Can we talk?

Thomas R. Temin

Last month's multiagency pursuit of the Washington-area snipers proved how elusive interoperability can be.

Montgomery County, Md., police handed out brand-new radio units to members of other jurisdictions so investigators could talk to one another. The FBI, to share data, burned CDs in one office and then hand-delivered them to others.

Across government, there are persistent problems of systems that don't communicate.

Consider, for instance, managers' complaints about the Navy-Marine Corps Intranet project: Applications are no longer available, people can't find local printers, things disappear.

At GCN's recent 20th-anniversary gala, retired congressman Jack Brooks noted how he had thundered about duplicative systems and lack of interagency communications nearly 40 years ago.

Recently, Bill Hadesty, the Agriculture Department's associate CIO for cybersecurity, blamed shoddy software for 80 percent of security problems.

Why this diatribe now? I'll tell you. It's Saturday, and here's what's happening in my own domain:
My wife is on her cell phone to Apple Computer Inc. tech support trying to resolve a problem with Quicken. Apple bundles Intuit Inc.'s Quicken for OS 9, and the new Mac's primary OS is X. Silly us, all her records are on a Zip disk in Microsoft Windows.

Meanwhile, my son is on his cell phone with tech support at Dell Computer Corp. because his CD burner is suddenly unavailable to his PC. The CD software from Roxio Inc. has a bug that, after time, divorces it from the hardware it came bundled with.

Then, there's me. I'm on the landline trying to contact Olympus America Inc. about my digital camera. But tech support is available Monday through Friday only. Simultaneously, I am reloading Windows onto a PC for the third time in the hope of making an SMC Networks Inc. wireless PC Card work.

Admittedly, my three-computer home network has little in common with enterprise networks. But the same dynamic of endless little inconsistencies, incompatibilities and bugs will add up to chaos on big systems just as surely as on small ones.

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