Some thoughts on credibility gaps

This column has no single topic this time, but let’s start with a couple of examples of the gap between hype and reality.

I recently installed OpenOffice on two computers at home. It works well enough, opens Microsoft-format files with no apparent problems.

So when my partner received a

file in WordPerfect format as an e-mail attachment, I confidently told her she’d be able to open it in OpenOffice.

Wrong, as it turns out. OpenOffice handles a fairly respectable list of file formats, but even though Word itself opens WordPerfect files several formats back (not always flawlessly) OpenOffice knows nothing about them — an odd omission in software touted as an alternative to the Microsoft juggernaut.

There was a similar moment at the recent Executive Forum on Microelectronics in Ottawa. The luncheon presentation included one of those utopian videos about seamless mobility in which people chatter with colleagues down the hall or on the other side of the planet with equal ease, using pocket gadgets that switch effortlessly from network to network.

This particular video even had a car chase and a police takedown to make the point that these wireless wonders can be used in law enforcement as well as business.

I’m not sure what else was in the video, though, because I only saw the last few minutes. I missed the rest because I was in the hotel lobby, trying for a good half hour to get a wireless connection to check my e-mail.

The microelectronics forum was interesting, though. Some of the best discussion focused on the convergence of microelectronics and health care, with predictions of electronic devices that will monitor the progress of diseases and cures, medication tailored to a patient’s genes and micro electro-mechanical systems (MEMS) for diagnosing and treating health problems.

I also enjoyed hearing Duncan Stewart, portfolio manager for Tera Capital Corp.’s Dynamic Canadian Technology Fund, give a fast-paced assessment of the Canadian microelectronics sector, which he said is overspending on research and development and will grow more slowly in the future than it has in the past.

Stewart is an ex-academic, which was pretty obvious: Very few speakers at technology conferences can manage to work references to the structure of Greek comedy and Werner Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle into one speech — especially a speech about microelectronics.

The Heisenberg reference was aimed at Nortel Networks Corp. Stewart said the company has taken the famous uncertainty principle one step farther — “”They are now unable to tell either what their earnings were or when they were.””

I’ve forgotten what Stewart said about Greek comedy, but speaking of Heisenberg and theatre, one of the highlights of our local theatre scene recently was a production of Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen, a play about Heisenberg’s work on nuclear fission for the German government during World War II and a famous meeting between him and fellow physicist Neils Bohr in Copenhagen.

The play explores the idea that Heisenberg, knowing his work could help Hitler win the war, came to Bohr for advice on what to do. I mention it, because the play (which was an award winner when it premiered last year and no doubt will be turning up in theatres across the country) is partly about considering the implications of technology. Anyone who works with technology should see it.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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