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I can see the future, you know. Wait..the Spirit moves..Yes..It's coming clearer...and it works!

It's WorkStation CE, the Future of Enterprise Computing.

It's a sealed box, of course. The one I see has a flat panel, but the Spirit does tell me that it comes in various models, including CRT ones. It's all one piece, except the keyboard and mouse.

The case is monolithic high-strength plastic, and the screen is covered with armor glass; it takes a pretty good whack with a fair-sized hammer to make a mark. It has absolutely no openings or open ports of any kind -- no floppy drive, no CD drive, no tape, and none of their successors. Greens will be overjoyed to note that it uses so little power, it doesn't even have cooling slots. There's not even a power switch. Only IS can shut it off or turn it on -- over the network, natch.

There are no open I/O ports or connectors, either. The network connection is via a cable that's attached inside, directly to the circuit board, emerging through a hefty strain relief; the cable is rigidly armored, rather like the semiflexible gas pipe that feeds the water heater, although covered with PVC insulation. There's no separate power cord; power is supplied through the same cable as the network (remember it's extremely low power) so one big UPS in the server room does for all. The rigidity of the cable isn't a problem, because it's bolted to the table. (The IS techies have the special drivers for the tamper-proof screws. Possession of one by anyone else, on-premises or not, is grounds for immediate discharge.)

On the front, next to the logo, is a window for an IR port. This has three functions: it's the receiver for the keyboard and mouse, both of which are self-powered by continuous motion and/or keypresses; it detects (and reports to IS) whether anybody is sitting in front of it, rather like those things over the urinals in airports, except that this reads badge numbers too; and it transmits to the chair, which uses a chip rather like a ring generator -- powered by piezo plastic in the cushion -- to administer a gentle reminder to the operator when the keypress and/or mouse movement rate drops below the optimum.

The mouse and keyboard are serialized and associated only with one box. All the input is encrypted, and only the correct workstation has the key, so if one of them fails, only IS can replace it. Anything entered via the keyboard is instantly traceable using the code key, and the keyboard and mouse are checked in and out by Security to the specific, assigned employee only. (This is of course a security hole. What if the users swap keyboards around? IS is mulling over a new feature: a video camera with face recognition software. The CIO's intrigued, but wants the vendor to extend the function to check whether the person is goofing off or not before he signs the PO.)

The network connection, at the wall, is secured by a keylock. Only IS has the key. And the shield of the net cable is mildly electrified, as a gentle reminder to users not to mess with things they don't understand.

Software? Well, in the sense we think of it today, it doesn't have any. Its firmware, and the Net routines it accesses, uses local memory as a sort of cache. Whenever anything in it is accessed -- program or data -- it automatically checks the network to see if anything about it has been updated, and if it has, it uploads it from the server. New versions are easy for IS. Just post them to the server with the right date/time stamp, and voila!

There's nothing like email, nor any World Wide Web access. If a user is assigned to a particular process, that workstation can "see" the code and data that pertains to that process; nothing else is visible. There's no "message passing" per se between workstations; changes made to data at a given workstation are automatically propagated by the caching mechanism to the others in that workgroup. There used to be printing, but that just recently got removed. People were using it to pass notes to one another, and that couldn't be allowed. Only a limited number of people are vetted by IS to have a [PRINT] button, and there's a strict page limit.

Very important: There is absolutely no way for a workstation to introduce executable code, including scripts, macros, "active" whatevers, and especially machine code, into the system. Everything like that has to come from the network interface, and it's encrypted so as to be readable by the specific workstation only. The encryption method is a variant of Public Key, and not even IS knows the internal private key of any particular workstation, only the visible public key. From time to time some wise guy tries. The workstation promptly "decrypts" the new stuff, using its private key and the server's public one, and tries to execute it. That doesn't just lock it up; it destroys its usefulness. It has to be swapped for a new one, and rebuilt by the manufacturer. The plucky user is, of course, discharged with prejudice.

Isn't it wonderful? Here is a computer that's almost completely immune to "dumth," amd absolutely cannot propagate "dumth" to other workstations or the net!

And it gets better. All of them are alike--all five thousand and something Workstation CEs in the entire company! Talk about maintainable! Configuration control! Yes!

The one on the CEO's desk, and a few others, look different, because they have different cases. The CEO's, for instance, is rosewood and brass. Others are nice Art Noveaux chrome, or painted bright colors. But inside, they're all the same.

Small exception: the folks in Engineering Design wept and moaned until they got permission to use something different. Theirs have bigger screens (which is mainly what they were complaining about) and ports for some different pointing devices. Of course, there's a problem with that. If anything goes wrong with one of Engineering's workstations, all IS can do is replace it with a standard one and send the broken one out for repair. Engineering gets hit with a surcharge every month, because the software they use doesn't use all the same standard ports as the standard workstations, and IS charges them back for the extra support needed. When something does need support, it takes anywhere from a couple of days to a couple of months to get anything resolved. IS is trying real hard, but it's just too tough to support multiple configurations, and they've got to have time to get it straight. (Other divisions of the company have seen what happened to Engineering and got the message. Nobody else asks for an exception to the Standard Configuration.)

What with all the savings on configuration control, and the elimination of "dumth" as a factor in messing up the network, IS actually has a relatively small staff -- no bigger than it had at the turn of the century. They work regular hours, eight to five weekdays, never on weekends. IS actually has a life! All the servers are locked up in what amounts to a vault, with steel doors and no windows, and they all run on industrial-strength UPSs. If one goes down outside of normal working hours, anyone who needs that service just does without until IS shows up for work. (It's really bulletproof, too. One time the Engineering manager got frustrated when the server with all the production machine code on it went down on a Friday at 1715. In an attempt to reboot it, he crashed his car into the utility service, cutting off all the power to the building. When the electric company finally got the power back on, the net hadn't been affected in the least, and the dead server was still dead. They had to fire him, of course. He lives in Shasta, now, and runs a bait and tackle shop; the other division managers took up a collection to get him started. He makes a living. He doesn't own a computer of any kind.)

But a lot of familiar faces are missing.

Last anybody heard of khasim, he'd been turned down for a job as dispatcher at the Redlands PD. (Overqualified, you know.) imric just got laid off at the little ISP he was working for, because the owner finally decided to cash out and sold it to MTTNM. (Microsoft Telephone, Telegraph, and National Management. In the news today, MTTNM bought Finland in a stock-swap deal. President Torvalds resigned in protest.)

Why is that? These are highly competent people, people who really worked hard to get the system up and running. They put in long hours and sweated blood to make it work. Nobody knows more about it than they do, and it's damn rare to find someone who knows half as much.

I hereby propound warlocke's Law of Hierarchical Success:

Power goes to those who work for it.

khasim and imric were too busy getting things done, making the system work, and giving the users what they needed, to take the time out to work for power in the structure. So they lost out to people who didn't give a damn whether anything worked or not, so long as they got to be boss, and didn't waste any time or effort on anything but getting to the top. (Sort of like politicians, who get to be geniuses at running for office, but have no clue about holding one.) Our Heroes didn't notice until too late what Uncle Joe knew in his fingertips: Knowledge is Power. Information is the precursor of Knowledge. Absolute power over all the information is worth fighting for. Step on a few faces on the way up? Piddly crap. Hell, it's worth killing babies for.

Too bad.
So sad.

But the real question is, did it help productivity?

Well, you'd have to answer, Yes, productivity is up. Management's letters and memos go out faster, with fewer revisions. Engineering gets the designs done and validated. Data gets into the database. And the salespeople have been on a roll, lately.

And IS is really happy. Uptime is nearly 100%. Network traffic seems to be down for some reason, but that's OK, it just puts less of a load on the system, makes maintenance easier, and improves the CIO's favorite metric (company revenue per network packet.) And complaints to IS about poor service just don't happen, so obviously they're doing something right, eh?

Happy ending, yes?

But if you look closer, something weird is going on. Last week's Cringely was complimenting people for trending away from complex formatting and all those fonts in their business correspondence. After two years of slipping earnings, International Paper and James River Corp. are showing stock price upticks. So is Gestetner, newly independent again. (They make offset presses and other "industrial grade" printing equipment. Most of their increased earnings come from the HyPage division, which used to be the laser printer operation of Hewlett-Packard before HP dumped it for six successive quarters of declining revenue.)

"Net Cafes" are experiencing a mild resurgence. (There's one down the street; the food's OK but not remarkable.) But business at net service kiosks in airports is down for the second quarter in a row. Dvorak (yes, he's still around; it isn't that far in the future) says there's a new buzzword among those in the know: disco. It has nothing to do with dancing.

Or maybe it does. Disco is short for "disconnected." For right now, it's confined to the upper crust: early adopters, celebrities, high flyers. It's a retro sort of thing. They'll pay a premium for Palm Pilot IIIs and IVs, and the few Vs without the network interface go for a bundle.

It's considered a "perk" to have an office without a net interface. The people in the Art department consider it a right to do without. Somebody just offered a new after-hours course for the cognoscenti -- in San Francisco, natch. Subject? Handwriting. (Palmer Method.) It's just not cool to use the new stuff. The only people who spend much time working away at workstations are galley slaves and peons -- data entry operators, engineers, that kind of clut.

They're getting the work done. How? Spirit doesn't answer. But then, the folks in DP never quite figured out what PCs were all about, now did they?