‘Roid rage

There’s a drug problem in the high-tech industry.

People talk about it openly, even brag about it in some cases. And I’m here today asking them to Just Say No.

Case in point: the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this past January showcased a number of new satellite radio

services. There was a firm called XM, for example, and another called Sirius. Philip Pilla, vice-president of marketing for Sirius, wanted to distinguish that his firm was a step beyond traditional radio, whereas “”XM is basically terrestrial radio on steroids.””

Ah, steroids. Surely the most overused, cliched, hackneyed way by which technology companies describe their products and services. Like a high-school body builder who doesn’t know when to quit, the steroid phenomenon has been going strong for several years now.

Just this past summer, for example, ITBusiness.ca’s Neil Sutton met with Viewsonic to discuss the launch of its SuperPDA, which general manager of advanced technologies Tom Offat called “”a Pocket PC on steroids.”” In a feature we published in Computer Dealer News in 1999, HP Canada’s technical program manager, Dave Holly, said, “”A workstation is like having a PC on steroids.”” In 1998, Performance Computing Inc. analyst Richard Finklestein told Computing Canada, “”I generally characterize Java as a teenager on steroids.”” When Microsoft wanted to put its recently-launched IT Academy in perspective, program manager Diana Carew knew just what to say: “”It’s training on steroids.””

As similes go, the image of steroids fits well into almost any context, which is probably why it’s used so often. Though there are naturally produced steroids like the suprarenal cortical hormones, vendors here are probably referring to anabolic steroids that were developed in the 1930’s by German scientists and used on POW’s. We all typically conjure the same vision when we think of steroids: a musclehead, or maybe a WWF character.

If you take the analogy a little farther, you might also consider the many negative side-effects of using steroids, and apply them to the IT industry as well. These include increased risk of mood disturbances including mania and depression (think of a frustrated IT manager), water retention (bloated companies), a decrease in immune system effectiveness (security holes) and impotence (falling stock prices).

What grates on my nerves about the steroid comparison in IT is that everyone who uses it acts as though they are the first to do so. Vendors’ eyes often light up just before they use it, as though it were an ace up their sleeve they have been saving for just this moment. It is almost as bad as the other great IT cliche, the Swiss Army knife, which is used to describe any product that is capable of handling more than one task. I’m just waiting for someone to go whole-hog and pitch their next database as “”a Swiss Army knife on steroids!””

If the IT industry needed any other reasons to put this comparison to rest, it might be that anabolic steroids are so artificial. In Canada we have only to think of disgraced Olympic sprinter Ben Johnson, who flunked a test for steroids after the 1988 Olympics and became a source of national shame. Steroids may increase strength, but there is nothing to particularly admire about someone who is capable of developing strength naturally but who relies on steroids instead.

Of course, good IT analogies are hard to come by. It will take a lot of creativity and brainstorming to develop something with similar currency among such a diverse audience. You could call that kind of creativity high-impact marketing. Or you could just call it marketing on steroids.

sschick@plesman.com

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