Think you'll be able to choose your own schedule for utility computing? Think again. The BBC recently reported that students may soon be using a pay-as-you-go computing utility on a routine basis. And not computer science students, either -- these are student animators.

HP's research lab in Bristol recently launched a rendering service for small animation companies to test its grid computing model. The animators create their designs, then HP's computing grids turn them into 3D animated films. Several participants told the BBC they expect students to be using the utility soon.

At that point, the grid plan will be out of our hands.

We know how it will happen -- we've seen it before. As long as a technology is too difficult, complicated or expensive for anyone except IT departments to use, IT shops can keep a firm grip on how we roll it out, and when. But if the technology gets cheap and simple enough for non-IT people to use, we lose control.

It happened with PCs and spreadsheets, with the Web and handheld computers and wireless network access points. Users get their hands on a new technology. They figure it out. Then they want to use it for business -- and if the IT department isn't ready, users start without us.

So now that HP Labs Bristol has started up its Frame Factory animation-rendering utility service, the clock is ticking. Today, a handful of small animation studios use the service to create short cartoons. Soon, students will use it. Then the idea will expand beyond Bristol. Other rendering services will be launched. It won't be long before we have student animators using rendering grids in our own backyards.

Those student animators won't have to be technical wizards. They'll use design software on desktop workstations, and the actual workings of how their designs are turned into fancy, textured 3-D images may be a mystery to them. But they'll understand the concept of a computing utility, and they'll have hands-on experience using it.

In fact, they'll understand it better than we do. Let's face it -- most IT shops aren't ready for utility computing today. Some of us are dipping a toe in, but we all know it's still very early. Most of us plan to wait until standards are set and someone explains it to us.

But when students get access to utility computing, our plans won't matter. Those student animators -- and the college friends they hang around with -- are just a few years away from landing in our marketing and sales and advertising departments.

When they tell their bosses that they were using pay-as-you-go processing when they were in school, we in IT won't be able to convince anyone that utility computing isn't ready yet. We'll have to make it happen -- or they'll find utility computing vendors without us.

Then we'll have to play catch-up as we try to pull their utility computing projects back under IT's control. It'll be PCs and handhelds and wireless access points all over again.

But that's not all bad news. If users figure out utility computing, we won't have to explain it to them. They'll already understand the business value. They'll know it's useful. They'll even tell us how.

True, that means we won't be setting the utility computing agenda. But our job is to make IT serve the business, remember? If we pay attention and time it right, we can make our jump into utility computing after the bloodiest part of the bleeding edge is past -- but still just before users start asking us for it.

And if that means grids don't arrive for us exactly on the schedule we'd choose -- well, at least this time we'll have a hand in the plan.