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Computers Enter an Era of Uncertainty

March 08, 2001|GARY CHAPMAN | gary.chapman@mail.utexas.edu

The revolutionary zeal of the PC revolution is rapidly fading, and it's not just because of slow sales or the downturn in the economy. There's a growing sense of malaise in the industry, as people wait for the next big thing, a new "killer app" or something completely novel and unexpected. Meanwhile, despite impressive new features and gadgets, the industry is getting boring and routine.

The situation today resembles a quarter-century ago, just before personal computers were introduced. Back in the early to mid-1970s, computing was dominated by a handful of large, mature companies, including IBM, Hewlett-Packard and Digital Equipment Corp. Those companies were--in the eyes of the young and long-haired microcomputer revolutionaries--boring, conservative, stuck in a rut, no fun. They built computers that most people couldn't understand or use effectively. The leaders of the industry were graying, middle-aged, conservative men who were mostly concerned with keeping their shareholders content.

Sound familiar? Today there are a handful of PC makers, most of them selling machines nearly identical to one another. These companies are mature--they're run by sober and careful people who are responsible to vast numbers of shareholders. These companies sell millions of computers all over the world, and though they've absorbed the rhetoric of "revolution" from the early days of the PC era, real revolution is the last thing they want to see happen. (Only Steve Jobs and Apple seem to be trying to keep the old flame alive--but Apple has always been an oddball, yet fascinating, company.)

The current crop of leaders in the PC industry must surely remember what happened in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when the PC revolution burst upon the scene. Suddenly, the gray monolith of corporate computing was assaulted by young hippie zealots who seemed motivated by something other than money (Bill Gates excepted, perhaps). There was an explosion of new companies--Apple, Microsoft, Lotus and eventually Adobe, 3Com and many others that would be consigned to history, such as Atari, Aldus, Ashton-Tate and Digital Research.

The PC industry has to be open to new ideas and products--that's still the lifeblood of the business. Some companies do this better than others, but they're still blindsided by innovations from unexpected sources, such as the Palm Pilot or Napster, the creation of a 19-year-old college student. Nevertheless, there seems to be a growing sense of deja vu in the field--everyone knows that if you're young, smart, idealistic and eager to change the world, your future probably doesn't go through the sterile cubicle farms of today's major computer companies.

And the PC industry's woes are due to a curious blend of success and shortcomings. Success has come from the sheer ubiquity of PCs, all over the world, and the fact that the standard PC has become a common household appliance. Indeed, many people think that we're close to market saturation, especially because PCs are so powerful and so uniform that there's been a dramatic drop in the reasons for consumers to buy replacements or upgrades.

The industry's shortcomings are that its machines are still too complex, too prone to problems and failures and too vexing for most users.

Big computer companies now--there may be even fewer of them soon--are not likely to be the leaders of a new revolution. Young people--those with the potential for upending the order of things--are commonly fueled by passions different from simply making a big pile of cash, and that's likely to be true the next time around too.

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