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Another Bite of the Apple

A lesson for government's operating system.

by / June 2, 2006

Apple Computer's introduction of Intel-based Macintosh systems earlier this year opens a vista long loathed in some corners, and long awaited in others.

Since the Windows XP operating system and Mac OS X can coexist on a single machine -- thanks to beta software that creates a separate partition on which Windows operates -- it may signal an overdue detente in personal computing's definitive cold war.

Some Mac purists expressed alarm, fearing that this could be the beginning of the end of the beloved Mac OS -- or at least the end of what made it special. Large-scale Wintel installations are taking a wait-and-see attitude, wondering aloud about performance, scalability and operating costs of these new hybrids.

Then there are the former Mac users who have, out of necessity or coercion, crossed over to "the dark side," and see the new Mactel boxes as a shot at redemption by providing the computer they need and the computer they love combined in a single machine.

There are larger ideas at play here.

The first is the worst kept secret in Cupertino, Calif., and Redmond, Wash.: The operating system doesn't matter ... at least not the way it once did. The "Web 2.0" movement has seized on the inevitability of the Internet as OS, doing huge volumes of useful and important transactions -- all without us, as USA Today reported: "The interactions Web is the next rung up from the familiar point-and-click Internet ... an Internet that works on your behalf -- finding or doing things in the background, with no intervention."

Machine-to-machine Web services may create for government service delivery what Intel-based Macintosh systems are creating for the PC -- detente. Despite helpful work by numerous authors on delineating the steering and rowing functions of government, the drawing of those lines can become a red-state, blue-state-style caricature as incumbent interests jealously defend turf -- assuming the turf is theirs to begin with.

Web services, service-oriented architectures and what co-author Richard J. Varn calls Government-as-a-Service, in the recent Center for Digital Government report Prove IT, all forecast a world in which old turf wars are made irrelevant as the lines among the public, private and nonprofit sectors blur in favor of each playing to their respective core competencies.

The report, available as a free download from the Center Web site recounts an observation originated by Jeff Wacker, a futurist with EDS: The world record for completing a financial transaction is 2 nanoseconds. By way of context, the blink of an eye is 350,000 nanoseconds.

Based on these nano-observations, the report concludes, "Why would government think it could keep up and why would it want to try? A more sensitive question might be, could government do it by itself at all? If government gets the answers to these questions wrong, it is at risk of becoming so irrelevant and so incapable of doing the obvious things that everyone else can do in the blink of an eye. Government's epitaph could become, 'An eye blinked at the end' as a fitting digital update of a penetrating yet simple observation about an emperor of legend -- 'But he has nothing on at all,' said a little child at last."

This is not the time to become alarmed.

A complacent, wait-and-see worldview will not work either. Remarkably the shelf life of the Internet's original transformation has extended much longer than most of us dared imagine. Here we are again, at the crossroads -- an inflection or tipping point if you will -- with a shot at redemption as we give full credit to working across sectors, but not at cross-purposes.

It's time for this cold war to end, too.

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Paul W. Taylor Contributing Writer

Paul W. Taylor, Ph.D., is the editor-at-large of Governing magazine. He also serves as the chief content officer of e.Republic, Governing’s parent organization, as well as senior advisor to the Governing Institute. Prior to joining e.Republic, Taylor served as deputy Washington state CIO and chief of staff of the state Information Services Board (ISB). Dr. Taylor came to public service following decades of work in media, Internet start-ups and academia. He is also among a number of affiliated experts with the non-profit, non-partisan Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) in Washington, D.C.

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