Competitive advantage and cost centers

PC computing centralises control and limits what the user can do.

The last of my sins during my first year as a zdnet blogger to be revisited this week is the idea that distributed computing works, but PC computing centralises control and limits what the user can do.

Here's the thesis: if an organization using computers is doing the same things its competitors are, using interchangeable technologies and staffing to do it, then the bottom line competitive advantage lies in doing it more cheaply then the other guy, not in doing it better or in doing more of it.

Basically: if I use Windows, and you use Windows, we hire from the same MCSE pool, and we take the same advice to rent the same software, then there's nothing to distinguish my IT support from yours in terms of our relative competitive positions.

In that situation, however, there is a competitive advantage to be had from reducing my costs relative to yours. We may have to pay interchangeable MCSEs the same wages to do the same things, but if I have two for every three on your site, and we can charge the customer the same rates, my bottom line is going to look better than yours.

In other words, systems uniformity leads to the elimination of performance based competitive advantage and shifts the competitive focus to cost minimisation.

So how do you minimise PC deployment costs? Server centralisation coupled with total desktop lockdown. And once you've done that, how do you further reduce cost? Server virtualization, help desk out-sourcing, and ever tightening controls on what users can do.

And if the other guy does it, you're going to do it -because the same people, with the same ideas and the same technologies, are always going to produce the same answers in response to the same pressure to reduce unproductive costs.

As a result I don't believe there are many mid size and larger Wintel businesses left which aren't doing this - and therefore in which the non IT employee has the slightest control over the desktop.

Talkback contributor Roger Ramjet frequently mentions his idea that properly networked clients and servers are indistinguishable and he's quite right. In a Unix world the network is the computer and all clients are also servers, but that doesn't apply to the locked down Windows world. In that environment the distinction extends far beyond the license because the software used to control the system assumes centralised support - meaning that the physical centralisation of services is mimicked by an equally physical centralisation of control.

As a result server or network failures have significant repercussions throughout the business operation. A desktop PC, for example, can't boot if the network is "down", and even users whose previous experience with this prompts them to prefer a laptop despite the smaller keyboard and screen, are locked out of Word or other files on the central store during server or network outages.

So, bottom line: hiring the same people to use the same software to do the same things in the same ways as your competitor leads to cost competition and a highly centralised server based system in which the user PC becomes nothing more than an expensive, noisy, and often highly dysfunctional, 327X replacement.



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