COMPUTE! Editor Tom Halfhill contributes an editorial this month.
-Robert Lock, Editor in Chief
The latest-generation personal computers present the best evidence to date that microcomputers are evolving into desktop mainframes. Megabytes of memory, hard disk drives, high-speed processors, and multitasking operating systems are no longer limited to the monster machines locked away in the data processing departments of governments and big corporations. Now you can get these features in a personal computer that costs less than $2,000 and fits comfortably on a desktop.
But why would you want to? After all, many people are questioning why anyone needs any kind of computer in their home. Are the new machines just a more blatant example of technological overkill?
Practically everyone who's ever used a computer understands the value of more memory and mass storage, high-speed processing, and faster input/output. All those things translate into more horsepower, and if the price is right, we'll welcome more horsepower. But one feature that some people are regarding with skepticism is multitasking-the ability to run more than one program at a time. Is it really practical to run a spreadsheet and a word processor simultaneously? Even if the computer can do two things at once, the user probably can't.
This criticism overlooks several advantages of multitasking: its convenience, the way it shifts busy work away from the user and onto the computer, its implications for software design, and its future applications in tomorrow's homes.
It's hard to appreciate the sheer convenience of multitasking until you've experienced it. Even if you aren't actively using two or more programs at once, you can keep them loaded in memory, available at the press of a key or click of a mouse button. For instance, you can type a letter with a word processor, switch to a terminal program to upload it to an electronic mail service, then switch to BASIC to finish a program you've been writing. On most home computers. that would require rebooting the machine several times, swapping disks, running different programs, and waiting.
Multitasking can also spare you some drudgery by letting the computer do the tedious jobs. If you log onto a commercial information service to check stock quotations every evening, you can set up the computer to do this for you automatically-even while you're using the machine for something else in the meantime. Multitasking is something that's hard to do without once you've had it.
Multitasking also lets you create your own integrated software packages. You can buy whatever word processor, graphics program, spreadsheet, and terminal program you want and load them all into memory at once. If the computer supports a standardized file transfer protocol-as do the Macintosh and Amiga-you can cut and paste pictures or spreadsheet tables into documents created with the word processor and so forth, even if the programs were made by different software companies.
Finally, there are exciting possibilities for multitasking in the future. Remember that microcomputers are following the paths established by mainframes; it's a small step from multitasking to multiuser processing. If a computer can run several programs at once in windows on a single screen, why not turn those windows into separate screens and put them in different rooms? We know from our mail and readership surveys that many of you are already multicomputer households. Mom and Dad have a computer in the study, and the kids have one or two in the family room or bedroom. Someday you'll be able to buy a single personal computer with enough brute force to drive several terminals throughout your home. Each terminal will be as powerful and seemingly as independent as today's personal computers, yet the system will be economical because you'll all share the same printer, modem, hard disk drive, and CD-ROM player.
The main disadvantages of multitasking-the amounts of memory and processing time it can gobble up-are temporary annoyances. Memory chips are getting cheaper as fast as microprocessors are growing more powerful. Atari recently introduced the first 1024K computer for under $1,000, just five years after an 8K Atari 800 retailed for $1,000. And Motorola recently announced a 20 megahertz version of its 68020 microprocessor, referred to as the "mainframe on a chip."
It seems that the only real problem to be overcome is the incredible complexity of writing and debugging a true multitasking operating system. Ask an IBM owner about all the popular Sidekick-type, co-resident programs that compete for the attention of DOS interrupts and the keyboard. Or ask an Amiga owner about the weird things that can happen when the computer tries to do too much at once. (In fact, one of the strangest things we've seen on the Amiga is something that can be described as a "half crash." On practically any other computer, a system crash is a system crash-the machine locks up and you have no choice but to reboot. On the Amiga, we've managed to crash part of the computer while the other part struggles valiantly onward. You end up rebooting anyway just to play safe, but it's an interesting demonstration of multitasking.)
Essentially, multitasking gives you the near-equivalent of several computers in a single box. And if the box is priced right and meets your other requirements, why walk when you can run?
Tom R. Halfhill, Editor