Steven J. Vaughan Nichols: Losing the 'Personal' in 'Personal Computing'

Steven J. Vaughan Nichols: Losing the 'Personal' in 'Personal Computing'

I got involved in computers just in time for the revolution. It was the 1970s, and we were moving from centrally managed computers to PCs. For the next 40 years, users had an unprecedented level of choice, which put the "personal" in "personal computing." Today, that revolution is being pushed back.

I don't want to overstate the case. In some organizations, users never moved from the terminal/server model, and even if you had a PC, there was always some vendor lock-in. If you bought a Mac, you used Apple's operating system. You had more options with a Windows PC, but they were limited.

Through all those years, though, no matter what sort of PC you bought, you could always modify it to meet your changing needs. All you needed were expansion slots and a bit of know-how. It was easy to upgrade to a more powerful graphics card, add more memory or switch out to a bigger hard drive.

The first sign that things were changing came with the arrival of sealed-unit smartphones and, a bit later, tablets. Upgradability just doesn't exist in the tablet world. With a tablet, what you see is what you get, and there's no way to give yourself more down the road.

The trend expanded in June, when Apple introduced the new MacBook Pro. You can't open the case without voiding the warranty. You can't upgrade the hard drive or RAM or change the battery. Some of these limitations have been true of the MacBook Air for a while, but the new MacBook Pro takes them to new levels. The biggest problem with this is that your MacBook Pro will be obsolete when the day comes that you feel the need to move to a new version of the operating system or want to add applications that it can't support. Your only choice will be to buy a new machine.

Another area of flexibility in the PC era was choice of operating system. We never had complete freedom, as noted above, but let's say you bought a new PC back in 2009. It would have come with the infamous Windows Vista installed, but it was relatively easy to install the older Windows XP -- or even Linux. Now, with Windows 8, Microsoft is making it really hard to boot Linux or older versions of Windows . You can still find a way, if your tech knowledge is above average and you're persistent. But it's worse with tablets. If you buy a Microsoft Surface or Windows RT tablet, you're pretty much locked into Windows 8 forever.

But, you say, what embodies freedom more than a cloud? It's true that the cloud can eliminate some upgradability problems, since you can put not just your data but also your applications in the cloud. I like some aspects of having everything on the cloud, which is one reason I'm a Google Chrome OS fan. But more and more, the cloud has become a new road to vendor lock-in. Google apps work better with Chrome, Mac OS X and iOS are increasingly intertwined with iCloud, and Office 13 is on its way to being a Microsoft cloud-based application.

It seems as if the push to lock us into a specific platform is growing stronger. I like being able to improve my computers, whether they're on my desk or in my pocket. I like being able to choose my operating systems and programs. I don't want to return to a time when I have no choice but to use whatever the big vendors put in front of me.

I loved the PC revolution. I don't want to once again have no choice but to put my trust in black boxes and services under the control of corporations that might not have my best interests at heart.

Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols has been writing about technology and the business of technology since CP/M-80 was cutting-edge and 300bps was a fast Internet connection -- and we liked it! He can be reached at

Read more about hardware in Computerworld's Hardware Topic Center.

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