The worst PC myth of all

The problem with client-server is that there's no solution for serialization. As a result any client-server implementation gets cheaper and less complicated as you centralize both control and processing - turning this desktp "clients" into the dumbest terminals.

The best lies are made by compounding a little truth with a large dose of listener self-interest. Thus "no dear, those pants don't make you look fat" is usually both perfectly true and a total lie.

The people who pretend that the business PC is somehow personal and therefore personally empowering are practicing this same strategy. The truth in the statement is that for some people, mainly IT people and hobbyists, the PC really is empowering: they make their livings selling the lie, and at home they get to take the hardware apart, re-assembling, reloading, and rebooting the things as the mood strikes them.

The big lie, however, is that any of this applies to the ordinary business user. In a business that personal computer isn't personal - it belongs to the business, and both the law and the normal organization of business requires that the business, not the individual user, control what gets done with it and when.

Some users, particularly those in loosely managed organizations or in user groups in deep conflict with their own IT people, can and do use the PC to carve out personal roles as shadow IT workers - but this says nothing about PC empowerment because the people who do this are basically opting out of their real jobs as users to join the selling side.

Beyond that, what you can do with the typical business "personal" computer is anything but personal: you can reboot it, but there'll be a DHCP record and it'll load exactly the same stuff, from the same centrally managed servers, as the last time you did it. You can't do anything meaningful: load new software? script your way past those access restrictions and filters on everything you do? change the way the Office macros work? No, No, and No.

There's a reason for this - and it's only incidently because people always seek control and the PC architecture lets IT exercise significant control over user activities. That's a basic facet of human behavior and there's no doubt its an important driver for abuse, but the critical enabling factor is that the Microsoft client-server architecture fundamentally requires both control and processing centralization to function.

There's simply no other way - the minute you put powerful computers on a lot of user desktops, you create a bunch of requirements for IT management to meet: the machines have to share data, whatever gets done on them needs to be verifiably in the interests of the business, and the machines themselves have to be kept working. Start down the road to client-server and you find that the inherent complexities in making it work boil down to a simple rule: operational efficiency correlates directly with centralization.

Centralized support is cheaper than distributed support, centralized storage is both cheaper and more reliable than distributed storage, centralized processing reduces risk, reduces cost, reduces user frustration, reduces processing delay, and reduces the opportunities for confusion - and identity management, of course, is both fundamental to business controls and only possible with centralization.

So where does this leave the user? on the receiving end of the budget and control processes needed to allocate and manage corporate resources. At the group level this means that someone, or some committee, adjudicates budget requests: this group's new software is more important than that one's - there's less risk here than there, - and Joe's agenda isn't that important to the organization as represented on the committee. Every decision is marked by trade-offs: usually somebody wins and somebody loses; but most importantly none of it's personal and all of it takes both management and calendar time.

So what's the bottom line? Simple: those pants don't make her look fat and the personal computer can be empowering when used at home - but she is fat and the business PC is simply the most expensive and least reliable terminal money can buy.

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