The state of computing: U.S.A. (the proliferation of computers in daily life) (Special Anniversary Issue)
by Gregg Keizer
Walk through the door and shout, "I'm home!" and you may get an answer from the kids, a spouse, and half a dozen, computers. Computers hide all around your house. Touch the membrane panel of your microwave, and you call on a microchip-based controller. Your telephone-answering machine may record calls not on tape, but in silicon memory. That late-model car out in the garage is smarter than some of the kids you went to school with. And your videogame machine does graphics better than most business computers.
Even if you didn't have a personal computer in your home, you'd still live in a technologically advanced household. But because you do include a computer in your homes inventory, you're part of an important American minority that collectively owns more computing power than such global powers as the Soviet Union, China, and India.
Home computing, once the exclusive province of electronics hobbyists, is now being taken over by millions who might never have touched a soldering iron. As one of those millions, you've got a jump on most Americans. You know how important a PC is for working at home, for accessing immense amounts of information almost instantly, for learning and playing with - a tool and a toy that would have seemed magical only 15 years ago.
Grabbing a snapshot of home computing as it files by is tough. You've got to lead it a bit aiming not only where it is today, but where it will be, say, next year. So set your sights on the present and the future for a picture of home computing in America.
PC, Go Home
You're in good company. According to Link Resources, a New York-based market research firm, one in four American homes has a computer. Over 30 million computers work at home, not at the office or in the classroom.
Most of these machines run MS-DOS. A smattering of Macintosh, Apple, Amiga, Commodore, and Atari computers may sit at home, but the PC has clearly won on the home front. That's no surprise. The foremost reason new computer owners give for their spending spree is to do job-related work at home. We're most comfortable with what we know - the PCs we use at the office.
And those home PCs are getting more powerful. Where once a floppy disk-based PC with a slow microprocessor and a paltry 521K of memory served, now home PCs typically include a hard disk drive, a color monitor a megabyte (or more) of RAM, and a 286 or 386SX brain.
This trend of high-powered, low-priced home computing is accelerating. Prices of fast PCs have been dropping rapidly. IBM cut pieces twice in less than a month. Brand-name compatible manufacturers like Compaq have slashed prices, too, in an attempt to keep profits up and box out the more marginal PC makers. Consumer electronic giants like Samsung and Magnavox are pushing PCs in the mass market, with discount clubs such as Sam's and computer superstores like CompUSA as their ready-made outlets. The recession may have hurt many PC sellers, but it was good news for anyone shopping for a computer. Today you can bring home an amazing machine for around $1,800: a 20-MHz 386SX complete with two megabytes of RAM, Super VGA, a 40MB hard drive, Windows, and a mouse.
And it won't be long before the computer in your home will have even more power. Major-league companies like Digital promise workstationlike graphics in a PC, while AT&T-owned NCR has built a minicomputer based on the 80486 chip. Though your home computer won't be as powerful as these monsters, don't be surprised 12 months from now if you're able to buy a 486SX-equipped PC for what you'd now pay for a 386.
More power for less money. That's one trend you won't have to wait for.
We love to take it with us. Even if we're not on the move, we like pretend that we soon will be.
No part of the PC business bloomed as quickly during the last year as the portable computer market. A bizzard of laptop and notebook computers debuted during 1990 and 1991, enticing on-the-go professionals in sales, real estate, insurance, and financial fields to computerized.
The average portable computer is a no-features featherweight, but recently the market has grown to include 286, 386SX, and even 386 microprocessors; VGA graphics, multiple megabytes of RAM; large capacity hard drives; and long-running batteries. Brief-case-size computers complete with desktop systems in almost every performance area.
Notebooks, the under-seven-pound category, are the hottest drawers. Such notable examples as the Sharp 6220 the Texas Instruments TravelMate 2000, and the ZEOS 286 all tip the scales of around five pounds. These machines, and others, are light enough to take everywhere you go.
The rush to faster processors has spun down the prices of older, but still capable, portables such as the Toshiba 1000 SE and the low-end Bondwell machines. Portables can be found for under $1,000 and make attractive second-computer alternatives to homebound desktop PCs. Laptops already account for almost 10 percent of home computers.
One portable trend seems clear, and one more muddied. Notebooks will get slightly lighter, much less expensive, and more powerful, and will have longer battery life. Hand-held computers, called palmtops, probably won't work their way into many homes, but further ahead, slatelike computers (with pen operating systems) built from inexpensive components may.
As laptops, notebooks, palmtops, and slates become better able to handle your computing chores, their impact on home computer purchases will be striking. If so many computers are bought for at-home work, why would you buy a desktop computer for the house when you can take your office machine home with you in your briefcase or your pocket.
Portable computers freed us from the desktop. Will they also be able to free us now from the separation of office and home computing?
We're All Gutenbergs
First impressions are important. They must be, or we wouldn't spend so much time on our home computers churning out slick office documents, school reports, and family newsletters.
The notion that almost anyone equipped with a computer can produce high-quality printed materials is such a powerful idea that millions have bought it - along with the necessary hardware and software. Home office workers in particular like how desktop publishing has made their firms seem larger than life.
A laser printer, the crucial component of good document generation, is a great equalizer. It's difficult to tell whether a letter was printed with a Hewlett-Packard LaserJet III at a business or with a LaserJet IIP at home. Once too expensive for any but the most fanatical home publisher, laser printers have dropped in price and expanded in features nearly as fast as computers.
Several laser printers broke under the $1,000 list price barrier last year. Leader Hewlett-Packard aimed its LaserJet IIP at the single user and in the process discovered a ready market in homes and home offices. Companies like Okidata, Canon, Toshiba, and Epson all carry laser printers that commonly sell for around $800. Analysts predict that the popular IIP will sell for as little as $700 next year.
Other printer technologies are making an impression on the home market as well. Inkjet printing technology, even less expensive than laser, is especially well suited for the home, where high volume and high speed are less important. Portable printers such as the tiny two-pound Citizen PN48 illustrate the trend in miniaturization. Printer addons that transform your laser printer into a plain-paper fax machine are already available.
With price competition so stiff, home computer owners can expect personal laser printers - machines that pump out four pages or less per minute - to settle in the $600 - $700 range during 1992. More featurebound printers, those with PostScript, for instance, will remain above the $1,000 mark, but they'll close on the magic number. The Texas Instruments Microlaser PS-17, for example, often sells for $1,350. Look, too, for laser printers to keep shrinking in size and for specialty printers to include fax reception and printing.
The promises of CD-ROM entice even the most jaded home computer user. Who wouldn't like an entire encyclopedia on a disk? By packing hundreds of megabytes of data on a platter that looks just like an audio CD, CD-ROM puts vast amounts of information at your fingertips.
CD-ROM may finally find a way home if several computer makers are successful in selling their player-equipped models. Tandy, a giant in the home and home office markets, recently introduced a series of computers with CD-ROM capabilities. With base machines that stretch from a bottom-end 16-MHz 286 model (Tandy M2500 XL/2) to a powerhouse 33-MHz 386 machine (Tandy M4033 LX), this line does much to legitimize home CD-ROM. Magnovox's HeadStart/SX-20 CD computer, part of another CD-ROM series, is especially attractive to the home user; it includes not only a CD-ROM player but also several discs.
Software has been slow to arrive for reference and education, two major applications for CD-ROM in the home, but there are some excellent discs available. Grolier's Illustrated Encyclopedia and Bureau Development's U.S. History on CD-ROM are outstanding discs that by themselves justify the price of a player. National Geographic's Mammals: A Multimedia Encyclopedia teaches kids about animals with 700 color photographs, 150 maps, and 45 full-motion video clips.
The shallow software pool and the added price of players will keep the lid on the CD-ROM market at least through 1991. After that, all bets are off. That's because multimedia, a hot new complex of technology, will push CD-ROM into the limelight and possibly generate some software that home computer users won't want to do without.
An unknown in all of this is how non-computer players like Commodore's CDTV and Philips's Magnavox CD-I model will affect CD-ROM. These players, controlled by hand-held navigators and featuring entertainment and educational software aimed right at the home, are touted by some as the next VCR. With no keyboard or computer to intimidate, their strategy is to infiltrate millions of homes and leave CD-ROM computers in the dust. Will they? Experts are waffling on that question. Only one thing is certain: Some form of CD is in your home computer's future.
Someone's Buying the Stuff
You'd be hard pressed to tell that the economy is in a slump if you looked at the software sales charts. According to the Software Publisher's Association (SPA), North American software sales were 26 percent higher in 1990 than in 1989. Lee lacocca would kill for a growth rate like that.
Some interesting stories hide among those numbers. Naturally, PCs dominated the software side of the business just as dramatically as they did the hardware, with nearly 80 cents of every software dollar spent on MS-DOS or Windows packages during 1990.
Other systems simply tagged along, if they succeeded at all. Macintosh ran a very distant second, accounting for only 13.3 percent of total software sales. The Apple II and Commodore 64 software droughts so evident on store shelves were borne out by the SPA data, which showed a 16.5-percent drop in the former and a whopping 42-percent decline in the latter during the year. And Amiga software couldn't climb out of its small (2-percent) market share.
Meanwhile, Microsoft Windows and Windows applications ended the year as winners, growing nearly 160 percent over the previous year and cornering over 10 percent of worldwide software sales.
Clearly, PCs rule the software roost now, and with the Windows explosion only a little more than a year old, they'll continue to crow for years to come.
Working Hard at Home
Work is work, no matter where you do it. Increasingly, home computers run the same software and perform the same tasks as machines in the office.
It's the new, powerful PCs that make this possible. With an at-home 286 or 386 PC, you can crunch numbers with 1-2-3, pound out reports with WordPerfect, or compile charts with Harvard Graphics long after the kids are in bed. This power can also form the foundation of your home business, letting you compete with larger companies because you're using the same hardware and software tools they use.
Productivity is king at home. The top two home computer uses, reports Link Resource, are word processing (69.6 percent of those with a home computer say they use word processing software) and file keeping (62.4 percent). Not far behind are graph and chart making (41 percent), budgeting (40.2 percent), and spreadsheet work (38.6 percent).
Home computer work is changing, though. Integrated software - affordable all-in-one packages combining work processing, spreadsheet, and database modules - once were the home computer user's dream. The gleam's gone, it seems, since integrated software was the only PC category to post a drop from the previous year. One possible reason: It's easy to integrate several separate, full-featured programs with a graphical environment like Windows or GEOS.
But financial and tax applications show no signs of loosening their grip on home computers. Of people who are looking to buy their first home computer, one out of every four indicates budget making and tax preparation are the reasons for their purchase. The result? Quicken, an easy-to-use personal accounting program, appears on virtually every bestseller chart. Conveniences such as electronic bill paying and tax filing will become the rule, not the exception, at home.
Although stripped-down versions of corporate productivity packages are often perfect for the home - LetterPerfect instead of WordPerfect, Personal R:BASE instead of R:BASE - the trend is to equip the home with the same software functionality as the office.
What else would you expect when so much work is done at home?
Go Ahead - Teach Me
We only pay lip service to educational computing. We say we're buying a computer for the kids, but we don't often put our money where our mouth is. Prospective home computer owners rank their children's schoolwork as the second most popular reason for wanting to buy a machine. More than half of current owners claim they use their computers for educational applications. But we spend less than a third as much on PC educational software as we do on games.
What's the problem?
Maybe it's the wretched state of much of what's labeled as educational by software publishers. With many packages crippled by boring and repetitive play, crude graphics, and lack of sound effects, it's no wonder kids turn off the computer and hit the Nintendo instead Fortunately, a few educational software publishers are walking up to the fact that kids want some sizzle with their electronic schoolwork.
Edutainment, as some call the category, mixes traditional game elements with carefully crafted educational ideas to subtly teach things to kids. Its origins can be found in such long-running lines as Broderbund's Carmen Sandiego games, which successfully combine learning geography and history with detective-style gameplay. More recent examples come from the Learning Company and its Super Solver series.
These efforts are paying off. According to the SPA, 1990 was the first year that PC educational programs outstripped the combined sales of Apple II and Macintosh learning software. Educational software sales grew by 48 percent from 1989 to 1990, beating out such stalwart categories as games, word processing, and desktop publishing in the growth race. And though much of this increase is undoubtedly due to an increased emphasis on the PC in the classroom, MS-DOS is the first priority of every major publisher that sells home education software.
Home learning's future depends on more and better CD-ROM software, even more gamelike style, and superior speech. The last may be most important, as impressive new text-to-speech capabilities - like those pioneered by First Byte and now utilized by Davidson & Associates - create entirely new types of educational software.
Pick your packages carefully, and your kids won't know they're learning.
Fun Against All Odds
The numbers are staggering. Over 42 million Nintendo videogame machines sit in American homes. Nintendo sold approximately 8 million copies of its Super Mario Brothers II cartridge. Videogame systems and cartridges rang up a whopping $3.4 billion in sales during 1990.
By comparison, computer software publishers sold only $355 million worth of disk-based games last year. Computer game makers count themselves lucky if a program sells 50,000 copies.
One of the most significant home computing developments in the last five years is the steady erosion of entertainment. At least one type of game is already lost to the cartridge machines. Arcade games, traditionally built on quick joystick action and rapid fire, are all but gone from the computer scene. Other categories of computer games are in danger. Sophisticated sports games now show up on cartridge, as do a handful of role-playing games and simulations, such as Ultima and SimCity.
Game developers fight back with increasingly complex products, especially high-end simulations like SimEarth, hybrid arcade/role-playing games like Strike Commander, and long-length adventure games like King's Quest V. PC entertainment sales climbed slightly faster than the overall average, but cartridge systems returned fire with more powerful machines like Nintendo's Super NES and the CD-equipped NEC TurboGrafx. Looming behind these are players based on CD-I (Compact Disc, Interactive) technologies, which might spell the end of most computer games.
Because PC developers compete for a finite number of electronic entertainment dollars, they must look for new ways to play off the home computer's strengths. The Sierra Network, an online amusement park where you play against opponents via a modem, is an area that shows promise. Another is an increasing reliance on the PC's powerful processor and 256-color VGA graphics to handle games that cartridge systems simply can't duplicate.
Watch for a small flood of CD-ROM games in 1992. Expect to hear more involved soundtracks and digitized speech, see more photographic-style graphics, watch more Disney-style animation, and play more sophisticated simulations in the areas of electronic life, military weapons, and sports.
You'll keep playing on the screen. But unless home computer games fight back, that screen may be your television, not your PC's monitor.
Eyes on the GUI Prize
The Macintosh is on a roll. Last year's lower-priced models - particularly the Classic for under $1,000 - literally sold faster than they could be built. Surprising nearly everyone, the success of the Classic and its color cousin, the LC, will put new Macs in at least half a million homes by the end of 1991.
The Mac's biggest drawing card is its graphical user interface (GUI), the desktop metaphor where icons represent applications and files, mouse clicks launch software, and programs look and often work alike. Apple's new System 7.0 recaptures the lead in GUI expectations from Microsoft Windows.
Windows 3.0 is only a year and a half old, and already it's selling half as many programs as those for the Macintosh. The intense interest in Windows applications demonstrates that at least some PC owners are drawn to the prospect of a graphical environment.
But is Windows something important for the home? Right now? Hardly.
Windows' hardware requirements leave out all but the best-equipped home computer users - those with a 386SX or 386 machine, two megabytes of RAM, and a VGA display. But that's not to say that home computer users aren't casting eyes on GUIs.
GeoWorks Ensemble - a graphical environment complete with minimalist applications - sits atop DOS and provides an elegant solution for anyone with an 8088, 8086, or 286 PC. In some ways slicker than Windows, this GUI is perhaps best demonstrated by America Online, a new telecommunications service that simplifies sending Email and downloading software.
That's today. What about tomorrow?
Perhaps one in ten home computer users looks at a graphical environment, with most of them seeing a Macintosh. But the trend toward GUIs seems irreversible, especially for the home user. More and more computer makers bundle Windows or GeoWorks Ensemble with their machines, particularly those sold as just another piece of consumer electronics. And GUI ease of use makes perfect sense in the home, where there isn't always someone around to show you what to do.
Computers must be simpler to use if they're to climb out of their one-out-of-four-households ghetto. GUIs will be a crucial part of the catalyst that takes millions more computers home.
Just Around the Corner
Home computing rarely stands still long enough for anyone to form a complete picture. In a few years, that picture may be nearly unrecognizable.
"I see a division of computing and game playing," says Ken Williams, president and CEO of Sierra On-Line, one of the country's biggest computer game producers. "There'll be something that will sit on top of your TV - maybe it's CD-ROM based - that looks just like a stereo component." That's what we'll play with, says Williams, while we relegate our at-home work to a more familiar personal computer. "The next big leap [in games] will be to get away from text," Williams says. "If the motion picture industry had to depend on silent pictures, it wouldn't be much."
Speech is vital to the future of education on the home computer, too, according to Jan Davidson, president of Davidson & Associates. "I think there will be huge movements in speech technologies," she says, adding, "I'm sure there will be educational applications using very interactive video in very compelling ways. "Unlike Williams, Davidson isn't bullish on players without keyboards. "I don't believe the keyboard is going to go away as quickly as other people think. Players certainly will have their appeal with entertainment, but I wonder if they'll be useful tools for things like education."
Brian Dougherty, CEO of GeoWorks, looks ahead and sees a multicomputer home. "There'll be an under-$500 slate computer by 1995," he says. Based on a pen approach, where you navigate on a flat screen with a stylus and write by hand, these slate computers are "very plausible," says Dougherty. "It's something that you can throw in your purse. Several people in a home will have these, and they'll link them up with the home's multimedia PC."
These three people - and most others who follow home computing - agree on one thing: Home computing in 1995 will be different, very different.
Home for Some, Not for All
Optimists like to think of the computer as the VCR of the 1990s, a consumer electronic device that soon will end up in virtually every home. That's clearly not in the cards, not soon anyway. At the current rate of growth, it'll be the turn of the century before even 40 percent of America's homes have a personal computer. VCRs blink 12:00 in nearly twice as many homes today.
A home computer is a powerful tool all members of the family can use - if they'll use it. Barely half the adults and a quarter of the kids with a computer in their homes use the machine.
People avoid buying computers because they're still too expensive. People avoid using the computers they have because the machines are still too complex. Lower-priced, simple-to-work computers are the key to any dramatic upswing in home computer ownership.
Some progress glimmers in the distance. Graphical user interfaces make many computing chores easier and cushion new users from the arcane ways of computers. Multimedia - if by that you mean integrating sound, graphics, and text into a coherent whole - may shove ease of use up another notch. And prices are slipping, if not tumbling. Whether you're buying a laser printer, notebook computer, or desktop system, you'll spend less this year than last.
Maybe computers will never occupy space in every home. Maybe they shouldn't. Not in their current form, not in their current roles. But to an increasing number of Americans, today's home computer is as indispensable as the television and the telephone.
America - what a country!