Is Bigger Better?

The following article was left on my desk at work by some anonymous individual about a month ago. It originally appeared in the September 1997 edition of DECISION. It is reproduced without permission, but if anyone happens to know about the magazine, please drop me a line and I'd be happy to discuss the article with the editor...

Cast your mind back to your first desktop PC. It probably ran a very early version of Microsoft Word with white letters on a blue background, or it might even have run something truly archaic like Locoscript. The machine itself probably had 640k of RAM, a size which Bill Gates himself said was all anyone would ever need. Its hard disk capacity was probably about 20 megabytes, while a CD-ROM was still a thing of the future.

Now, compare it to your current desktop. This probably runs Office 97 with the very latest versions of Word, Excel and so on. It probably has a hard drive of about one gigabyte (50 times the size of your first machine), RAM of 16 megabytes (30 times bigger), has a built-in modem, a 16-speed CD-ROM and a few other features that you're not even aware of. But does it get the job done any quicker?

Recent studies of computer use in offices have revealed that large amounts of time which should be saved by faster machines are being frittered away by software that is unnecessarily difficult and inefficient.

For example, a study carried out in the US among 6,000 workers found that they each spent an average of 5.1 hours each week "twiddling" with their computers.

A major cause of this is what the experts describe as "creeping functionality". Each version of a programme has more functions than the previous one, and arranges them in different places on the menu just to confuse people further. For example, the 1992 version of Microsoft Words for Windows had 311 commands, the 1997 version has 1,033. Whether anyone will ever use these additional 722 commands for anything productive is anyone's guess. What is definite is the fact that people who had mastered Word 2.0c will waste an awful lot of time learning how to use Word 97 only to use it for precisely the same tasks as the earlier version. Also, due to the size and complexity of the programme, unless they invest in expensive new hardware the software will actually run slower than the earlier version - more time wasted.

Add to this the fact that computers and information technology appear to have had a near zero impact on prodcutivity over the years and it would appear that billions of dollars are being wasted every year. Productivity growth in the world's leadnig nations has fallen from a high of 4.5 percent annually during the late 1960s to a mere 1.5 percent today. And the economic growth of the 90s is explained by increased trade, employment and production. The contribution of computers is neglible.

A classic case in point is the US hospital system. In 1968 the hospitals employed 435,000 administrative staff to serve 1.4 million patients at a time. By 1992 the average patient population had dropped to 853,000 while the administrative staff complement had risen to 1.2 million. Much of this increase was created by the increased amount of time spent on information processing.

So, yes computers are bigger, better, faster, but they don't seem to be making any meaningful contribution to productivity. Perhaps this is the next challenge of the information age - to realise the potential of computers to make real productivity gains.

(c) 1997 DECISION

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