Arlan R. Levitan
COMPUTE! welcomes a new monthly column this issue: Arlan R. Levitan's "Telecomputing Today." It's a general column for everyone who has an interest in telecommunications with personal computers—no matter which computer you own.
Levitan has wide experience in this field. He was introduced to computing in 1966 when his high school was among the first in the nation to participate in a pilot computer-instruction project. Today he's a staff analyst in technical support for the data processing division of a major telephone company. His work has appeared in such magazines as Softside and Creative Computing.
He has edited a major user group newsletter and is the author of The Consumer's Guide to Atari Computers. He is an assistant sysop (system operator) for the CompuServe Information Service and subscribes to The Source and Delphi as well. He also was the system designer of AMIS, a major bulletin board program for Atari systems. Levitan owns and uses Atari, IBM, and Apple personal computers and has experience on all types of computers.
1984, eight years into the microcomputer revolution. It's hard to ignore recent trends which indicate that the explosive growth rate enjoyed by this industry is leveling off. As you read this, retailers of mass-market computers are yearning nostalgically for the frantic buying of the past two years.
This is not to say that the home computer market is ready to lie down and die. Millions of computer enthusiasts are active with their systems, and the market is, by ordinary standards, still quite vigorous.
The revolution has yielded to evolution. By current reckoning, almost half of the families who purchased computers during the boom years of 1982 and 1983 are letting their systems gather dust in dark closets or relegating them to use as expensive paperweights.
Large numbers of people hung up their computing shoes after just a few months of experimentation with their new toys. They discovered to their genuine dismay that word processors do not write letters by themselves, spreadsheets do not make entries in checkbooks, and that maintaining data bases of recipes isn't such a hot idea after all.
It certainly wasn't the public's fault. Everyone from a well-meaning but starry-eyed press to the refrigerator salesmen who found themselves selling disk drives instead of ice-cube makers firmly believed that personal computers could do almost anything in the hands of almost anyone. No one wanted to think about the possibility that the classical business applications of microcomputers would not translate well into the home.
Is Computing Antisocial?
The slowdown began late in 1983. Several companies tried to boost their holiday season sales with "big fear" campaigns, losing points with educators and sociologists by implying that refusing to buy your children a home computer would doom them to failure in the competitive atmosphere of higher academics.
The campaign for 1984 has been "personal productivity." Home computer owners want to use their machines without learning how to program and without spending hours trying to figure out how a canned application works. Yet the most popular type of home software is still games, the best of which offer intuitive rules and interaction with other human players as well as the computer.
Interaction is an important point. To some extent, the classical applications of microcomputer technology all tend to isolate the user in a one-on-one relationship—with the computer, a machine. But a computer's reactions to user input are usually well-defined and limited.
Things don't have to be this way. The more personal interaction that can be brought into "personal" computing, the more engaging and rewarding it can be.
Reach Out And Touch
There is a segment of computing that brings people into contact with one another, rather than encouraging isolation. According to a recent Public Broadcasting System market survey, that segment boasts a user satisfaction rate of more than 90 percent (compared to an average of about 50 percent for home computer owners as a whole).
That segment is comprised of home computer owners who use their systems to hook up with other computer systems and their users via telephone lines. The general application is referred to as telecommunications or telecomputing, and unlike the rest of the home computer market, it's still growing at an accelerated clip.
Do you find this hard to believe? Consider that the most popular features on the commercial information services such as CompuServe and The Source are those which center on people-to-people contacts.
On CompuServe it's the CB simulation, a freewheeling computerized version of Citizens Band radio. Except with this CB, you're not limited to a range of ten miles or so. Your buddies on the channel may be as far-flung as Fairbanks, Miami, and Bangor. The intellectual content, the wit, of these electronic conversations may never rival Plato's discourses, but it is fascinating to watch and participate in.
On The Source it's POST, a national bulletin board that can put you in touch with the lady in Butte, Montana, who's willing to sell the used letter-quality printer you've always wanted, and the stamp collector in Fargo who's willing to pay top dollar for those Millard Fillmore commemoratives you've been trying to unload locally for over a year.
On Delphi it's the ORACLE, where networked bands of self-styled experts on any subject under the sun are more than willing to voice their opinion on any question posed to them.
You Are What You Say
Why are people attracted to personal keyboard conversations with folks they've never met before? Because this mode of communication is the great equalizer. No one knows or really cares whether you're a yuppie, preppie, hacker, punk, or blue-suiter. You're judged by your words and general attitude.
Telecomputing offers a commonality of experience that can be shared by almost every computer owner. The telecomputing experience crosses all boundaries of computer brands, operating systems, and programming languages.
Common telecomputing applications offer convincing evidence of the power of the medium. How many stock market buffs spend countless hours typing issue histories into spreadsheets and other stock analysis programs? The same information can be transferred directly from an on-line information service to a formatted file on a personal computer in a matter of minutes.
How many students wait and wait for an hour of time at a college computer terminal? A personal computer in a dorm room can access the same system. How many times have you flown within the past year? The Official Airlines Guide (OAG), accessible via computer, can pinpoint the lowest fare available in a matter of seconds.
A vast number of free public bulletin boards accessible by computer offer information ranging from Aerospace to Zoology. Free user-written programs for almost any type of computer may be transferred with ease from one remote system to another.
Telecomputing is not without its failures. For all the publicity about electronic editions of popular national newspapers, it turned out that not too many people cared to pay five to ten dollars for the information found in 25 cents' worth of newsprint. Electronic banking's development has been tediously slow, and the U.S. Postal Service is about to give up on its electronic mail service, ECOM (they never could get the hang of handling lowercase letters).
Still, there's plenty available now, and the cost of a ticket to telecomputing is extremely low—especially for those who already own a computer.
Modems, the devices that make it possible for computers to link up to other computers over ordinary phone lines, are available for under a hundred dollars and are extremely reliable. Most can be used with almost any computer, so they can be shared by more than one system if you're a two-computer family.
Terminal programs—which turn a computer into a telecomputing device—are commonly available in the form of public-domain software at little or no cost. Terminal programs also are published from time to time in computer magazines such as COMPUTE! and COMPUTE!'s GAZETTE.
So start saving your money for a modem, and if you've been neglecting it, dust off that computer. In the months that follow, this column will take you on a tour of a huge communications network that many people don't even know exists. Before we're done, tenderfoots will become well-seasoned hands, and old telecomputing prospectors will learn of some rich new lodes of information to mine.
Arlan R. Levitan
Address your electronic mail to me via these ID numbers on the popular information services:
The Source: TCT987