This a somewhat abridged version of a post that I made to NPR’s internal information services blog.
I took my first programming course in Fortran 40 years ago -- an era of big-iron, big-control computing. We used keypunch machines to program, typing one line of code no more than 80 characters long per Hollerith card. Our deck of cards was then sandwiched between some more cards that told the computer how to interpret them. We walked the resulting deck to a plexiglass cashier's window, and handed it through the security slot to a university IT employee. Some time overnight it was run on a circa-1964 IBM 360 "big iron" mainframe computer and we could (usually) come back the next day to see whether the code worked or bombed. Needless to say, the development cycle was very slow.
Yes, this was a long time ago, but the controlling environment which seemed necessary when you had one computer per university led to a culture of control that still echoes through information technology organizations.
Before I was out of college, my university bought a discontinued IBM 1620, which was an even older technology, but we could actually run our own programs (still with decks of cards) on it. It was slower than Christmas, but faster than the overnight runs. In 1978, I was able to buy my own computer (a Radio Shack TRS-80). I could actually type code right into the computer and save it on a standard outboard cassette player.
I'll spare you the history of computers I've used since 1978, but today most of us have multiple devices in our offices, homes, cars, and hands that serve as a sort of "third hemisphere" for our brains. People's needs these days are highly individualized.
Thankfully, that plexiglass cashier's window is long gone. Some aspects of standardization and control are good, especially in an organization that needs to protect sources and maintain journalistic confidentiality. But we also need to make it possible for people to be productive using a much wider variety of tools than ever before.
If you're past 30, you'll remember when all the cool kids had a Palm V PDA (mine even had a clamp-on device from Omnisky that gave me email), circa 2000. At meetings, we all put them on top of the table so everyone knew we were one of the cool kids.
The category of most interest these days is smartphones. Today's craze is the iPhone (I have a personal account) and Google's new OS is hot on its heels. The iPhone is a great iPod touch built into a phone that uses a network with well-known limitations (they argue that any network bearing the iPhone’s traffic would be burdened), but people are willing to put up with the latter in order to get geographically liberated access to the former and its amazing app store. It is, of course, hugely advanced beyond the Palm V and the next decade will bring products that make the iPhone look similarly primitive.
Does that mean we should hold back support of today's productivity advances and wait for what is surely coming next? No. We know that the BlackBerry fits our enterprise requirements for security and reliability well and operates on an excellent mobile network. We are able to support it fully. But NPR’s Information Services unit is also looking at ways to support iPhones and other devices that work with Microsoft ActiveSync. Our increasing emphasis on expanding control to the user will go beyond smartphones, but this is a good place to start.