Jarring jargon -- IT never at a loss for words

If IT were to be charged with one crime, it should be abuse of the English language. Who is to blame for these "words" -- words that should be kept at the bottom of an extensible repository rather than at the top of one's mission-critical vocabulary? These bad words leave many of us speechless.

Automagically. Co-opetition. And, of course, productize. Those are just a few of the "words" that high-tech vendors and their legions of publicists have invented, adopted and inflicted over the years.

Despite widespread cynicism about this industry-specific language, new words and phrases pop up every year. They litter press releases and conversations around the globe, leaving CEOs and DBAs alike muttering, "What's a vortal?" (That's a vertical portal, for those of you who need some core competency training in this area.)

Quicker than you can say "turnkey," the list of IT buzzwords and phrases continues to grow, in an industry renowned for generating reams of news, and non-news, every day.

"'Automagically' is one of my favorites," said Michael Schiff, an analyst with Current Analysis Inc. in Sterling, Va. "Sometimes you see things, and you're just blown away. Are they expecting us to say, 'Oh, wow! It's automagic!'? It's one of the things about the IT industry that everyone hates. I don't think most people, people who know what they're talking about, ever use that sort of language -- unless they are joking."

In 2004, the IT community will be hearing a lot about "on-demand computing." Whoops. Make that "utility computing." Or is it "autonomic"?

However you say it, the notion of getting the most bang out of a buck is one that IT customers seem to like, once they can figure out what a vendor is talking about.

In IT speak, these buyers are looking to ramp up and leverage their out-of-the-box, scalable and mission-critical enterprise solutions for the optimization of return on investment (ROI), while minimizing their total cost of ownership (TCO). Of course, they want to be part of the next generation of computing, the democratization of technology. Yes, they are incentivized! They are willing to helicopter a situation, parachute in and, if necessary, cross-pollinate for synergy or commoditize for the sake of functionality. They don't want to have to re-architect, for sure. What they want most, although they may not know it without the help of a press release, is to rid themselves of FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt). At the end of the day, vendors say, customers who've done their due diligence want a set of best practices -- which should be infinitely more helpful than a set of worst practices.

Of course, the blame for this linguistic mess does not fall squarely onto teams of talented communications staffs, nor the sellers of software. Some of it is generated from the outside -- by business schools, for example. Sometimes marketing and public relations professionals are surprised when clients tell them that they are striving for a paradigm shift, crossing chasms or getting on Main Street. These are descriptions that make many PR people groan along with the rest of us.

At some point, don't vendors risk insulting potential clients with this sort of vexing verbiage?

"I would assume so," said Bronwyn Wormell of Reidy Communications in Corte Madera, Calif. "Clients want to hear human voices telling them how they are going to solve their problems. People don't speak like that."

Of course, many members of the Fourth Estate aren't easily suckered. Some business reporters use "jargon blockers" in hopes of encouraging well-written releases.

"If you send them press releases that say 'synergistic' or 'best-of-breed,' they'll send it right back," Wormell said. "Whenever I work with a new client, I say, 'Cynicism is the way of the world these days. Don't use words you don't need to.'"

Still, she is loyal to her craft and her peers.

"I think a lot of people in marketing or PR like to write and create, and it's part of their nature," Wormell said. "I think it's natural to want to come up with new things."

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