% fortune -ae paul murphy

Pagan Agnostics

Last week's discussion sparked this, from "Pagan Jim", in reference to the idea that the user device should just be a display for information resources elsewhere on "the network":

Not liking that idea/concept at all to be frank....

Not big on "Cloud" either. What both concepts seem to make a computer device as little more than a dumb terminal and all the real power is in the hands of some other enterprise in some unknown location. To big brother for me and destroys the whole "personal" empowering part of owning a computer. It's basically the return of the pre PC day where all the power was in IBM's hand and all you had in front of you was a terminal to the main frame. In the end what's to stop these companies from treating us and charging us like the cable companies do today? We give them control they will use it over us.

To which I responded,

Control issue

I agree with you about the control (and implicitly the security issues) association with cloud computing -and also about one of the key problems with data processing: centralized control.

However, Unix enables enterprises to build systems that are centrally run, but locally managed - not something that's practical in either the zOS or Wintel worlds.

As I've said many times, Unix makes it possible to do IT right or wrong - most people choose wrong, largely because that's what data processing and wintel have taught them to do, but you don't have to do things their way.

and he said:

Maybe practical for the "enterprise" but NOT for the

individual which is my point. PC's are suppose to empower the individual not place them under the clouds thumb.

To which I responded: That's an interesting question

Does the PC empower individuals?

I'd argue that it clearly does not at work where the DP mindset rules and users have no ability to influence what's on their PCs or how they're used.

For most (non programmer/hobbyists) I could argue that the home PC means:

1- no choice on network connectivity
2 -no choice on who to buy software from
3 -no choice on what the hw looks like (differs in brand name and minor details only: all made by the same people in the same places using the same parts)
4 -no choice on whether to buy upgrades (some minor choice on when)
5 -only one or two choices only for search, archiving, cloud services, other software

Doesn't sound too empowering to me.. ?

It is an interesting question. Obviously there are edge cases - even corporate PC use has produced some genuine personal success stories - but in the main I'd argue that the corporate PC has empowered some of the people selling it, but only at great cost to the people and businesses buying it.

The problem here, of course, is a lack of solid evidence: to my knowledge no one has seriously compared the organizational impact of multiple IT architectures and even just assessing the productivity consequences of user device choices has been taboo since the early ninties - when multiple journolist inspired consultancies declared user productivity questions uninteresting while chorusing in leg tingling excitement over NT's ability to outsell the Mac.

But we've had the PC for more than twenty years now and exactly none of the really empowering technology breakthroughs, from handhelds to web servers and open source, have come from the wintel community - so where's the evidence for PC empowerment?

Clearly, the wintel PC has been a huge financial success for a few sellers, but the overwhelming majority of corporate users will, if asked outside the boss's hearing, give it no more than a lukewarm endorsement as probably better than 70s alternatives like the System 34 or 327X terminal systems, but then characterize it as an unreliable, expensive, intrusive, and unwelcome mechanism for the exertion of management control over users.

At the same time, however, every larger business I've seen has at least a few people who enthusiastically embrace the PC - and will fight you to the death if you try to reduce the control the PC gives them over their jobs. These people seem to feel empowered by the PC - and some, I assume, legitimately so, but most, at least in my experience, are self deluded. What I see, in fact, is that the pretend geek in accounting who's spent much of his professional life defending some unauditable lotus or dbase contraption from IT and the aging but amiable support drone who's progressed from doing reboots and reloads to ordering reboots and reloads, have both embraced the Wintel tarbaby and become victims - losing life, change, and opportunities for personal growth to the PC in just the same way the people we addict to drugs or welfare do.

But maybe the PC has been kinder to the home user? Remember the Marlboro man ads? I imagine that somebody really did once ride off into the golden glow of a Shenandoah valley sunset while smoking one of those things, but a rather larger number have died coughing their lungs out. For many home users, that's the PC experience - scratch the average home user and you'll get an apology for having a PC that's failing, falling behind, or messed up. Why? because people generally believe this stuff works for others and so blame themselves for problems arising from poor design, poor execution, and an unrelenting upgrade cycle aimed at extracting maximum revenues from the customer.

For most people the bottom line on home PC use is that it's conventionally necessary, but the disjunct between the public hype on the wonderfulness of it all and the reality of a machine requiring continual attention, and always more money, to mostly do most of what it's supposed to most of the time doesn't leave many feeling empowered; it leaves them feeling trapped, insecure, and inadequate.

And then, of course, there's the empowering world of DIY wintel: "build your own box! save money while learning" - that's the cry, but it's as delusional as the idea that the FBI, NASA, and DoD can't keep their PCs updated and secure but joe average home user can. Thus the reality on DIY wintel is simple: what you can learn from plugging PC components together is how to plug them together - and what you can learn from the fact that a $39.95 blender from Walmart contains over $300 worth of parts is that you shouldn't believe websites offering Intel's W3540 processor for $59.95, including shipping and handling, are really sending you the same product Intel sells assemblers at $562,000 per thousand.

The usual counter to all this is that the PC is ubiquitous and usage therefore empowering because home PC use is essential to both career and academic success.

Logically, of course, something that's ubiquitous can't confer individual competitive advantage but this is, in reality, just a bullying tactic no different in kind from any other form of group pressure aimed at enforcing compliance with a perceived majority position - and correspondingly transparent to anyone willing to see the emperor naked.

Consider, for example, how this has played out over the last twenty-five or so years: all those 80s and 90s kids who struggled with MS-DOS, Windows 3.X, and then Windows 95 instead of BSD, SunView, and MacOS because PC skills were going to be foundational to their future success? are now trying to puzzle out smart phones and iPads running Unix based OSes, GUIs, and applications descended from BSD, SunView, and MacOS.

Today's MS-DOS sells as Windows 7, but it's just just more of the same: there's no long term advantage to working with any of this stuff at home or in school unless your competitors are forever restricted to Vista. Think of it this way: 7 is surely better than XP, but the enthusiastic response the people who keep Cuba's fleet of pre 59 Chevys going would surely give a 63 Belair is no reason to think it the right choice for winter commuting in Minnesota.

So what's the bottom line on PC empowerment? In an absolute sense it may be better than nothing, but the only part of the sales pitch surviving even the most cursory investigation is the idea that you can use it as an educational tool - either as the most expensive and least reliable "cloud client" there is, or by replacing Windows with a BSD or Linux so you can learn how OS and applications code really can and does work.

Right Jim?

Paul Murphy wrote and published The Unix Guide to Defenestration. Murphy is a 25-year veteran of the I.T. consulting industry, specializing in Unix and Unix-related management issues.