Commonly known as desktop computers or personal computers (PCs), microcomputers provide decentralized computing power for a wide number of business functions, especially those involving individual productivity tasks. The category "microcomputer," though somewhat of an anachronism now, distinguishes these machines from the traditionally larger, more powerful mainframes and minicomputers (also called midrange computers) that dominated business computing before the 1980s. While modem microcomputers are more powerful than the earliest mainframe and midrange systems, the latter two classes of computers—both recent models and legacy models from decades ago—are still widely used for memory-intensive and distributed computing applications such as hosting management information systems, corporate Web sites and intranets, local area network file servers, and other enterprise-wide and critical data resources.
Popular business applications available for microcomputers include spreadsheets, word processing, database management systems, decision support systems, graphics, communications, and networking software. Illustrations of business use include transactional, knowledge-based, office automation, management information, decision support, and executive support systems. Spanning the continuum of financial, marketing, managerial, production, and personnel activities, microcomputers pervade almost every aspect of business operations.
In the 17th century, the French mathematician Blaise Pascal (1623-62) and the German mathematician Gottfried Leibnitz (1646-1716) almost simultaneously developed the adding machine. Because all mathematical operations in a microcomputer are based on addition and subtraction, the microcomputer owes a great debt to the efforts of such early pioneers. In 1833, British mathematician Charles Babbage (1792-1871) introduced an analytical machine capable of automatically executing a series of mechanized instructions.
By the 1940s and 1950s, computer development accelerated to create the first generation of computing: the vacuum tube age. Electric signals transmitted through vacuum tubes created the first mainframe computers, including the ENIAC computer. By virtue of their size, however, vacuum computers remained large and expensive. The vacuum tube soon gave way to smaller and less expensive transistors. A transistor is a small solid state semiconducting device that relays binary code. Smaller and more cheaply produced, transistor technology fueled the downward spiral of computer costs.
By the 1960s, the third generation of computing was well underway with the advent of integrated circuitry. Integrated circuits etch physical pathways onto a semiconducting material, most notably silicon, to relay binary information. This integrated circuitry accommodated greater complexity of transmission patterns and control.
Another milestone came in 1981, when International Business Machines (IBM) introduced its Personal Computer, or PC, in response to a growing undercurrent of increasingly versatile, small desktop computers from other manufacturers. IBM didn't invent the microcomputer, but its adoption of the format opened the floodgates for rapid innovation and adoption of these machines. Combined with increasingly smaller and cheaper components and improved software applications, these personal computers became affordable and easier to use in the 1980s. The trend toward cheaper, more powerful PCs surged throughout the 1990s, so that by the end of the century, individuals or businesses could purchase for less than $1,000 a system more powerful than those costing tens of thousands a few decades earlier.
When PCs first revolutionized corporate computing in the 1980s, many prophesied that they would soon replace other types of computers, most notably mainframes. The logic was that PCs were so powerful and inexpensive, there would be no need for bulky, expensive, and complex mainframes. Instead, the story went, PCs on high-speed LANs would take mainframes' place. This perspective continued to persist into the early 1990s, when mainframe titan IBM was faltering and even its own executives had lost faith in the mainframe.
Contrary to those gloomy forecasts, however, the rest of the 1990s saw a more healthy equilibrium between the different classes of computers. Despite PC advocates' hubris, few if any PCs (or LANs) rivaled the stability and reliability of high-end systems, and moreover, powerful centralized machines were still needed as repositories and safe havens for major corporate systems. Indeed, mainframe sales began to flourish again, thanks in part to innovations that made them cheaper. More important, PCs and mainframes have been shown to be complementary technologies with different strengths and weaknesses. As impressive as PC advances have been, mainframes still offer many advantages for large, multi-user computing environments. Whereas PCs were originally touted as cost savers over mainframes, in the wake of PCs' heavy maintenance requirements, mainframes are again seen as cost-effective for certain situations. Meanwhile, some corporate technology managers have begun to realize that many corporate users have a limited range of microcomputer applications they use regularly and their PCs' full resources are never utilized.
By the mid-1990s, in fact, there was much talk of whether PCs might be replaced with an Internetgeneration hybrid computer known as the network computer (NC). NCs combined elements of the PC world—graphical interfaces, Web browsers, customizable applications, limited local processing—with a few from the mainframe world—powerful centralized computers accessed by weaker, "dumb" terminals. NCs run Web browsers and software fed from the network, rather than storing programs and data files on each individual machine. The NC was not a major success in its first few years, but has begun to develop a niche market among some corporations seeking to contain their PC costs. In response to corporate concerns about cost of ownership, some PC vendors have attempted to market full fledged PCs that they claim are optimized for low maintenance.
A separate trend impacting PC use has been the proliferation of smaller, portable devices like personal digital assistants and so-called palm-top computers. These all technically classify as microcomputers, but they represent a fundamental shift from the conventional desktop format. Portable computing devices are normally used to supplement larger computers rather than as a replacement, however.
In short, corporate information technology strategies are deploying the various classes of computers with increasing selectivity. For most corporations, microcomputers are still a central component of their strategy, and probably will remain so for a while. However, the trend toward integrating PCs with other kinds of devices over networks, whether larger computers like mainframes or more specialized network appliances, will also continue.
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