Keep It Simple, Keep It Fun, Keep The Home Computer Revolution Turning
DAVID D. THORNBURG
Though it's hard to accept, I remember a time in my life when I didn't have my own computer. My first machine, a Commodore PET, had a whopping 8K of RAM—an amount that no one would dream of living with today. I spent endless hours creating word processors, games, and other small programs that only hinted at the real power of personal computing.
Those were wild days. The personal computing field was dominated by Apple, Commodore, and Tandy, but that didn't keep others out of the fray. Many truly innovative computers never became commercial successes. Names like Interact and Kentucky Fried Computer (later to become Northstar) are just memories. Last week I was rummaging through a closet and came across some of these relics—antiques less than ten years old!
By the time IBM joined the fray with its lackluster entry, things had gotten serious. Word processors had 300-page manuals; the public had been brainwashed into thinking that computers should be hard to use, serious tools for business, not playthings for the mind. In this relatively conservative phase of the industry, companies like IBM established themselves with a "serious" product. The Atari 800, with its rich palette of colors and sounds, was clearly a "game" machine. The underpowered and over-priced entries from the giants were the "business" machines. They had few colors and only functional sound, and the more cryptic the commands, the better.
Fortunately, some companies continued to see the computer as a powerful tool for creativity. When Apple introduced the Macintosh in 1984, I felt the excitement return. For all the ink that has been spent on this computer over the years, the one point that's forever underreported is that working in the Macintosh environment is fun. Not "ha-ha" fun, but fun like the early days of personal computing. The difference is that we controlled the hardware in the early days, but now we can control our programs, too. The hardware revolution is now a software revolution. The Macintosh shows that powerful applications can be mastered by people who think operating systems are surgical instruments. The "natural" user-interface metaphors such as windows, menus, and icons, as implemented on the Macintosh, greatly changed people's perceptions of this technology.
The core of the software revolution has nothing to do with the metaphor of the user interface; it has to do with simplicity. In 1984 I wrote a book using MacWrite and a 128K Macintosh. Today I've moved to Mac Write 2.0 running on a Mac SE. Over the years, the basic operating environment has stayed simple and easy to use.
In the interim, I've looked at other word processors, many of which had features I thought I wanted. Each time, I decided that the trip wasn't worth the fare. When features come at the expense of simplicity, the cost in user frustration is too high to bear.
It took years for the developers of Mac Write to incorporate multiple columns, mail merge, spell checking, footnote generation, and text/graphics manipulation, but when they finally managed it, they didn't compromise the simple operation that characterized the program's first version. The same can be said for numerous other applications for the Mac and other computers. There's no legitimate reason for any program to be hard to learn and cumbersome to use.
All of this leads me to make a few observations about the way things will go in the world of personal computing. If you've followed my columns in these pages for the past decade, you've seen some predictions that haven't come true. But I'll stick my neck out.
The last decade has shifted the focus of personal computing from the hardware to the user, and this trend will continue in the foreseeable future. The public will judge computers by their ability to support the natural way human beings work. Any attempts to mess with this fundamental idea will, over the long term, meet with commercial failure.
In meeting that goal of human-interface comfort, several developments will take place. First, the connection between our computers and our phone systems (long talked about) will grow firmer because of the facsimile machine.
Also, just as slow cassette tapes gave way to 5¼-inch disks, which in turn are giving way to 3½-inch high-density disks, today's hard disks will surrender themselves to erasable optical media with gigabyte capacities.
The computer's overall form might change as well. For example, as the cost of video projectors drops, the CRT may be replaced by a projection screen that can be used up close for personal work or placed far away when the computer is being used in a group setting.
None of these changes will occur overnight. But slowly they will make their way into our lives, simplify the computing process, and guarantee the future of home computing.