New Zealand Reseller News has devoted gallons of ink and buckets of pixels to covering Microsoft’s Windows Vista launch. It’s a big story and largely a positive one for our industry. However, a seemingly insignificant nugget buried deep in the international coverage of last week’s events rang alarm bells. We’ll get to this nugget in a moment, first some background. Something seismic happened to relations between mankind and computers during the 1990s: we went from thinking about computers as being a kind of digital brain to viewing them as a forum or meeting place. In the sixties you could buy books with names like “The Billion Dollar Brain” – a spy thriller about a super computer. Movies, 2001 A Space Odyssey is the most obvious example, depicted computers as having human-like thoughts, motives and dysfunctions. Bladerunner did the same with more style. In the Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy robots and even humble doors were given personalities. There was a time when any self-respecting software company simply had to use the words “artificial intelligence” to describe its new products. Our view of computers reflected our dramatic, pessimistic, optimistic or humorous views of humanity. We saw them as companions or possibly even rivals. Then data communications took off. First with local area networking. Then with simple wider area networks and eventually with the Internet. Overnight computers went from being powerful calculators to being communications devices. The metaphor switched from brain to destination. In the mid-1990s Microsoft’s main advertising slogan was “where do you want to go today?” Movie depictions of computers switched from paranoid androids and murderous replicants to the Matrix. We talked of cyberspace, we “went online”. Importantly, we purchased buckets more computers and related products than we ever did before. And we used our computers to buy other things. One of the places we went to with Microsoft was the online shopping mall. The switch from brain to place triggered an industry wide boom, it made some of us rich. The place metaphor was rich with potential. It still is. Moreover, both the brain and place metaphors made for good business tools. But sadly, the metaphor de jour is changing again and it doesn't look good for business. Steve Jobs and the iPod are partly to blame. Bill Gates and just about every consumer product his company pumps out are also to blame. Hell, cellphone makers are guilty too. Today’s Vista-era computers are primarily about delivering content. Less two-way communication, more passive couch potato. In other words modern PCs are souped-up television sets, transistor radios and music centres all rolled into one. They’ve become toys and there’s a danger they will dumb us down. But for business there’s something even worse. When Bill Gates made his formal announcement in London, one of the most important parts of his speech said Windows Vista would revolutionise television by letting people watch personalised shows, for example, with longer news items on subjects they were interested in. Even television advertising would be targeted to the individual viewer, he said. So, it has come to this. That powerful, liberating business tool on your desktop is now primarily a channel for advertisers to fill your brain with sales messages. The metaphor isn’t just TV and radio, it’s commercial TV and radio. Having software delivered as a service will only make matters worse. Putting up with spam is bad enough. Now there’s a danger the working day will be punctuated with “a message from our sponsor” delivered directly onscreen. Sessions of writing a document, preparing a presentation or crunching spreadsheet numbers can be interrupted with plugs for sets of steak knives and other assorted spivvery. That doesn’t sound very productive. Nor does it sound like progress. No wonder some companies are reluctant to make the Vista upgrade.
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