We’re Not Pioneers Anymore

In 1979, when I first started working in the IT industry, there were lots of people age 40 and up who told me war stories about the old days. I heard stories about drum storage, card readers, card punches, core memory, and debugging by literally pulling moths out of vacuum tubes. Computers were massive and only a few pioneers knew how they worked.

I saw one of these behemoths in the early 1980s. It was the last genuine General Electric computer in the world, vintage 1962. A company in East Chicago, Ill., kept it running by buying the entire inventory of spare parts. I walked inside one cabinet, looked around, and saw 4 KB of memory up close. They had a spare removable disk in another room. It was about five feet tall and the platters were more than six feet in diameter. They said it weighed several tons, and I don’t know how they loaded it into a disk drive. Its capacity was a few megabytes.

Less than five years ago, I had to present my business ideas to fellow students in one of my MBA classes. After sitting through a presentation about using generic blood replacement products during surgery to save money, it was my turn. I mentioned the word "modem," and my instructor stopped me and said I was getting too technical.

We’ve come a long way technologically since then.

Today, the pastor at my church routinely trades power pole insulators via www.ebay.com. These are glass thingies that sit on power poles and insulate electrical cable from the ground. Evidently, there’s quite a market for these things, depending on the color of the glass and how old they are. Ebay has a whole section devoted to them -- go figure. A couple years ago he could barely tolerate technology, and now he routinely trades goods over the Internet.

My sister in Idaho -- who used to tell me computers are the bane of society -- spent over an hour the other night telling me about the advantages of buying stuff over the Web. She is working on a side business signing up people to buy products she sells through a Web site that will go live in September. She raves about buying on the Internet. She said K-Mart during Christmas season is usually a hotbed of activity. But last season, K-Mart was almost empty because everyone was buying products from Web sites. My sister’s boss is also a recent convert to e-commerce. Evidently, he buys most of his books from Amazon.com and also routinely trades on Ebay.

What am I, Rip Van Winkle? Did I go to sleep for 40 years and wake up to some new world?

For the life of me, I can’t figure out what the appeal is. Why would I want to buy something over the Web that I can’t physically see and evaluate? Even books. If I want a book that explains the insides of Windows NT, but I don’t know an author or title, how do I know what book I want without physically thumbing through a few of the choices?

I asked my sister and she said the appeal is convenience and price. She said people will be able to buy just about anything from this new Web site of hers -- from soap to groceries to cars -- and the price will be cheaper than buying from a physical store. And for convenience, buying becomes just a couple of mouse clicks in the family room -- there's no longer any need to fight traffic or jostle people in stores.

I decided to check out the convenience and price of buying an item on the Web. The book, Inside the PC, by Peter Norton, is one of the best beginner PC books I’ve seen. Amazon.com’s price for the seventh edition is $23.99. Barnesandnoble.com’s price for the sixth edition was $27.99. One day later, Barnesandnoble.com dropped its price for the seventh edition to $23.99, matching Amazon.com. I think I paid around $30 the last time I bought a copy in the store.

Maybe my sister has a point. But I’m still not sold.

Anyway, now that computing is becoming mainstream, and even my sister has joined the revolution, what does that mean for us folks in the IT industry? Anyone remember the days when the title "computer programmer" was kind of elite? Today, we’re more like carpenters, plumbers, and mechanics than anything approaching elite. We have valuable skills, but with millions and millions of us now, we are no longer unique.

Is this what it feels like to be part of a revolution that has succeeded? And where do we go from here? --Greg Scott, Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE), is president of Scott Consulting Corp. (Eagan, Minn.). Contact him at gregscott@scottconsulting.com.