Networks May Lead To Social Computing

IN the chic neighborhood of Neuilly, just outside Paris, Didier Convert is busy subverting his company.

It's all above board. His company - Chevron Chemical S.A. - wants him to reinvent its computer systems. It's just that in doing so, Mr. Convert is changing the way Chevron employees will do business.

``The user becomes completely responsible,'' Mr. Convert says. Users ``can't say: `It's not my fault. I didn't know.' ''

The name of this in-house insurrection is client-server computing. It's a dull name for a bold step.

Until the late 1980s, the typical corporate computer was a huge mainframe connected to many dumb terminals. They were called dumb terminals because they didn't do any processing or store any data. Users could do only what the mainframe allowed them to do.

The arrival of the desktop computer started to change things. Individual users could sit at their desks and perform all sorts of calculations and create all kinds of documents. Sharing that data was difficult, though. So in the late 1980s, the local-area network (LAN) came along to link up all those desktop machines.

Users got excited about sharing files and sending each other electronic mail. ``We thought we were more efficient,'' recalls Bruce Langos, an assistant vice president for NCR. But sharing files over a LAN wasn't much different from the old mainframe model. Companies had to rethink how to use this new technology.

Enter client-server computing.

At companies such as Chevron Chemical, client-server pushes access to information - and the responsibility for acting upon it -

down to the lowest levels of the corporate structure. Salespeople use their desktop computers (the clients) to call up information stored on their own machine or on the more powerful computers that manage the network (the servers). If they fill out an order electronically on their machine, it moves directly to the warehouse, which sends out the proper widget, and to the sales manager, who tracks the progress of the sales force.

Sitting at his desk in Neuilly, Convert calls up a database that's stored on the company computer near Le Havre, France. He manipulates the data, then brings it to his own desktop computer for further processing. The different systems are tied together by Groupe Bull's advanced protocols.

This kind of client-server technology spells the end of the mainframe. It's much cheaper to run and maintain a LAN than a mainframe. LANs are still too slow and not secure enough to take over all mainframe functions.

When Forrester Research, a Cambridge, Mass., technology research firm, interviewed 50 of the largest corporations in the United States earlier this year, 81 percent of them still saw the mainframe as the place to run their most critical applications. Chevron Chemical has just bought a new mainframe to supplement the one it already has.

But the same survey found that three years from now, only 61 percent of those companies expect to run critical programs on mainframes. They are downsizing their computer operations.

Just as client-server begins to take hold, Forrester senior-analyst Neal Hill warns that the next stage is fast approaching. It's called ``social computing.''

``It's the movement of the center of gravity of computing,'' he says. Instead of authority and access residing with the sales person, it will devolve beyond the walls of the business directly to customers. If General Motors recalls their cars, they will be able to find out why directly from the GM division that made the decision.

Social computing supersedes difficult software and clunky machines. To take out a business loan from the bank, you might use a portable device like Apple's Newton (or maybe the familiar automated-teller machine) to connect directly with the bank's loan manager. Perhaps you might even see each other on a screen as you talk.

``Social computing goes the next step,'' Mr. Hill says. ``It's built for the final customer rather than the employee.''

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