A PC is No Longer a Stand-alone or Personal Device
by L. Nick Nelson and Vern R. Johnson
Over the past two decades, the keyboard and monitor on my desk have gone from being a mainframe terminal that gave me access to a single computer but controlled what I could do with that access, to being a personal computer (PC) that allowed me to do whatever I wanted with its computing abilities, to now being a networked workstation that allows me to access many networked resources but controls what I do with that access. Iíve come full-circle; I was controlled, and then free, and now Iím controlled again.
The era of personal computing has been an exciting adventure. Oh, it still exists to some extent with our stand-alone home computers, but while most of us were busy thinking about other things, control of our work computers was slowly wrestled from us, until one day we just became users.
Personal computers have become much more powerful workstations that are networked to the world. But while some of us still refer to them as PCs, they really aren't. If you donít believe this generality, just try to load a program on your work computer yourself. Or try to search the Internet for special data and then download the program you need to view that data. Chances are that your PC will let you know that you are not authorized to do so, and that you should contact the system administrator. It is not your personal computer anymore. The companyís 'system administrator' was hired to protect your workstation from outside hackers ó and from you. Interestingly, some longtime PC users havenít yet noticed the personal computing freedoms that they have lost. Other, more short-time users never knew the freedoms that existed and so donít miss them.
Following is what a couple of longtime users ó who experienced the demise of personal computing and miss it ó think is happening. You be the judge.
For at least the first 15 years of the personal computer era, the machine was essentially a stand-alone and very personal device. No part of it was kept from your touch and no protection mechanisms were placed on any of its files. You could read, modify and delete any file, run any program, and install any software. If you didnít like the results, you could clear everything off the disk and start over. It was a tool completely at your disposition.
Then networking came along.
Networking has played a significant role in computing since those earliest days of the white-smocked 'priests' and their mainframe computers. But it did not begin to affect most computer users until the mid-1990s, when Microsoft integrated TCP/IP (Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol) into its Windows operating systems. Until then, users had to install extra software and hardware in their PCs before connecting them to networks, if indeed a network was available. Eventually, however, the Internet was 'discovered' and software companies began to produce networkable operating systems.
The networked PC became ubiquitous. The promise of easier collaboration, the benefits and economies of sharing distributed resources, the flexibility in operation and access to features such as global e-mail, remote backup and storage and, of course, use of the rapidly growing Internet, were all factors in its rise. But along with the wonders of the Internet came some problems. Now, figuratively speaking, you were not the only person sitting at your keyboard; you had been joined, potentially, by anyone else who had access to your network. Your personal computer, once a highly private tool, had been rendered as secure as your lost wallet lying in the street.
So, in the spirit of the Old West, it was necessary to circle the wagons. Those previously isolated computers were joined together in their own local networks managed by operating systems that shut everybody out and then grudgingly let you back in. But they let you back in only so far. No longer can you read, write, delete and execute to your heartís content. Your computer is protected from some of the bad guys out there, but it is also protected from you! You arenít the owner anymore. Youíre just another user on a network with restricted access, lorded over by invisible machines that are chillingly referred to as domain controllers. You have to call someone else to perform many ó if not most ó of the tasks you used to do by yourself.
It can be argued that your desktop computer has always belonged to the company and perhaps you had no business treating it like your own. But prior to the rise of local area networking and the Internet, didnít you feel more in control of that computer and what it was used for? Can that be the case, now that the 'priest in the white coat' has returned?
Is Your PC Really Personal? We Want to Know
If you have a PC on your work desk, do you have the personal ability to control what is done on it or is it a company tool that can only be used to do your job? Is your ability to use it for any purpose limited? For example, can you search the Internet, send and receive e-mail to and from anyone, and load programs that will help you or are you limited by company-imposed restrictions? Does your company scan your files occasionally to see what is there? Are ďyourĒ files stored in central data units?
What about your home computer? Is it networked? Do you have protection from hackers and viruses? Has this protection compromised some of your freedom? In other words, will yours remain truly a personal computer or have you delegated some of your freedom to a protector in a white coat? We think most people today would choose to increase computing and networking abilities, and give up some of the ďpersonalĒ freedom associated with personal computing. What do you think?
Please share your comments with us at email@example.com. Be sure to include your name, home city and state, and IEEE membership level.
L. Nick Nelson is Computer Support Group Manager for the College of Engineering and Mines at the University of Arizona in Tucson, Ariz.
Vern R. Johnson is Associate Dean of Engineering at the University of Arizona in Tucson, and is IEEE-USAís Career Activities Editor. This article is adapted from materials in his book, Becoming a Technical Professional (Casas Adobes Publishing, Tucson, Ariz., 2000). For more information, go to http://www.dakotacom.net/~capublish.