Harness the power of home users

Multimedia: The next generation of workers are more multimedia savvy than most businesses, and firms need to think about how to use this to their advantage

It is hard to believe, but the PC has been around for 25 years. The US launch was in August 1981, though it did not officially appear in the UK for another 18 months. A lot has changed since then. PCs have become more powerful and easier to use, and prices have come down dramatically. But perhaps the most surprising change is that the PC market is now driven mainly by home users, while businesses trail behind. It is home users who exploit all the new multimedia capabilities and buy souped-up high-end Alienware-style PCs for video editing or games playing.

By contrast, most businesses still seem to be buying low-end systems mostly to do the same things they did in 1981: word processing, spreadsheets, address book, to-do list, e-mail. They do it in a prettier way and obviously produce much prettier results, but the fundamentals have not changed all that much.

Partly this is because the IBM PC did not start as a multimedia system. Its green screen was great for word processing or for being a mainframe terminal, but much cheaper home computers were better at handling multimedia.

In the 1980s, the Commodore Amiga was used for pioneering TV and graphics work, while the Atari ST became a standard in music studios. And the Apple Macintosh set the standard for desktop publishing, and high-end graphics and video editing were generally being done on Unix workstations, not PCs.

Remarkably, the descendents of the original IBM PC now dominate all those areas - usually running Microsoft Windows. And because it is a commoditised industry where volume production drives down prices, the standard business PC now has those multimedia capabilities too.

Are these capabilities being used? Or only at lunchtime?

There is a new generation entering the workforce who were all born after the IBM PC. Most of them have grown up with home computers and games consoles. Most likely they are also familiar with camera phones, IP telephony, instant messaging, blogging, podcasting and using webcams for simple videoconferencing.

Huge numbers socialise on the web via MySpace and Bebo, upload photos to Flickr, and share videos on YouTube.

Businesses have tended not to exploit multimedia because the equipment was too expensive and it required too much staff training. Now they have the equipment and they are hiring staff who may already have the skills.

It is a good time to think about ways to use them.

● Jack Schofield is computer editor at The Guardian




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