NEEdEd: AN ENTRy LEVEl COMpUTER SySTEM
By HARRy C. WohlfERTh, AC CONTRibUTiNG AUThOR
By HARRy C. WohlfERTh, AC CONTRibUTiNG AUThOR
I was late getting a computer because, being a dedicated do-it-yourselfer, I wanted to know what I was getting into. My search led me to believe the computer industry needed better methods of bringing individuals and low-capital companies into the computer age.
In my travels to industrial plants I would see a computer with its winking cursor. When I asked what it was used for, in almost all cases someone would take out a disk and boot it up to show me their expensive program. When asked what else it would do, they were at a loss for words because it was usually a dedicated single-program installation. Sort of like buying an individual automobile for each destination.
If an individual tries to buy a computer the first thing a salesman shows the customer is how great a game machine it is. As bad as that is, at least an astute customer can spot the charlatan and run away. But when a business organization goes computer shopping, the shenanigans- and the potential waste- takes a steep rise. The worst mistake they typically make is to hire a consultant. A zillion times, I've thought this is equivalent to walking onto a New York City subway platform with $100 bills hanging out of your pockets. It's an invitation to be mugged.
Consultants nearly always lead small business clients to a system that's many times more complicated than they need. Running a small business or using a computer for your home business needs is nowhere near as complicated as guiding a shuttle to the moon and doesn't require a megabuck investment. But the neophyte doesn't know that. And to make matters worse for the uninitiated, the biggest problem is that there's no listing of commercial software giving a description of its uses and applications.
The Hardware Solution
I decided that if I was going to purchase a computer, I wanted one that would be useful. Some years ago the president of Avis commented that a computer was a big dumb adding machine typewriter. Today, computers are no longer big. Also, if you're willing to work at it, the price is within the means of everyone. The main thing to remember is that you should be prepared to spend the time necessary to become the computer's boss rather than let it intimidate you. I found the challenge fascinating.
The best advice any dealer gave me when I asked for information about computers was to visit user groups. The Atari user group I visited- which at that time was all 8-bit- impressed me enough so that I bought an 800XL system. Since then I've become a dedicated Classic Atari user.
I have only the basic equipment necessary to do my job. An unmodified 800XL, two XF551 disk drives, a green screen monitor (for someone who is colorblind this is fine), and an NP10 printer.
The Software Solution
The Atari 6502-based computers with 64K or 128K of memory will satisfy the needs of most operations. I very seldom fill up a disk with information. If I do, more disks are always available. [Editor's comment: This may he true for other types of business operations, but not for running a magazine. Even for a small publication such as this one, stock equipment would never cut it. Nevertheless, by adding on the extra memory and peripherals my job here requires, my 800XL is still the heart and brains of ACs operations. BP]
Commercial software which can fit your needs is still usually available (check the ads in this magazine). People experienced with the programs you want to use can nearly always be found in user groups. These people are always glad to furnish guidance and in many instances will also steer you to public domain software to handle your application. Shareware is also a good source of valuable software because it's usually developed by a user who is interested in performance.
Once you get started on a relatively simple computer like the 8-bit and find out how easy it is to operate, more ideas will be developed. The faster computers with more memory that are being hyped now also carry the penalty of having more expensive and more complicated software. I've still never found a good complete list of available commercial software. [Editor's comment. There probably isn't any one software source list for MSDOS machines, as the market is just too vast. For Mac users, however, there's the Macintosh Product Registry, a 450 page quarterly puhlication that covers over 5,000 Mac products. For Atari 8-bit owners there used to be the very excellent Addison-Wesley Book of Atari Software, last published in 1985 - BP]
Among the many things I can do with my present system (64k 800XL) is write letters, do the monthly report, type mailing labels, print forms, draw graphs of equipment performance, maintain an inventory of equipment and its location, write newsletters, print signs, and prepare slides for presentation.
Atariwriter+ is my standard for letterwriting and producing mailing lists of customers. It was extremely useful in preparing the many revisions I made in this article. On the personal use side, it has been particularly valuable for Christmas letters: I can review the lies I told my friends and relatives last year so I won't contradict myself this year!
SynCalc is the best spreadsheet I've seen. Designing your own charts around this spreadsheet allows you to develop monthly reports, compare contractor bids at a glance and keep track of expenses. On the personal side, you can track your own financial status.
I use B-Graph to make simple comparisons of two or three pieces of equipment under identical sets of circumstances. This is also useful when you want to see how things are progressing around the house. By combining SynCalc and B-Graph I've been able to amaze my doctor by graphing test readings!
Home Management, a database program, can be adapted for a variety uses. It was originally written as an address book so the user could recall information on any file in memory even if you could only recall one fact about them- which also made it handy as a reverse telephone directory. Since the program doesn't care what's contained in its listing, the location of spare parts or a tickler list for maintenance requirements can be developed. Everyone should have a listing of their personal property and its worth. Home Management is ideal for that purpose.
Newsroom is my program of choice for publishing newsletters and for preparing title slides for presentations. The numerous icons for Newsroom can be added to the original Newsroom icons for an endless supply, and icon disks are readily available from PD distributors.
I like Cardfile for keeping track of my business contacts. My wife also likes it for keeping a file of her favorite recipes. If she happens to drop a recipe in the batter it's no trouble producing another hardcopy.
Endless Uses For The 8-Bit
I combined a number of useful short programs such as label makers, doc readers, biorhythms, disk content labellers, etc. on one disk for rapid use, and I keep that one handy at all times. I've also used the Students T-Test (published on an AlM disk) to determine the difference between two types of medication.
I've used my Atari 800XL for presentations that demonstrated its ease of use and adaptability over more advanced systems. Slides for my presentation were made using a slow speed film in my Canon AE1 camera to photograph the screen. This produced low cost slides that beefed up my presentation. Selling to people who are really interested in using computers for small businesses would be easy if only we had salesmen, dealers and a company that believed in 8-bit systems. A little 8-bit hype could sell a lot of classic computers and standard software to small companies. Every time I use a program for a new application I put a copy in my book of samples to show the adaptability of the system. I show this book the same way I show pictures of the kids.
I still have programs such as Home Accountant, The Bookkeeper, SynStat, SynGraph and SynFile waiting in the wings for the right time to be needed. My neighbor who is an expert told me that only people who realize how much they need what a computer or a program can do will ever be successful users. The bottom line is, if you want to get the most out of a computer system you should keep it simple (KISS), and you have do it yourself.