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The Back Page
by Bryan Chaffin

Would You Trust Your Life To Windows? If Not, Don't Fly JetBlue
April 22nd, 2003

A friend by any other name

I have a friend who shall remain nameless, in part because I wish him to remain my friend. Actually, let's call him Williamsonson. That's Mr. Williamsonson to you. That will make telling me story a tad easier.

Mr. Williamsonson is a great guy. He's fun to be around, he means really well, and he has his own version of honor. He seldom gets angry, but he doesn't always like to work. He prefers a fast buck to a hard-earned dollar, every time.

Over the years of being close friends with him, I learned that there are some things with which I can trust him, while there are other things where I trust him more to fail me than otherwise. He's just not always dependable.

Obviously, since he is still me friend, I stopped relying on him for those kinds of things. Our relationship works well as long as I remember that, but there were certainly some lessons learned along the way.

Mind you, this is a real friend of mine, not just someone I conveniently make up to illustrate my column -- which is all about Windows -- but there are some definite parallels with Mr. Williamsonson and Windows.

Liver and onions

So let's look at Windows: Most of us in the Mac world don't care too much for Windows. Long-time readers will, of course, know that when I say I don't care too much for Windows, what I really mean is that I loathe it with every fiber of my being not reserved for loathing liver and onions, one of my mother's favorite foods. Can't stand the stuff.

That said, Windows has come a long way in the last few years. It's more stable than it used to be, though I would hardly call it stable. It still gets in my way when I use it, which is my biggest beef. Of course, there are lots of neato Microsoft software features that will vie for my attention at every possible moment, but Windows 2000 and WinXP have come a long way. They are certainly far better than their predecessors, right?

That may well be, but there are some things where...well, where I wouldn't consider Windows to be dependable. For instance, I wouldn't want to run a warship on it, and I think it is criminal that the US armed forces rely on Windows for anything more than playing Minesweeper. In fact, I certainly wouldn't trust my life to Windows.

Would you?

The Friendly Blue (Screen of Death) Skies

That's exactly what people who fly JetBlue do, however; they trust their life to Windows. ZDNet published a piece by Joe Wilcox -- he used to man the Apple beat for C|Net/ZDNet -- about JetBlue. According to an interview (the raison d'être for the piece) with Jeff Cohen, chief information officer of JetBlue Airways, JetBlue has standardized not only on Windows, but on Microsoft software for everything else, too. From the back end to the pilot's manuals, the company relies on Windows and Microsoft software everywhere.

From the interview

When I joined the company in January 2000 and from my inception as VP and CIO in April 2000, I standardized on the Windows platform. I chose to do that because I felt from the server platform all the way out to the desktop and back that to have one type of operating system and to be able to train one type of technician and to be able to buy one type of software would put a great control on the total cost of ownership of the computing world within JetBlue.

So we marched down the road of the Windows platform. We don't have any Unix; we don't have an AS/400; we don't have any mainframes--we don't have anything outside of Windows. There has been tremendous cost savings. We've also had about a 50 percent reduction in head count for the other platforms you might have to support in multi-operating system servers.

Better yet, in some cases that software is beta software, and this guy gets paid to do this stuff?

Ouch.

What the article doesn't say is that the planes themselves do not use Windows, as those systems are all embedded systems, but still: Windows is at the heart of everything this company does.

The money trail

If I owned JetBlue stock, which I do not, I would sell every share of it ASAP. Just like Windows NT took out that US warship a few years ago, it's only a matter of time before Windows crashes some aspect of JetBlue's operations, and the company has some kind of major problem because of it.

With any luck, it won't involve a plane crashing -- and I am not being flippant about that -- but it is likely to cost the company lots of money, just as Windows costs every single company on the planet when there's an exploit, virus, bug, or just plain, bad, crappy software coding problem. Microsoft products cost businesses billions of dollars around the world every year from lost productivity due to Windows network outages and otherwise crashed Windows machines, and I don't see JetBlue as being miraculously immune to that.

What I think is a tad insidious about the interview and the article is the talk of standardizing on one platform, and how much money it has saved JetBlue. It reads like a Microsoft advertisement, but then a lot of people have accused some of my articles of being Apple advertisements, so whatever.

Standardized red herrings

I am a big believer in using the best computer for the job, and that sometimes means not standardizing, but I also know that there are times when standardizing on one platform makes sense. In the case of JetBlue, the company has a limited number of jobs, and those jobs are the same everywhere in the company. That's smart. Just as the company has standardized on one type of jet to make maintenance simpler (see the interview), the company has made its software the same throughout its operations. Again, that's smart.

Most companies don't have such across the board operations, however, which makes standardizing akin to cutting off your nose, just to spite your face.

That said, standardizing on any one platform in those circumstances where it makes sense is going to offer the same benefits as standardizing on any other platform -- software availability aside -- but the message of this article is all about standardizing on Windows, as opposed to Unix or Linux. It's a clever bit of verbal, or literary, chicanery, but a transparent one. It's too bad that most people won't see through it.

The Darwin Awards?

For me, I just don't see using an operating system that is synonymous with crashing to run an airline as all that smart. It just seems like a very bad idea™.

Heck, I'd rather take a drive across country in a car with Mr. Williamsonson. At least I would have great company, we'd have a lot of fun, and his lack of dependability most likely won't put my life in danger. Now, can you say any of those things about Windows?

[Addendum: After publishing this piece, I received a letter from an Observer claiming to be an Air Traffic Controller. According to him, a crashed server, which would be a Windows system by definition, has turned automatic flight plan delivery into a manual affair. Read the full follow up article for more information. - Bryan]


began using Apple computers in 1983 in a high school BASIC programming class. He started using Macs in 1990 when the Kinko's guy taught him how to use Aldus PageMaker, finally buying a Power Computing Power 100 in 1995. Today, Bryan is the Editor of The Mac Observer, and has contributed to the print versions of MacAddict and MacFormat (UK).

You can send your comments directly to him, or you can also post your comments below.

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