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21 June 2005

The second PC revolution

By Andrew Clifford

The first PC revolution provided personal productivity tools to replace the typewriter, calculating machine, fax machine and drawing board. The second PC revolution will let anyone build outward-facing services to present their interests and responsibilities to the outside world.

The first PC revolution has been hugely successful at providing productivity to individual users. However, it suffers from one major drawback. Except for a bit of file sharing, current PCs don't represent their user's interests and responsibilities to the outside world.

The Internet has made an impact. It allows people to be on the receiving end of a vast array of information and services. But most people are only on the sending end of a very few services - sending emails and perhaps publishing web sites. Anything more is the preserve of IT professionals, not end users.

But what would happen if anyone could create a business system as easily as they can set up a spreadsheet? What if anyone could build automatic links between their systems and those of other people? What if anyone could create an outward facing service, like an online shop, bank, database or auction, as easily as they could use one? How would that transform your business?

This possibility is the second PC revolution.

I know this raises all sorts of objections.

  • Users aren't clever enough to build serious systems. But anyone who understands what a service must do and what interactions are required, knows everything that's really required to build the service. The success of Excel show that end users are quite capable of understanding their own IT.
  • PC hardware couldn't support this. But you could have a space on some sort of always-on service.
  • End users tools couldn't support this. But it's easy imagine a general-purpose application, like Excel with capabilities for multiple users and automated communications to other computers.
  • This couldn't support packaged functionality. But each computer could be an instance of a full business package like SAP, and its owner decides which bits they will switch on to support their responsibilities.
  • Systems would perpetuate the inefficiencies of the current organisation, without any process improvement. But putting IT firmly under the control of business users would emphasise that process change is a business issue, and not an IT issue.

There is no serious intellectual or technological barrier to this second PC revolution. In some respects, it is already creeping up on us.

The real barrier to this second PC revolution is the attitude we have to IT. We see IT as an enterprise resource. Although notionally owned by business managers, it is in practice managed and controlled by IT specialists. Systems don't directly match the responsibilities of their notional owners. The IT systems don't reflect the structure of the organisation, but form an alternate reality. The real challenge it to let go of this view of IT.

A couple of weeks ago we looked at how businesses want IT that is relevant and under their control, to allow them to reshape themselves without having to wait to be lead by IT. The second PC revolution will give them that relevance and control, and in the end will overrun our attitudes to IT.

Next week we shall see what will become of the IT department.

Next: The death of the IT department

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