The past is prologue

A funny thing happened after the PC revolution. The clunky beige box, which kicked off a downsizing revolution in computing that's reverberated across two decades, has in some ways brought us full circle back to the mainframe era.

          A funny thing happened after the PC revolution. The clunky beige box, which kicked off a downsizing revolution in computing that's reverberated across two decades, has in some ways brought us full circle back to the mainframe era.

          For example, take operating systems (particularly Windows), which have gotten so bulked up that in some ways we seem to be moving back to the future. Microsoft has jammed whole classes of tools into its behemoth, which now weighs in at 42 million lines of code. Shades of mainframes.

          Desktop software has gone from a shrink-wrapped floppy disk to billions and billions of bits transmitted over the Web, paving the way for a return to software leasing, only this time we call it "rentals" from "service providers." Enterprise applications, anyone? Those same applications have moved off the local PC onto centrally located and sometimes remote application servers. Is anyone else thinking "dumb terminals"? The cost of intelligent PCs has certainly plummeted to that level.

          The PC pulled data away from the sole ownership of IT, out of its imprisonment on big boxes in the data centre, and it gave everyone personal, local access and control. Advances in mobile computing, however, are leading us right back to corporate and ISP management, as data, private e-mail boxes and records increasingly are locked up on remotely located servers, tightly guarded behind firewalls and other security systems.

          The PC and its laptop and handheld spin-offs have freed workers from the office, allowing us to be more productive on the road and to work from home, escaping the confines of the corporate cube. The downside, of course, is that we've also managed to lose personal downtime along the way, and now many of us are unable to escape the confines of round-the-clock workdays.

          Today, we're witnessing the beginnings of the wireless, embedded and ubiquitous computing revolutions. Each will creep into the consciousness of IT much as the PC did. Only this time, if we learn from the last installment of computing evolution, we'll be one step ahead of the game, taking these advancements seriously and planning how to grow with and manage these tools and their users back to the inevitable future.

          Keefe is Computerworld US' editorial director. Send email to Patricia Keefe.

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