These illustrations show the old mainframe-centric network (left) and the newest "cloud computing" environment (right)
Some twenty years ago when the Soviet bloc was disintegrating, one of the fathers of the computer predicted that the dominance of the mainframe computers was about to be over, too. He said to the effect that the conventional way of networking "dumb" terminals around a big machine could only lead us to a world where communism prevails over democracy. Around that time, we started enthusiastically talking about enduser computing based, for instance, on the "client-server model."
We were upbeat about the promise of huge paradigm shift being enabled especially by the GUI (graphical user interface) Microsoft had added on to its operating system named MS-DOS. We, corporate users, thought that at long last computer users would be liberated from the digital communism and regain their own selves. Three decades later, however, it's becoming more and more evident that we still face a bumpy road ahead until we see something to be called digital democracy, also known as e-democracy, on the horizon.
For one thing, Microsoft was once at the forefront of the Internet revolution with its early offers of Windows as the platform for enduser computing. But now MS looks to have made it a rule to announce a new version of Windows every second or third year simply because it would otherwise be out of business sooner or later.
From the user's point of view, the single most important thing in migrating from a Windows version to the next is to know whether the tradeoff between supposedly improved usefulness and inevitably diminishing usability justifies the cost and the time to be entailed in the upgrade. As a matter of fact, this tradeoff can't be larger than zero these days because the usefulness of Windows has long reached a saturation point. The real reason behind this phenomenon is because the gap between information technologies and socio-economic systems has reached the point where it cannot be any wider.
As a result, we are going along with the software giant only to its interests at the cost of the real userfriendliness on our side.
You may ask, "Should we feel obliged to help MS and other software vendors stay in business?" Unfortunately, the answer is "Yes" because we are in a position to shoulder their costs for research and development. The real problem here lies with the fact that they are overcharging us primarily to develop a "new" way of GUI, such as moving around some icons and changing their sizes, shapes and colors.
R&D costs for hardware are funded in a little different way.
I have been a PC user since 1982. In the early-1980s, the IBM PC, which
cost you more than $10,000 apiece, had no hard disk drive in it and the built-in
memory was a mere 256-512KB. Of course, the function for network connection
had yet to come. And yet we found the legendary machine amazingly useful.
It is true that in the last three decades, they have developed technologies for interconnectibility with other computers as well as large-scale memories and hard disk drives. But equally important, they have also been exploiting what little technological prowess to develop a special technology with which to artificially shorten the life cycles of the hardware. So if we just get along with them, we will end up acting like their suckers.
In the past very few Westerners talked about the purpose of life presumably because they knew that in their everyday life, a purpose is yet another means. For what we Japanese refer to as the purpose of life, they had a better word: values. On the other hand, there are no religious values in Japan where the "trilogy of faiths" has long been practiced as Australian writer once observed in his book titled Princess Masako - Prisoner of the Chrysanthemum Throne. This means that whenever a Japanese talks about the purpose of his life, he is just talking about the next step to take to ultimately get nowhere in the endless chain of means.
I have noticed, however, the Japanese are not alone these days in leading a purposeless life. That is basically why today's IT industry is doing relatively well all over the world.
A week or so ago, I woke up in the morning to learn my 3-year-old desktop machine, a Fujitsu, had fallen terminally ill. The moment I turned it on, I heard a squawky, continuous beep and saw the process of launching Windows XP getting stuck. After struggling with the dying machine for 30 minutes, I learned stilll I could somehow launch it if I used Function Key F8. But the performance was quite unstable.
I called Fujitsu. As usual, its troubleshooters were all half-asleep.
Like anyone else sitting there, the first guy who answered my phone didn't understand the computer, in itself, is not the purpose of my life, and that I can't afford to spend too much time on technical problems. Shrugging off my story about hearing the unmusical sound as layman's opinion, he insisted that I should do what he told me to do so we could determine if the problem was caused by the hardware or software.
It was quite predictable that the first thing he suggested I do was a recovery of Windows XP using the "recovery CD" with which my PC came 3 years ago. What if the recovery of software doesn't solve the problem? Then we would go on chitchatting over the hardware problem, perhaps for another several hours, because now we would be surer that the hardware is the culprit. I yelled at him: "No, I won't do that. You must know how many time-consuming, and sometimes risky steps I would have to take before and after doing a recovery of the OS. To me a computer is nothing but a tool with which to pursue my goal which has nothing in common with Fujitsu's monkey business."
Since I had thought the beep indicated it wasn't a software problem, I let the second troubleshooter hear it over the phone. That made him wake up a little. He solemnly declared: "That sound indicates it's most probably the hardware, not the software, that causes the problem." I said, "Why then did the first one insist I do recovery?"
The third one proposed that he send a technician to do an onsite diagnosis to pinpoint the problem area and repair it accordingly. I asked him about the cost. He matter-of-factly said that would cost me approximately 30,000 yen ($330) plus the price of the repair parts, be it the RAM, the mother board, or the hard disk.
But I knew that if the repairman replaces the defective parts with new ones, that won't prolong the life of the dying machine that much.
That is why I made a big investment decision this afternoon to buy an NEC PC run on Windows Vista at a discount price of 118,900 yen ($1,320,) knowing that Vista has now been in its phaseout stage and Windows 7 will hit the shelves by the end of this month. (Vista's first customer shipment was made as recently as January 2007.) But I know the first versions of any software product are something that count on users for their input about bugs as if they are guinea pigs.
Needless to say, I found no added usefulness in the new machine except that I can watch on its screen the digital terrestrial broadcasting which will entirely supplant the analog broadcasting in 2011 here. Actually this means nothing to me because I'm not one of those fools who are glued to the TV set all day long. I was thinking that if I'm still around 2 years from now, it would be the right time to finally part ways with the Japanese TV broadcasters.
In the era of "cloud computing" you still can resist drowning in the overwhelming waves of Digital Maoism if you have a sense of purpose. On the contrary there is no way out of the situation where computer users have long remained subordinated to these hardware and software manufacturers.
Especially it is a real nightmare when I don't know which ends earlier, my life cycle or the service life of my new PC.