The PC at 25: Amazing innovation, with a dark side

It’s hard to imagine a world without PCs. It’s been estimated there are more than one billion of them in use around the globe. What would we do without our desktops and notebooks?

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The PC is arguably the greatest life-altering IT innovation ever – both in terms of our personal and working lives. This month, the marvelous PC celebrated its silver jubilee of 25 years in existence. IBM Corp. introduced the first model – the 5150 – on Aug. 12, 1981.

Charles King, a principal analyst for Pund-IT Inc. in Hayward, Calif., succinctly summed up, in his recent newsletter, the glory that is the PC. “For two-and-a-half decades the personal computer served as an elemental change engine, sparking the creation of millions of jobs and hundreds of billions of dollars in business revenues and shareholder equity,” he wrote in the Aug. 16 issue of the Pund-IT Research Weekly Review.

You can’t argue with that bottom-line result. It has advanced business in ways unimagined from the early days when a PC was a large and clunky desktops offering little function beyond that of word processing and spreadsheets.

PCs have brought computing to the masses, moving it from the centralized data centre into the highly distributed cyberworld. Thanks to PCs, businesses work a whole lot better and smarter. Companies know more about their customers, thanks in large part to the streams of information that flow from PCs, and businesses can serve them better than ever since a buyer using a PC and the Internet can literally shop till he or she drops.

Business professionals no doubt spend more time in front of PC monitors than they do watching television.

So what’s in store for the future of the PC? Seems nobody knows for sure – even those who make them.

“It’s very difficult, if not impossible, to predict,” says David Hill, a longtime IBM veteran and now an executive director for PC maker Lenovo Ltd. “I think one of the clues to the evolution of the PC…is to ask where people want to use a computer versus where people use it today.” Mr. King says that at the heart of the PC’s influence on business these days is communication. The development of telegraph technologies allowed businesses to accomplish in days or weeks what had once taken months, he explains. Wireless telegraphy and then commercial telephone service had the same sort of impact.

“The PC has taken that several steps further, not just allowing people more granular ways to stay in touch but also supporting the exchange of documents and searching and ordering of information, and allowing access to Web-based company sites and business processes,” Mr. King says.

“Those are broadly applicable PC tools. What I think we’re seeing more of these days is the leveraging of PCs and other IT in specific industries and sectors, along with providing access to increasingly wider potential markets. The days of the killer (PC) application may be over, but I expect to see business applications arising in places I never would expect.”

Experts predict continuing commoditization as more computer power and capability will continue to be had for ever-decreasing cost. Portability and connectivity are among the most important business aspects of today’s PCs.

PCs have dramatically improved the life of business, but may be making life a whole lot worse for business people in general. Evidence of that comes from Info-Tech Research Group Inc., based in London, Ont., which released a survey earlier this month suggesting that 81 per cent of employees say they feel obligated – at least to some degree – to be available to their employers on a 24×7 basis.

PCs, notebooks and PDAs (personal digital assistants) are the tethers that bind people to their jobs, wherever they happen to be. Info-Tech senior research analyst Carmi Levy says there’s a struggle to balance work with personal lives.

“This is the dark side of mobile communications,” he said in a press release from the company.

“The reality is the lines are totally blurred between personal and private time because we now have the technology to virtually take the office on vacation with us. And no one wants to hear Donald Trump’s classic phrase ‘you’re fired’ because they took their eyes off email to go to a baseball game.”

But is there a business professional who doesn’t have a notebook these days? Anytime-anywhere defines not just the basic function of a PC, but also modern workplace practices and is often the expectation of many businesses. While they may not necessarily be demanding it, many employers generally don’t seem to discourage such behaviour, much to the chagrin of children and spouses everywhere.

Pund-IT’s Mr. King says work-life balance is an increasingly important issue as we look to the future of the PC and computing in general.

“The fact is many companies leverage highly mobile technologies to get more work out of their employees, but is that the fault of the technology or voracious employers?” he said, during an interview.

“To quote my grandmother, ‘Just because you can do a thing, doesn’t mean you should.’

“Not so long ago, 50 to 60 hour work weeks with few benefits were the norm, but the excesses of that era resulted in significant labor reforms.”

Thanks to the PC and other mobile IT devices, the business world is connected way too deeply into the personal lives of the working class and the working week never seems to end.

Businesses and employers benefited a whole lot during the first 25 years of the PC. Maybe it’s time to look the other direction – at the lives of employees – as personal computing evolves in the next 25 years.