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The portal

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In 1980, a 3278 green-screen terminal cost (as I recall) about $6,000, not including the mainframe it attached to.

Along came the PC. It cost half that, and was self-sufficient.

IT tried to keep them out. They put too much power in the hands of ignorant users and you couldn’t do serious computing on them anyway. Yes, the IT authorities made both arguments, simultaneously, and didn’t even blush.

PCs leaked in despite IT’s opinion. Distributed computing leaked in too. The economics made them unavoidable. Various pundits claim otherwise, but they are comparing the costs of PCs and distributed computing with the competition-deflated costs of mainframe computing, not the pre-PC high-margin early-1980s price tag.

Fast-forward to now. You can buy a 150 gigabyte drive for less than $100. For another hundred bucks you can buy a USB external disk to back it up.

For 150 backed-up gigabytes, IT would charge $1,500 per year.

From my backup drive I can restore any file in five minutes. IT would take more than a day. Self-service? Forget it.

In 1980, IT completely locked down the 3278 terminal, by definition. IT now locks down the PC, not by definition but by choice. Meanwhile, at home, people install whatever they please, and in spite of what the doomsayers tell you, few run into insurmountable problems. Those who do sheepishly ask their teen-aged children to help them. Their teenagers give them the same eyeball rolls they get from the Help Desk staff at work, but much better service.

Nothing in this comparison is fair. Fair has nothing to do with it. My PC at home beckons, saying “Yes, you can do that too.” My PC at work says, “No you can’t.” Your end-users experience that contrast every working day.

Preaching to them that “it’s a business computer, to be used only for business purposes,” isn’t persuasive, because they know something we in IT often ignore: It isn’t really a computer.

Oh, technically that’s what it is, but technically doesn’t matter. The PC is a portal to a universe of possibilities. While the word “cyberspace” has fallen out of use, the idea of cyberspace is alive, well, and built into the perception of everyone who looks at a screen while manipulating a keyboard and mouse.

It might be time … past time … for IT to look at its job in a new way.

Try this on for size: Imagine you ran IT as if it embraced this PC-as-portal perspective. As if IT’s job was to manage one corner of that universe of possibilities.

What would you do differently?

Let’s take it a step further. Let’s look, not just at the PC but about work as a whole from the employee’s point of view. That shouldn’t be too hard. We in IT are employees too, when we aren’t busy being IT professionals.

From the employee’s point of view the job is, in addition to being a way to earn a living, a place for: social interaction; developing the self-esteem that comes from creating value and achieving important things; structuring time and staying occupied; exercising their brains and keeping them from becoming stale.

Few employees draw a hard boundary around their work life, keeping it psychologically distinct and independent of the rest of their life. They are the same people in the office as out of the office.

We in IT are stuck in a 1950s industrial view of the workplace. Much of the workforce is post-industrial in perspective. They don’t “achieve work/life balance.” They just live their lives, wherever they happen to be at the moment — sometimes in the office, sometimes out of it.

In the office they research reports, create presentations, check their investment portfolios, answer business e-mail, answer personal e-mail, make business phone calls, answer personal phone calls.

Out of the office they think about the reports, edit the presentations, check their investment portfolios, answer business e-mail, answer personal e-mail, make business phone calls, and answer personal phone calls.

Employees live a significant part of their lives in the universe of possibilities they reach through their PCs, their Blackberries, the Treos, their iPhones.

The economic gap between self-sufficient computing and central IT that drove the PC revolution is back. The existential gulf separating IT’s perception of work from the employee perception of work is new, and wider. We in IT had better figure it out, or business users will figure it out without us.

Because for us, a PC is an expensive, hard-to-support business resource. But for them it’s a portal to an entire universe they can buy at Costco for a few hundred bucks.

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