Contracts: read the bigprint
Excuse me if I blow off a little steam. I’ve just sat for two hours beside a chap on a flight who was editing and translating a PowerPoint presentation – strangely, all about the business of presenting. First, he had to convert the text into German (so I can now tell you that “korpersprache” is the German for “body language”), and second, he had to rearrange the concepts of good presentation into a format more acceptable to the European brain. No small feat this, because by the time he was nearly finished I’d counted no less than 91 PowerPoint slides. Ninety-one! Now I’m quite sure that, like me, you’d dread being trapped in a darkened room and subjected to 91 slides on the subject of showing slides – including an unspeakably tedious sequence on “slumber-busters” – it would be worse than spending three years in prison.
What this wretched fellow (and his English teachers or colleagues) had utterly missed was the wider picture of presentation; namely, the huge gulf that exists between what feels good when you’re writing it and what keeps their attention when they’re half asleep in a stuffy room listening to a disembodied voice reading information that’s already on the screen. How I kept myself from haranguing him to this effect on that flight I’ll never know, but then I realised that all my activities this month have essentially been about the same problem, since it manifests itself in the world of networked services. In a rather spooky bout of synchronicity, all of this month’s effort with clients and with PC Pro forum content has been on this same topic; it’s all been about contracts.
Just like my travelling companion’s nightmarish, ritualised pretence about the “reality” of presenting, there’s now developed a similarly nightmarish, ritualised quality to the business relationships we all enter into at every scale of information technology. We all happily sign contracts for services – anything from broadband internet service provision, to service contracts with software product suppliers, to net-based ASPs running huge farms of thin client compute servers in some distant country – but the only assurance we have that any of these contracts is enforceable is an airy statement to the effect that “it’s all covered under contract law”. I’ve for a long time believed that such assurance is about as solid and as relevant as the notion that anyone is going to pay attention through 91 PowerPoint slides; or that PowerPoint and its clones are a sensible or humane way to deliver information.
Let’s work our way through the influences and processes that persuade any company to buy a service or product from a vendor, to be delivered across its network, and then examine how much use the provisions of contract law actually are in getting what you wanted:
1 – When software products for line-of-business streamlining or workflow first came out, they were largely helpmates for those who could do the work themselves. This was reflected in the development process, put together by a skilled expert in the business procedure who also happened to be a very unskilled programmer, and the pricing that modelled itself on the upfront, shrinkwrap style of Excel, under which a one-off payment of a relatively large sum set you up for a half-decade or more. This scenario may still exist in some very rare cases, but for the most part the current-day descendants of those products are rather more than just helpmates – they can be used by relatively unskilled staff to vastly speed up the throughput of their more skilled, troubleshooting superiors. And this means a business equipped with a package like this can push work through far more rapidly with the software than without it. In some extreme cases, having the software is a precondition for being able to operate in that particular market at all.