Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 136 / DECEMBER 1991 / PAGE 6

Editorial license. (history of personal computers) (Editorial)
by Clifton Karnes

In the not-too-distant future, computers will replace books and magazines. That's a statement I've heard dozens of times in the last ten years, but since the advent of multimedia, I've heard it more often.

At COMPUTE, computers and paper are both important, and we're committed to both technologies. We believe in the power of the personal computer to enrich our lives, and our magazine is distributed on paper, the medium we feel is the best choice.

To understand the computer-versus-paper question, it's necessary to look at the PC's history. In the last ten years, the PC has instigated no less than three revolutions, and in each, it has gone head-to-head with paper.

The first revolution was sparked by the birth of the personal computer itself. These early machines were limited in power, but their potential was obvious. Before the revolution was more than a few years old, we heard the cry of the paperless office. Although computers unquestionably have the power to replace paper documents in the workplace, they have not done so. In fact, PCs have enabled us to produce more paper, and we have.

The initial shot of the second computer revolution was fired when the first BBS went online. In a few years, personal computers became communications devices. Networking, whether in the form of local area networks (LANs) or commercial online services, soon reached more than 70 percent of the PC community. In this second revolution, the PC's main competitor was another paper-based system: mail. Although the PC may have reduced paper-based mail for somebusinesses, personal computers, again, are actually creating more paper mail. If you've been going to the mailbox for the last ten years, compare the amount of junk mail you receive now with what you were getting in 1981.

In 1991, we've waged the first battles of computing's third, and most dramatic, revolution: multimedia. Although multimedia PCs may look like their predecessors, multimedia machines are radically different from previous computers, in that they're bona fide delivery systems for information. Because of this, they're more like paper. Will these newest PCs replace paper where their ancestors have failed? Before we tackle that question, let's take a look at what paper has to offer as an information delivery system.

First, paper has tremendous information density. A page of paper can hold about 33 times as much information as a Super VGA screen. For example, an 800 x 600 VGA display sports a resolution of about 75 lines per inch, while an average book or magazine comes closer to 2500 lines per inch.

When it comes to cost, papaer is hard to beat. Go to any drugstore, and you can pick up a small pack of the stuff for under $1. Computers, by comparison, are expensive. A top-noctch 386 will set you back $3,000.

Paper's third important quality is portability. While paper is light and easy to move, computers are cumbersome. If you own a notebook PC, try reading it in bed or on a bus, and you'll agree that a book or magazine is a much more graceful traveling companion.

Paper's last outstanding quality is the relative ease with which you can scan it. Flipping through a book or magazine lets your eyes dart from page to page. This type of top-down, random access is nearly impossible on a PC.

Does all this mean that the PC is in some way a failure? Not at all. It's unquestionably the empowering tool of the century, and it ranks with the invention of the wheel in importance. Its strengths have always been the powerful ways it can transform and combine information. What this does mean, however, is that paper will continue to be a partner, rather than a casualty, of the computer revolution. But if paper isn't in the computer's line of sight, is something else? Yes. And the endangered species is sitting right in your living room: TV.