Column: The net computer fantasy

The verdict is in: Information systems professionals are buying in to the network computer concept.

The verdict is in: Information systems professionals are buying in to the network computer concept.

According to a recent Computerworld US survey of 200 midsize and large organisations, the majority of IS professionals think network computers are appropriate for most employees and can save their companies money.

Nearly half the respondents also believe that if they can convince themselves that the network computer will deliver, they can easily get top management to approve the transition. A remarkable 30% say they will begin to buy network computers in the next 12 months.

Such surprisingly bullish survey results beg the question of whether customer opinions this early in the network computer market should be taken seriously. Just how good of a forecaster is IS?

Nearsighted response

Having been in the research business since the early 1980s, I'm convinced IS isn't prone to knee-jerk enthusiasm for new technologies.

Previous technologies that were highly promoted but eventually failed -- 3270 PCs, optical mass storage, X terminals, diskless PCs, pen-based systems and the Apple Newton -- never generated this level of initial IS interest.

Overall, IS professionals -- like most of us -- have had a pretty good sense of what they will do in the short term, and they often have no idea what the long term will look like.

This solid short-term track record is troubling, because I think network computers will play only a minor role in most enterprise environments.

There are serious technical problems, such as insufficient bandwidth, server capacity and application availability, and the inevitable creation of new IS bottlenecks.

But cultural issues also will constrain use. People rightfully use their desks, telephones and computers for a limited amount of personal business. Having all employee computing stored and backed up on a central system could have a disturbing and chilling effect. There are easier ways to reduce the cost of technology ownership.

Before they get too excited about network computers, IS professionals should double-check that they aren't letting their instincts get the better of them. The risk is that normally sound judgment can succumb to the thrill of centralised control and the privileged-but-dangerous position of being an information gatekeeper. It's hard to avoid the view that IS is welcoming network computers for many of the same reasons it initially defended terminals. This alone should suggest caution.

From a purely selfish perspective, IS should never forget how much the PC has done to educate office workers about the realities of computing. It isn't a coincidence that IS has been steadily gaining respect and responsibility. The more users learn about computing, the more they can appreciate what IS people know and do. In this sense, the PC has done far more to raise the status of IS than the terminal ever did.

Before it fantasises about managing banks of subservient network computers, IS should remember that with total control comes total accountability; this, as always, is a formula for arrogance and alienation.

(David Moschella is senior vice-president of research at Computerworld US. His Internet address is david_moschella@cw.com.)

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