A Debt That IT Need Not Pay

Internet Explorer may be losing favor among most users, but in big companies, it's still doing fine -- especially IE6. Why? "We have to use IE6," a contractor at one telco told me recently. "We have all these Web applications that won't run on a browser that isn't broken." And that means big trouble -- doesn't it?

Gartner thinks so. In a report last month, the big analyst firm estimated that outdated software like IE6 has created a "global IT debt" of $500 billion. That's how much it would cost to update old apps so they're shiny and new and fully supported. (Exactly who is that "debt" owed to? Software vendors, presumably.)

Of course, in this economy many companies can't afford to upgrade old software. Taking that into account, Gartner helpfully predicted that the total IT debt will rise to $1 trillion by 2015.

How much does IE6 contribute to that total? That's hard to say -- but we know this much-decried, ugly, ancient, nonstandard, broken browser is still used by half the Fortune 500, the U.K. government and a large number of other corporate and government organizations.

Why? It's simple: They depend on Web-based software that won't run correctly with any other Web browser.

So why won't they upgrade? Why are they letting that big IT debt accumulate? Won't all that deferred maintenance eventually cause them serious problems?

No, probably not.

Look, how did those IE6-dependent users get into that position? They bought into the last big paradigm of software development: the Web browser as platform. Remember? All our apps would be built with a Web front end. Microsoft thought that was a fine idea and built a lot of nonstandard features to lock customers in. Vendors and corporate IT shops used those features to make their Web apps just like regular Windows apps -- and users were locked in but good.

How will these users get out of that mess? When the time (and budget) is right, they'll jump on the next big software development paradigm. They'll buy or build fresh, junk the old stuff completely and go about their business.

IT debt? They'll walk away from it.

And why not? Those apps built on IE6 may be creaky, ugly and nonstandard, but they still work. And Microsoft may hate its nine-year-old miscalculation, but it has promised to keep supporting IE6 until 2014.

Besides, how much sense would it make to patch up those old clunkers or migrate them to newer browsers? None at all. Those old apps were designed for business needs from as much as a decade ago. Technical upgrades won't solve that. Building or buying new apps will -- and doing that will cost the same, whether the apps they're replacing are up to date or ready to collapse.

The sensible thing is to keep running those IE6-dependent Web apps until they can be replaced with new apps that run from the cloud or on tablets or using whatever the hot new paradigm is.

In the meantime, like the bumper sticker says: Don't laugh, it's paid for.

That's not the kind of thinking that makes software vendors, analysts and connoisseurs of elegant engineering happy -- especially if they're big on the idea of an "IT debt."

But it's likely to keep an awful lot of IT shops out of debt -- in more ways than one.

Frank Hayes has been covering the intersection of business and IT for three decades. Contact him at cw@frankhayes.com.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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