Sunday, August 28, 2005

Denver Airport

Let us start with this great opening paragraph:

Denver's new international air port was to be the pride of the Rockies, a wonder of modern engineering. Twice the size of Manhattan, 10 times the breadth of Heathrow, the airport is big enough to land three jets simultaneously-in bad weather. Even more impressive than its girth is the airport's subterranean baggage-handling system. Tearing like intelligent coal-mine cars along 21 miles of steel track, 4,000 independent "telecars" route and deliver luggage between the counters, gates and claim areas of 20 different airlines. A central nervous system of some 100 computers networked to one another and to 5,000 electric eyes, 400 radio receivers and 56 bar-code scanners orchestrates the safe and timely arrival of every valise and ski bag.

That was from an article published in Scientific American in 1994 (archived, thankfully, here). The article then describes how this grand vision was undone by a series of delays in writing the software that would run this great 'system' composed of conveyors and gadgets. This episode is used as an example to show how "the software industry remains years -- perhaps decades -- short of the mature engineering discipline needed to meet the demands of an information-age".

That was 1994, and this, of course, is 2005. Now, NYTimes reports that it's all over. The headline says it all: "Denver Airport Saw the Future. It Didn't Work".

I got the link to the NYTimes report through a discussion in slashdot.