ONE of the surprises of the personal computer, for me at least, is that it has done even more for small businesses than for big ones. Don't get me wrong. Virtually every kind of business has benefited from the PC. Big companies, for example, have discovered how to use networks of personal computers to let information flow more efficiently. At the heart of the corporate reengineering movement is the idea that information technology can streamline complicated processes, such as purchasing or order tracking. As processes get simpler, employees are called upon to perform a wider range of tasks and take more responsibility for decision-making. Productivity rises. But I think small firms have gained proportionately more than big ones, simply because they started out so far behind technologically. Big companies have had computers for decades, but now companies run from spare bedrooms and modest storefronts have breathtaking technology too. The speed with which small companies embraced PCs surprised me. In the earliest days of the personal computer industry, we assumed that most of our customers would be big businesses. After all, computers had always been one of the advantages that big businesses had over smaller players. In those days, 20 years ago, computers were not personal in any sense. It is a sign of how totally attitudes have changed that today we think of the computer as a tool of the individual, even in a large company. Your computer may be as personal to you as a diary. You may use it to help you think. That computers are helping small businesses compete and succeed is good news for entrepreneurs and the economy alike. In the United States, for example, small companies represented 66 per cent of the new jobs created between 1976 and 1990, according to the Small Business Administration. Small businesses are destined to become even more important as electronic networks make it easier for small businesses to find clients and customers and as large corporations continue to reengineer their operations. Increasing numbers of people will start or work in small firms. It used to be that when a large company made a brochure, it looked a lot better than a small company's flyer. When you called a large company to talk about your account you expected to reach a specialist who would get you a quick answer. You didn't always expect that level of service from a tiny company. The personal computer has evened the competition in many respects, giving little companies tools to match those of big players. For example, desktop publishing gives anyone with a PC the ability to create great looking documents. Today's small business owner can do it all - bookkeeping, customer service, sales, marketing, graphic design, even product development - with the help of a personal computer equipped with appropriate software. That's because the PC, like the small business owner, is a one-man band. I enjoy hearing how individuals and small companies have put information technology to work. When I was in Europe a couple of weeks ago, I was told of how Ted Sluymer of Holland used a PC equipped with an integrated set of software applications to compile and set in type an annual review of cars. His most recent edition, available in bookstores throughout the Netherlands, is called Autoboek '95. When Mr Sluymer started publishing the car catalogue back in 1979, it took him three months on a typewriter to lay out the material for printing. Now, using a PC, he does it in a week. Then there's Shultzy's Sausage, Inc, which a few years ago was about as small as a business can get. Don Schulze, the owner, had a single shop in Seattle, Washington with 10 stools, and yet he used software to conduct his business professionally and project a polished image in his newsletters, invoices and other forms. Don often comes to mind when I think about all the different kinds of tasks a small business owner is expected to perform. Today, Don has two shops and a thriving wholesale division which competes head-to-head with major food distributors. Don said he might have gotten by with ledgers and chequebooks if he had limited himself to one store, but using a computer was a practical necessity for his business to grow. Many people have been inspired to start or grow a business because they could imagine how using a PC would make the workload manageable. We'll never know how many of today's businesses wouldn't exist if it weren't for PCs, but the number must be large. I used to run a small business myself. The company grew, and the day I realised we were succeeding was when another small business owner - my dad - announced that his law firm was computerising. He was going to have a PC on his desk, and the firm would use computers to track billing and courtroom evidence, among other things. To me, it was a huge milestone. Today many lawyers at my dad's firm, especially younger ones, type their own memos and short legal briefs. They find working at the computer screen helps them think and that after a while they get more done than they did in the days when they dictated documents and then checked, rechecked and sometimes redrafted them. My dad's law firm isn't as small as it once was. Perhaps that's the ultimate promise of the PC. With the right tools, hard work and some good fortune, a small business may not stay all that small. What do you yearn to have your personal computer accomplish for your business or yourself? Share your dreams by sending me E-mail or conventional mail. I'll comment on some of your ideas in a future column.