A DECADE INTO THE BIG BANG
COMPUTERS BECOME THE HOME APPLIANCE OF THE 1990s
Back in the beginning, Apple, PET, and TRS-80 frolicked through the Garden of Home Computing. And there were simple, gentle games for simple, gentle computers and simple, gentle hobbyists.
Now it's 1989, and the Garden has been paved. Games have become "simulations" with 100-page technical manuals. The IBM PC AT and MS-DOS are as simple and gentle as a combat jet. Is this progress?
It is if your definition of progress means home computers are less a novelty and more an accepted household tool. For five years as a home computing columnist, I've received a steady flow of letters from across the nation; most ask how to get a computer to do some particular chore. These people don't want to hear how the computer does what it does any more than they warn to hear how their refrigerator keeps food cold. In short, they see home computers as household appliances.
Look at the numbers: It's estimated that there is one computer for every five citizens. A home computer inhabits one of every five households. The Computer Industry Almanac 1989, by Egil and Karen Juliussen (Brady Books: New York), projects that more than 10 million personal computers will be sold in the United States this year. Compare that with the estimated 50,000 in 1970—mostly IBM mainframes.
Those numbers represent an intensely competitive industry. When asked how many Tandy computers were in the hands of PC users, CEO John Roach said, "4 or 5 million," a deliberate bit of imprecision.
Personal computers may be almost as common as appliances, but they're infinitely more powerful. And we take that power for granted. The up-and-coming home computer is an AT-class clone, which just five years ago was the corporate muscle machine. We're also taking lower prices for granted; for example, you can spend around $150 for a second 3½-inch floppy drive (adding 720K of storage), or you can get 20 times more storage from a 20-megabyte hard disk for just twice as much.
So what do we do with all that power? Mostly, we play games. The Software Publishers Association says 57 percent of last year's consumer software sales were in the recreation category. The balance of the $465 million in sales were split almost evenly between general home productivity software and educational programs.
Competition, lower prices, and more power provide a wealth of good vibrations in the home computing arena. But it could be better.
First, there has to be a better user interface for home computers. At best, MS-DOS demands some understanding of what's happening inside the box. Home users don't care. They just want to make it happen. Tandy's DeskMate interface is beginning to make some inroads, but it's still a small bucket bailing a sea of hostile A: prompts. A user interface goes far beyond any one machine. Anyone who uses more than one of the mass-market telecommunications services would welcome a single and simple means of navigation.
Another area needing improvement is standards. Never mind operating systems and bus architectures; we would all curse less and compute more if standards for keyboards, mice, monitors, cables, printers, modems, and other peripherals were as enforced as big-city parking laws.
Let's also please fix the documentation, which is an engineer's word for instructions. About 20 percent of the nongame software I get for review comes with manuals guaranteed to baffle the average user.
Finally: lower prices. Even though you can get more and more computer for less cash, it's still hard to put together a good system for less than $1,000. That's three times the cost of a color TV, five times the cost of an intelligent typewriter.
Almost ten years ago, my personal computer had 4K of memory and used a cassette tape for storage and a color TV as a monitor. I'm writing this article on a Tandy 1000 SX, with 160 times the memory, a 20-meg hard drive, and an RGB color monitor. And that's not state of the art. After ten more years, my current rig will seem as quaint as a Model T on a Ford dealer's showroom floor. And the explosion of home computing will be an echo heard everywhere.
Larry Blasko writes "Compu-Bug," a weekly computer column distributed by the Associated Press. He's the author of ABCs of Computing, A Plain-English Guide.