Technology giveth, and technology taketh away.
The very technology that gave us the personal computer is now taking the personal out of computer. In companies across the country, personal computers are giving way to personal computing.
That distinction is vital, and multi-user systems are responsible for it.
Don't confuse multi-user systems with local area networks. Local area networks link clusters of PCs into a communicating community. Multi-user systems are more in line with what's known in computer argot as "timesharing." To yuppies, timesharing is splitting up a condo in the Bahamas; computer timesharing means divvying up the processing power of a computer so that several users can access it simultaneously.
The classic form of timesharing involved hooking up a bunch of dumb terminals to a single large computer. Each terminal user could access and program the main computer. Essentially, though, the computer remained under the control of the data processing department.
Multi-user systems recapitulate timesharing on the micro level. A PC with a souped-up, high-speed microprocessor and software can handle multiple dumb-terminal users at the same time. Compaq and Orchid Systems both offer this kind of capability in their machines. Indeed, companies such as Ashton-Tate and Lotus are now offering multi-user versions of their software products.
Why would someone want this kind of system? From the corporate point of view, there are two terrific reasons: Dumb terminals are significantly cheaper than PCs; and access to computing power and sensitive files can be more effectively controlled.
On the surface, the multi-user system seems to be a perfectly logical and cost-effective approach to office automation. I think it's a digital turkey in a Nehru straitjacket. It cuts against the very forces that created the personal computer movement. Why the heck do people think PCs were successful in the first place?
Sure, people wanted computing power at their fingertips that their data processing departments were unable or unwilling to provide. Sure, the PCs were a lot more affordable than big machines. Sure, there was decent software available that made personal computing more accessible to the non-tekkie.
But there was something else just as important: a sense of ownership and control. The computer was personal, darn it. It was as personal as a diary, a notepad or a toothbrush. You don't let people read your diary -- unless you want them to -- and you certainly don't let them use your toothbrush.
What's more, the computer was under your control. It responded to your commands. It stored your data. You could, in the privacy of your own processor, tinker with various scenarios without the fear of some digital Big Brother peeking in and tattling on you.
Lurking beneath that pride of ownership and that need for control is one of the most powerful of human urges: selfishness. Note that I said selfishness, not greed. No one but a butcher loves a pig. The personal computer offers one of the most constructive opportunities for intelligent selfishness. Most importantly, the personal computer is a tangible and palpable tool for the individual.
With a multi-user system, access can be controlled by forces greater than the individual. Let's say you're working on a spreadsheet model of fourth-quarter budget projections. In a multi-user system, the data processing person monitoring the microcomputer can peek in and survey just what you're doing. The system can be programmed so that certain people can't exchange files or share access to the same data.
What you have is a classic battle in centralization and autonomy.
Remember, the emergence of multi-user micros gives organizations a technology that potentially allows them to exert greater control for less cost. The incentives are there for that technology to be implemented.
If personal computers are as important in the workplace as many people think, don't be surprised if individuals and work groups choose to bypass their organization's controlled multi-user system in favor of their own "guerrilla" internal network. The urge for control and ownership is powerful both personally and institutionally. I'm betting that the individuals will win when it comes to PCs.