"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 20 August 1996. Updated every WEEKDAY.

It's The Terminal, Dummy!


[Mr. Powell]

Everyone wants to stand for

something. In politics, the twin

but opposing desires to be both

representative and revolutionary

lead to regurgitation of

phrases whose meaning is both

empty and overarching, but at

times kind of ominous as well.

Sometimes it takes an outsider

to notice just how jingoistic

the jingles have gotten, and it

was the Economist who pointed

out the Riefenstahlian

undertones of San Diego's

speeches: A general who ends his

speech with an upraised fist and

a nationalist battle cry? Anywhere

else, it'd be considered a call

to war, not motivation to fill a

campaign war chest.



Perhaps the very emptiness of

these speeches spurs their divisiveness -

again, outsiders may need MTV to

help tell the candidates apart,

but those who care see a world

of difference in what the rest

of us think of as vacuum of

thought. Ideology expands to

fill its container, after all,

so it's not surprising to find

both the political and computer

industries playing shirts and

skins over the idea of bringing

back the dumb terminal.


On the political side, well,

we're forcing the metaphor, but

what about all this talk of

government as conduit and not an

entity? In the industry,

however, the intersect is more




Some of you may recall another

era, a lifetime ago, when the

size (or purpose) of either the

government or a computer was the

source of more speculation than

consternation. Both existed "out

there somewhere," accessible but

invisible. Monitors (television)

gave government a human face,

but that workstation on your

desk? In an obvious reference to

the end user, the IS Department

affectionately dubbed it a "dumb

terminal," a cheesy monitor that

spewed green or amber text. In a

form of autocracy rarely seen

outside of Helmsley hotels

or Redmond, Washington, the text

spewed in exactly the form the

IS department wanted it to. Want

something customized? Well,

we'll get to you as soon as we

can. Really.


Managers of the aforementioned IS

departments had a virtual vise

grip over the computing

resources people used, but their

job was easy. If there needed to

be a change to the software,

they simply logged in at any

office they happened to be

wasting time in at that

particular moment, sprinkled

some fairy dust on the

situation, and returned to their

analysis of last night's

football game. All in time to be

home by 6 P.M.


If only Carter had it so easy.



Enter the '80s - not so much a

decade of greed as of gear.

Reagan could cloak himself in

the flag and persuade us (not

entirely against our will) that

cutting taxes inspired profits;

but true individual empowerment

came not from tax cuts but hard

drives. With the hard drive came

a radical concept: control and

power. Some expressed it in

Pepsi-like drivel, calling it

the "power to be your best."

Sure, if you mean "best" as in

"score." Productivity plummeted,

Tetris scores rose.


[Techie Thingy]

Back in the IS department, life

had gone to hell. Their smooth

ride to quitting time was

replaced with endless calls for

support. The typical call: "I

don't know what's wrong. If my

Guns N' Roses alarm clock goes

off while my Star Trek screen

saver is on, my machine freezes.

The CFO wants this spreadsheet,

so you better come fix this

NOW!" Support costs, once

measured in pennies, ballooned

to a hefty portion of the

typical IS budget.


Everyone had their hands in the

fairy dust, but the rate at

which we "improved" our

workstations and at which we

spent our money suggests that

some of us were snorting it. By

the time the '90s hit, the IS

department charted next to Human

Resources on an


axis. Then an amazing thing

happened - the web made IS cool




Everyone wanted Internet access,

and the IS department gave you

the tools to get there.

Yesterday's losers became

today's studs. But while the IS

troops were getting laid behind

the copiers, the higher-ups had

another vision. "Hmmm," they

pondered, scratching their

Lenin-like beards, "information

resides someplace other than the

client. Eureka! Bring back the

dumb terminal!" It didn't take

long before the buzzwords took

over. "Bloated PCs running

fatware are holding back

society as we know it. What we

need are thin terminals and

'information appliances!'"

In-TRA-nets became the sexy word

of the month, tossed around

trade shows like free mouse

pads. As usual, the hype started

to pile, and a good idea quickly

got bulldozed.



But think about it: if you're the

evil empire, looking to get your

claws into that last 10 percent

of the market, the idea of

"renting" Word to the poor

schmucks who can't afford it

looks very appealing. Misguided

corporate types also got a lot

of support from also-ran

jurassic computer manufacturers,

who see this movement as a

last-ditch effort to resurrect

their dying product line. And of

course, since the new NC

computing model will allow for

thinned-down clients, who needs

a PC at all? Apple, we just felt

a Newton rise.


Of course, the reality of the

situation looks less Newtonian

than an exercise in the

Heisenberg principle: once a

trend is observed, merely

commenting on it can affect it,

and in this case, keep it alive.

All NC computing has done is

resuscitate the technology long

enough for that next round of VC

funding to close.


[Wall Street]

Not that we object. Vaporware

projects are the junk bonds of

the '90s, and with today's

politicians giving us an

economic spin lifted straight

from Wall Street (not to mention

the Wall Street Journal)...

well, we'll follow the Laffer

curve all the way to the bank.

But you can go first. The vessel

may be dumb, but it's the hype

that should be quieted before

anyone makes a move. After all,

Reagan's selling the ranch, so

we doubt that you can go home

again. And even if we could,

would any of us recognize it?

courtesy of Red Howard