Generation X-ess

My mother had a saying: "Anything more than a handful is an excess." She was raised during the Great Depression, so the concept of excess was almost sin to her generation.

I find myself thinking of those words these days as I consider the thousands of IT managers out there living life in near-constant PC hardware upgrade mode. Governed by Moore’s Law (that says that the price/performance of microprocessors doubles every 18 months), PCs today pack a wallop in terms of raw compute power that’s almost unfathomable.

Not only that, but PCs today come equipped with a supply of dynamic RAM that just a few years ago would have been considered an industrial-strength supply of hard disk memory. Then, of course, there are the add-ons such as the compact disk drive, which now has been powered up to something like 24-speed, whatever that means.

So with this gargantuan store of unbridled electronic power parked beneath my desk, why does it take so long for my supercharged PC to boot? Why do so many applications still function as though there were a bit of molasses in my microprocessor circuitry? Why is it that, despite a 300 percent increase in processor power in the last 3 years, PC performance has increased a small fraction of that power surge? Why is there never enough disk storage space?

The answers are straightforward and should have profound effects on corporate purchase patterns. Basically, as individuals and as business consumers, we weren’t raised during the Great Depression. We were raised in times of plenty by Dr. Spock, who taught us that if we whined loudly enough we’d get picked up and held and given things that we probably didn’t even need: like superhigh-performance -- and expensive -- PCs.

The fact is, PC hardware today is running a solid 2 or 3 years ahead of the ability of software to exploit it. With the introduction of Windows 98, this gulf between PC power and software potential isn’t about to change, because there is no treasure trove of application-inducing magic in this latest rev of Windows. Moore’s Law if anything will continue to widen this performance-potential gulf.

Consider the ongoing user lament, "I need more disk storage." Eight-plus gigabytes is becoming the norm for disk storage capacity on new PCs. International Data Corp. (Framingham, Mass.) predicts growth in PC storage capacity demand in the 40 percent per-year range. That’s nearly a doubling every 2 years.

Do yourself a favor. Look at the hard disks of some small sample of users crowing for more disk storage. See what is actually on their drives. You’ll be amazed, if not sickened. For some reason, old and useless data is treated like men’s ties. Neither gets thrown out, even though neither ever comes back into fashion or function.

Still, enterprise IT managers continue to push the electronic equivalent of Ferraris and Lamborghinis into the hands of people who drive the streets of New York. Why?

Two reasons are Intel Corp. and Microsoft Corp. (not to mention the thousands of business partners that support the Wintel duopoly). Intel is a $26 billion giant whose survival absolutely depends not so much on Moore’s Law but on the acceptance of the next generation of microprocessors. A 166-MHz processor would be more than ample power for the overwhelming majority of corporate PC users. But if that is what Intel shipped today, its profits would plummet.

Microsoft and others continue to clog our disk drives with features in many applications that most users will never know exist but will pay for nonetheless.

But the biggest reason for all this idle power sitting on corporate desks everywhere is the sense that, while "more than a handful is an excess," an excess is somehow good when it comes to PC hardware.

As a gatekeeper of fiscal prudence, your job should be to point out that an excess is fundamentally an unnecessary expense. I found that out recently when I replaced an aging laptop. I shunned the 333-MHz, 5-GB, 48-RAM powerhouses and invested instead in a great screen and the fastest modem I could buy. My 2.4-GB drive will do just fine, and I swear I couldn’t tell any difference in my basic road applications if I went with anything faster than the 166-MHz chip that powers my very usable machine.

Of course, I pay for my equipment with my own money, which is a great way for you to think of the corporate funds you use to buy hardware.

Bill Laberis is president of Bill Laberis Associates Inc. (Holliston, Mass.) and former editor-in-chief of Computerworld. Contact him at bill@laberis.com.