The last few decades of the 20th century saw the phenomenal rise to power of the personal computer. The big question for the next century is will this continue? There are many who believe it will not. The personal computer began life as a 'personal productivity' tool, a tool that helped people write, look at numbers and access some data. This was reflected in the three most powerful applications - the word-processor, spreadsheet and database. All of this, however, was tied to a single machine. It began in the early 1980s and continued to the early 1990s when things began to change. The change was one of connectivity. For the first decade of the personal computer, users were quite happy to sit in front of the terminals (they were often green and black) and tap away at the keyboard. We were isolated, but we liked it that way. We were 'productive'. The ability to 'talk' to other computers, and therefore other people, was the beginning of the connected world. It is interesting to note that Sun Microsystems, one of the world's most successful makers of network servers, trademarked its now well-known phrase - 'The network is the computer' - back in 1984. Many people did not understand what this meant, so the chief executive officer at Sun, Scott McNealy, put the phrase in mothballs. A few years ago, the Internet took off and suddenly networking was the buzz word. Sun brought the phrase back. Networking, despite its importance, may be on its way to becoming so ubiquitous that we do not talk about it any more. What many people are thinking about, however, is simplicity. For many years now, the rising complexity of computers and computer systems has meant rising profits for Microsoft and Intel. Every new version of a Microsoft product seems to get bigger and bigger. To handle this, Intel brings out faster and faster chips. Microsoft will say it is only giving the user - the consumer - what he wants. There is no doubt that some users do want the new complex software. Not all, however. The director of technology solutions for Oracle, Greater China, Tony Banham, believes the trend is towards simplicity. 'There is clearly a trend towards presenting new computing solutions from the point of view of the business people whose issues are being solved, rather than from the computer scientist's perspective,' he said. Some people have interpreted this move towards simplicity as an attack on Microsoft, already under pressure from some of the hardware manufactures and the US Government. It need not necessarily be that way, however. It is surely in the giant software company's interest to make things easier. Apple Computer came close to dethroning Microsoft in 1984 when it created the Macintosh. Various mistakes and bad luck on Apple's part allowed Microsoft to recover with its Windows software. Microsoft may not get off so easy next time. 'It is wrong for vendors to assume that the end-user is a computing expert,' Mr Banham said. 'End-users should be focused purely on doing their job - understanding and running their business - and not focusing on the technology of the tools they are using to do so.' Many companies are ready to pounce on Microsoft, in much the way that Microsoft 'pounced' on IBM. Back in the early days, despite creating the IBM PC, IBM did not think all that much of it. It allowed Microsoft to run with the ball. Microsoft may well be in a similar position today. It would appear that it still thinks users want to be isolated, using complex software. If this is true, they may be in for a big surprise. Companies such as Oracle, Sun and IBM have been trying to take advantage of Sun's Java programming language to create systems that will be simpler and cheaper both to run and to use.