David D Thornburg, Associate Editor
Hit And Myth
The personal computing industry has never had to go for any long period of time without a rumor. Rumors regarding companies, products, applications, and personal fortunes are the stuff of which this industry seems to be made. But sometimes these rumors become firmly entrenched in our minds and take on the power (and longevity) of myths. For example:
Myth # 1: The home computer industry is dying.
The home computer industry hasn't even started yet. Yes, I know that a large number of computers are ending up in people's homes (including 65 percent of the Macintoshes, according to one number I recently heard). But just because a computer is located in someone's home does not mean that it is a "home" computer. The personal computer market seems to have sorted itself out into several niches-business, education, entertainment, and hobby. If you see a computer in somebody's house, I'll bet it is being used in one of these four areas. Of course, we have been told by many pundits (and marketing organizations) that the personal computer will be the next "home appliance."
Home appliance? Let's see about that. If you go to someone's house and see a computer sitting in the den, I'll bet you say: "Hey, I see you're into computers. How about that!"
Have you ever gone into someone's house and said: "Hey! I see you're into refrigerators. Wow! Automatic ice cube maker too! I was going to get one of those myself-thought I'd get a 16-cube model, but then I heard that the 32-cubers were going to come out soon."
If the home computer was an appliance, we would talk about it like one.
David Thornburg is the author of eleven books, including The KoalaPad Book, Computer Art and Animation (a Logo book available in versions for the TI, Radio Shack, Atari, and Commodore computers), and Exploring Logo Without a Computer (published by Addison-Wesley). His irreverent and whimsical look at computing (101 Ways to Use a Macintosh) has been published by Random House. Later this year, his first book on Logo as a tool for exploring topics like artificial intelligence Beyond Turtle Graphics) will be published by Addison-Wesley.
To see why the true home computer market hasn't been born yet, let's look at some home computer applications. First we were told that our home computer would help organize our Christmas card mailing list. Then we were told that it was a good place to store recipes. Need help with the old checkbook? No problem there-just use the computer. And, let's not forget the monthly letter to Aunt Elsinore-created on the home word processor, of course.
Give me a break.
Who has such a large Christmas card mailing list that you need to keep it on a computer? If so, why aren't I on it? And as for keeping recipes on a floppy disk, who has a kitchen large enough to house your computer? What about the effects of cake mix dripping down your keyboard? Not a pretty sight, is it? Checkbook balancing on the computer is a joke-unless you are wired in to your bank directly. While there are a few trendsetters who are embracing remote banking, many people are still skeptical of the automatic teller machines.
The only home application to date that makes any sense is using the computer as a word processor. But even here the need is marginal for most of us. Yes, I use a word processor all the time, but many of my personal notes are handwritten. You may use a word processor for your personal correspondence, but think about your Uncle Clevis down in Greater Tuna. Do you think he is going to rush out and invest a couple of grand in a personal computer and a printer just to write letters to the family at Christmas? Not on your life.
The home market has failed to materialize for two reasons. First, home computers are too hard to use. Second, there aren't enough serious home applications for these machines to make them a necessary part of people's lives.
For example, to use most word processing programs on anything but computers like the Radio Shack Model 100 and the Apple Macintosh, you have to type in about a half-dozen words just to load the word processor and the letter form you want to use. The process of turning on the computer, typing this stuff, and waiting for the machine to respond takes a few minutes. In that same period of time, you could have written your note in longhand, stuffed it in an envelope, stamped it, and stuck it in the mailbox. There are exceptions to the cumbersome computer environment, of course, and when these exceptions become the norm, home word processing may become a reality.
With regard to the second reason that home computers haven't become appliances, think about this for a minute. Why should anyone want to have a computer as a home appliance? What essential task can it perform better than our other tools? The function of dishwashers and telephones is obvious. These have become home appliances for many of us. In order for the home computer to become an appliance, it will have to perform tasks that take advantage of the computer's power in new ways-to make the computer a lever for the mind. One area of research that opens the door to the possibility of a home appliance computer is expert systems. Tasks ranging from decision-assistance tools (which stereo should I buy?) to diagnosis (My car makes a funny sound whenever it goes over 45 m.p.h.) fall in this category. From where I stand, this arena is the one that promises to make the home computer a reality. If you have other ideas for computer applications that make the computer a necessity in the home rather than a toy, please send them to me in care of COMPUTE!. I am really interested in hearing your thoughts on this topic.
Until then, consumers who believed the hype and bought computers for the home will relegate them to the closet shelf along with their citizens band radio and other high-technology fads.
What a pity.
Myth #2: All the good software is available in the stores.
This one is a doozy. You walk into your local toy store and see a rich collection of educational, entertainment, and personal productivity software sitting on the shelf. Based on the size of the collection alone, you assume that the store has a good stock. In terms of sales volume, it probably has. But, in fact, any relationship betweeen what is carried in many stores and quality is purely accidental.
The consumer does not control the marketplace. The marketplace is controlled by a handful of buyers from the large chain stores who purchase software that they can sell quickly. While they can't be blamed for this attitude-they are in this business to make a profit-it is not at all clear that the criteria they use to choose software are the same criteria you would use as a customer.
For example, products whose utility is obvious from the box, or that can be explained in one short sentence, are preferred. Products that make use of licensed characters or games (Muppets, Snoopy, Q*bert, Strawberry Shortcake) are gobbled up into the retail channels. Actual utility to the customer is not an overriding concern for many of these marketing mavens. They look for metaphors ("This is like VisiCalc") rather than new ideas that may take some explaining.
An argument in their defense is that some software packages may take a few minutes to demonstrate or explain. This costs money and the store's margin may not be large enough to support that expenditure. Some of my favorite games (such as Alien Gardens) have been victims of this mentality. If this same game had made use of a licensed character, it would probably have gone off the charts. Instead, it is rarely to be found in the stores.
It is as if the people who determine the stock to be carried in their stores have no regard for you as a consumer. Their attitude seems to be that you cannot understand some of the more esoteric (and high-quality) programs, and you are only going to purchase a product through massmerchandising ploys.
If you think this is hogwash, consider the fact that many stores are interested only in supporting the computers whose sales are currently "hot." Never mind the installed base. If a computer isn't selling at a good rate, it gets little or no support. Those of you who own TI-99/4 computers or any of the Atari models know what I am talking about.
Again, this attitude has its justifications, although they are a bit more complex. Most massmarket retailers are not used to selling capital equipment that has a long life, and for which there is a significant after-market sales potential. Most stereo stores, for example, don't sell records. Consequently, the mass-market computer distribution channels end up controlling the marketplace rather than responding to it. By deciding which titles to stock and which to avoid, this small group of buyers is determining the fate of many fragile (but good) software companies whose products you might buy, if only you had the chance.
What is the solution to this?
Direct your business to people who genuinely have your interests at heart. Shop at stores that have intelligent salespeople who know something about the technology they are selling.
Above all, when you find a store that puts you first, give them your business, even if it costs a few bucks more than the discount house down the street.
And don't forget the catalogs and magazine advertisers. Mail-order houses sometimes have a better variety than the stores, and you can find the right software if you look hard enough.
In fact, if we don't work hard at being good customers, we will become the nation of sheep that many buyers think we are.
And that's a baa-d way to be.
While many of David's points in this column are well-taken, I would like to offer a different perspective on this topic. COMPUTE! strives to provide balanced coverage, and David's argument in this month's column is by no means the only point of view on this subject.
David begins by noting that most home computers are used either for business, education, entertainment, or as a hobby. That would seem to cover the waterfront, to be about the only possible uses for a mass-market computer.
But he then sets up a straw man: Since some PR pundits have claimed that a home computer should be an "appliance," he judges computers against this strange standard. Home computers aren't like washing machines; therefore, they're useless around the house.
Who would want a computer as singleminded, as dead heavy as a washer? And who has ever seriously claimed that interaction with a computer could be reduced to simply pressing an ON button? Machine intelligence is supposed to handle information, to manipulate ideas, to imitate thought itself. It obviously has little to offer by way of thought amplification if there is no interaction with a thinking being, no input from the user. If using a computer meant simply pressing an ON button, how would it differ from TV?
David goes on to say that it's useless to keep a Christmas card mailing list on a computer. Since many people do just this, it must have value to them. For example, you can just insert envelopes into your printer and have envelopes addressed automatically. Also, the list can double as a birthday and anniversary list, a phone list, a memo pad to remind you when to send gifts, etc. It's far from useless.
He mentions that word processing is "marginally" useful. Yet anyone who has ever struggled through school, retyping essays and term papers, would argue that word processors are extraordinarily valuable. Not only do they produce perfect final drafts, they can also automatically create footnotes, check your spelling, and offer other kinds of assistance which writers of all levels of sophistication can appreciate.
As for his argument that most word processors are difficult to get started-what computers, what software is he talking about? Word processing on the IBM requires only that you insert the right disk and turn on the machine-a batch file brings you right up into the program. All you have to do is start typing. Ditto Atari, Commodores using cartridges, etc. A worst case would involve a computer that had no autobooting feature. But, even then, generally the only thing you have to do is type:
or something similar and you're ready to type in text.
A word processor, after all, requires that you type words. Presumably, the act of getting it started by typing LOAD WORDPROCESSOR RUN won't represent a significant burden to most people.
But perhaps the most debatable of all David's assertions is that computers in the home are either essential or simply a toy. There are lots of things people use in their homes which fit into neither category: pianos, televisions, books, to name a few.
Certainly it would be nice if your computer could become the Amazing Genius: could tell you which stereo to buy, what's wrong with your car, and who to marry. It would also be nice if you could tell it to clean the bathroom and take the dog to the vet. However, the fact that computers aren't yet smart enough or mobile enough to help out around the house in quite these ways doesn't make them useless toys. They are assisting children with their homework, helping people write more clearly and correctly, storing copies of personal correspondence, providing sophisticated music and graphics tools, clarifying personal finances and taxes, and hundreds of other things in millions of homes.
Of course, better software and more powerful machines are coming. Nevertheless, even though technology hasn't yet given us the computer of David's dreams, there are many people who are regularly using and enjoying their machines.