PC at Work
A campus window on enterprise IT's future
By Peter Coffee
May 24, 1999 9:00 AM ET
It may seem foolish to predict what we'll see on the IT scene three years from now, but some predictions border on certainty. What college students are using today is what our professional labor force entrants will expect to see in 2002.
From that campus perspective, Java and the Macintosh have stopped looking like attractive but risky propositions and have started looking like sure things.
I've been thinking about this baccalaureate time-bomb effect since the end of last year, when Sun officials noted this phenomenon in connection with the enterprise role of Java. The first wave of computer science graduates who will have cut their programming teeth on Java have yet to receive their bachelor's degrees or even arrive at enterprise sites for summer internships.
The breaking of the first Java wave is bound to signal a sharp change in the ability of enterprise programmers to think in terms of Java's greatest strengths. At the same time, these new pros may react with incredulity to doing things the hard way-- managing memory by hand and enduring the other rigors of older technologies such as C++.
At the panel discussion that I moderated at this month's Software Development conference in San Francisco, representatives of both Symantec and Inprise joined my guest from Sun in affirming that a perception--not a reality--of second-rate Java performance is the principal barrier to its rapid growth in enterprise applications. The ease of development with Java, combined with the maturation of Java compilation technologies such as Sun's HotSpot or Symantec's persistent JIT, could rocket Java into the same kind of enterprise trajectory that was previously followed by Unix (another beneficiary of broad undergraduate exposure).
Mac takes center stage
What kind of hardware will these newly minted IT pros prefer? I recently browsed through the Stanford University bookstore, where brightly colored iMacs were the focal point of the computer department. A few beige boxes ran Windows off in a corner.
Take a look at the Stanford Web page that offers students guidance in choosing a PC. "We have no official recommendation," says the page--going on to say that the Mac is more user-friendly, easier to set up and network, easier to troubleshoot, more consistent in behavior, less prone to virus attacks, and more likely to be specifically required for a particular class.
On the East Coast, Harvard offers Mac and Windows PCs in its dormitory computer labs but features Macs exclusively in its campuswide computing kiosks--where the emphasis, one presumes, is on walking up and getting something done on a machine that doesn't have a technician nearby to give it a Heimlich hug when it chokes.
If undergrads aren't your idea of a bellwether market, then look at iMac sales overall: A third are to first-time computer buyers, four-fifths are to first-time Internet users. And Sears will start selling them at the end of this month. I call that momentum.
Some predictions are easy to make. If a train goes into one end of a tunnel, it's a bad idea to be standing at the other end. Established market leaders and technologies should worry about those bright lights coming up behind them.