very, very well.

-Devin.

3 - Thanks for the thoughtful posts guys.

@Devin - longer commutes are only one factor in the sprawl cost equation, and yes telecommuting will mitigate it somewhat. But when folks also have to drive to shopping, entertainment, school, etc., these miles add up and make the Ashburns less competitive from a cost of living standpoint.

You could think of the problem as analogous to "bloatware" that over time becomes harder and harder to enhance and maintain. In both cases, lazy and inefficient design decisions made early on to "cut costs" lead to massive downstream costs that overwhelm the initial savings. Those decisions are now coming home to roost.

4 - Excellent and insightful post. A further complication of sprawl is that people who live in communities dominated by a single local employer or industry, but whose mortgages are currently underwater, will find it nearly impossible to relocate if their employer cuts back.

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