Die, die accursed PC

SAN FRANCISCO (09/26/2003) - The PC is the black and white TV in the wood cabinet. It's the round, tan thermostat dial, the avocado-green fridge, the Steve Miller Band. It is the beast that kills by boring its victims to death.

The arrival of my Power Mac G5 and Advanced Micro Devices Inc. Athlon FX-51 reference systems got me thinking in this vein. These lesser-known architectures are blown off as marginal technology by the big names of computerdom. Yet these little guys managed, each in their way, to embarrass the PC standard-bearers. Maybe that's because the personal computer is no longer a standard worth bearing.

I admit that, being a journalist, I crave excitement. But it seems I am in the minority. Vendors tell me that customers demand the predictability and consistency, the sameness of the PC. Vendors can't raise the bar, you see, because customers would freak out.

In response, I invoke the punch line of one of my favorite corporate jokes: That is a vessel of effluvium whose fragrance is overpowering. I'm wondering how many of these vendors have met their customers.

I have no doubt that rubber-stampers still exist in the corporate ranks. But the culling of the workforce has created a new breed of business technologists. They're a sharp-eyed, battle-hardened lot that can build a bridge out of a can of beans and scale a mountain using their fingernails. I don't see these survivors shuddering over the idea of mainstream computers that are more capable than the plastic crap stacked ceiling-high at department stores.

It isn't the term "personal computer" that I despise. (Actually, I do, but that's not germane.) I can't tolerate the lack of creativity that binds us to 1980s-era technology. A 3GHz Pentium 4 desktop is an IBM PC/AT wearing a mail-order gown and too much rouge. Most of the PC advances that have thrilled me have been peripheral, things like 3-D accelerators, fast networking, writable optical media, and quick, capacious hard drives. Those technologies advance rapidly while the PC itself remains stagnant. Actually, I will admit that I wept the first time I saw a PC boot from a CD-ROM. That has been the apex of PC evolution. I have since learned to savor this joyful moment and let it go.

When a new PC differs from its predecessor primarily in its CPU clock rate, it is termed a "speed bump." That term is perfectly descriptive. On pavement, a speed bump is an impediment to progress, not an aid. In PCs, speed bumps are a substitute for real innovation, something that vendors point to when asked why they're not actually creating anything.

I won't rag exclusively on PC hardware vendors. Speed bumps abound in business. In-house developers and consulting firms make a huge fuss over minor improvements to projects. Commercial software firms call press conferences over their point releases. Sellers of everything from detergent to mobile homes are slapping "new and improved" stickers on their stale inventory to cover for a lack of real R&D. And since it's just you and me, we can admit that we, too, have our speed bumps. I took out the trash last week without being asked. I expect a cookie and the right to spend the weekend parked on the sofa.

I know money is tight. I understand the temptation to recast inertia as a studied response to others' expressed desires. This is just a lousy time to try to put one over on customers. When a vendor drops by to tell you what you want, dragging your requirements back to 1997 to match their speed-bumped technology, what should you say? Gather your sweaty, sleep-deprived, madly inventive corporate tech survivors together and say, "Bump you."

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