Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 17 / OCTOBER 1981 / PAGE 12

Computers And Society

David D. Thornburg
Los Altos, CA

Speculations On The Appropriateness Of Technology...

Many years ago the Dick Tracy comic strip featured a character named Diet Smith who had invented a magnetic levitation process which allowed (among other things) interplanetary travel. His slogan was "The nation that controls magnetism controls the Universe."

The idea that new technologies can generate social change on a large scale is more common in science fiction than it is in reality. Today we seem less concerned with technology giving us control of the universe than with the question of whether certain technologies are appropriate for any use whatsoever. If we are to believe authors like Alvin Toffler and Frank Herbert, the personal computer is soon to become an indispensable part of our lives. According to these futurists, everyone will be using these marvelous machines soon.

And yet, if the personal computer is to play such an important role in our lives, it isn't at all clear just how this is going to happen. In fact, the personal computer world seems to be entering a period of some confusion at this time — a confusion born less of technology than of the question of just what the appropriate applications for this technology are.

Before 1979, most of the personal scale computer systems in the world were in the hands of hobbyists — people who eagerly became the explorers of this new field, mapping uncharted territory and reporting their findings to the more timid. These people knew exactly what they were doing, and they were in control of their computers from the first time they turned them on.

Next came people wanting to use these machines for business applications. For these people there was a large gap between the user's expectations and the limited tasks these machines appeared able to perform. The conversion of the personal computers into a useful tool didn't happen overnight. Software pioneers, working out of bedrooms, garages, and warehouse offices generated thousands of programs for these customers in the hope that the perfect application would be found. However well intentioned the effort, until recently, the personal computer simply wasn't an adequate tool. When used for inventory control, for example, the memory capacity of most micros is too small for all but the tiniest company; and most tiny companies who know enough to want to use a computer also know that they won't be tiny companies forever.

And so, after a period where many programmers appeared to be taking the role of Eddington's monkeys, thrashing at thousands of keyboards and hoping that one of them would produce a work of Shakespeare, two magnificently appropriate applications for business users were developed. These were the electronic spread sheet (of which VisiCalc is the most popular), and word processing. Each of these applications was new for the "data processing" environment normally associated with business computers — and each of them suited the size and capabilities of the personal computer very well. Each of these applications was new for the "data processing" environment normally associated with business computers — and each of them suited the size and capabilities of the personal computer very well.

Once these applications became accepted, two things happened to the industry. Business users started buying personal computers by the hundreds of thousands, and the traditional Fortune 500 computer companies made their decision to enter the fray. It took the hardware pioneers, Commodore, Apple, Tandy, Atari, and others, to qualify the market for the new entrants — notably Xerox and IBM. In the space of a year, the personal computer went from being an inappropriate tool to being an essential tool for many thousands of businesses.

And now we see several computer manufacturers making their plunge into the newest (and largest) marketing frontier of all — the mass consumer market. This is the most dangerous market of all to enter with a new technology, since many fine product concepts have lain like so many rusted Edsels on the path to the marketplace. And yet several brave manufacturers have declared their intentions to be successful in a market which has yet to define its principal application. If you doubt the seriousness of this effort, note that, last year, computers were generally sold only through computer and office product stores. This year, computers can be found in most large department stores and catalog showrooms — places from which they are being purchased in record numbers.

Even as these machines are being sold, one must ask if their purchasers realize that they too are pioneers — that the appropriate application for personal computers in the home is yet to be defined. To explore the appropriateness of the personal computer in the home, let's look at two factors: applications and ease of use.

If we examine the appliances which are already in homes today, we can separate them into roughly three categories — utilitarian, communication, and entertainment. Utilitarian appliances include clothes washers, stoves, refrigerators, and other appliances which are used to maintain and serve the utility needs of the household. The only pure communication device most people have in their homes is the telephone, although one could put CB radio in this category as well. The remaining appliances — television, radio, stereo system, etc., fall under the entertainment category. These entertainment devices are overwhelmingly communications oriented. The vast majority of this equipment is designed to receive broadcast material, or to play pre-recorded material. It wasn't until the video game that a non-communications oriented entertainment appliance entered the arena.

And now we must ask where the personal computer fits into the home. Some people envision the home computer as the wonder device which serves many functions simultaneously—controlling the lawn sprinklers, receiving the latest news from the UPI wire, and challenging its owners to a fast game of Space Evaders. If this vision is correct, then the personal computer will become the home appliance which bridges the gaps between all the other appliances we know about.

However, as I talk with potential computer owners, I detect a great deal of confusion. Most of these people see the computer as the next home appliance, but are very unclear as to how this appliance will serve them. Many people seem to think that the major useful application for these machines is to serve as a high quality video game.

While there is an awareness of the educational value of having a computer around the house, there are not an overwhelming number of well designed educational programs on the market. Nonetheless, advertising which makes parents feel guilty for not getting a computer for their children has probably increased personal computer sales to families.

Communications is another legitimate application, but many potential users are not yet ready to use the computer as a replacement for the post office or the morning paper. And home financial management sounds like a great ideal until people realize the tremendous amount of labor associated with maintaining a data base.

Unless people can see some direct benefit from their purchase, they will either defer their purchase, or end up buying a computer which lies unused on the shelf. It may be hard for COMPUTE! readers to accept, but I will wager that there are a whole lot of computers sitting on closet floors, unused, because the purchaser didn't realize that this machine was not yet appropriate for the tasks he or she had in mind.

Even if the magic programs were found tomorrow, computers will not be sold by the millions unless people think they are easy to use. To a consumer who is used to pushing a button on a dish-washer, or to turning two dials on a television set, a full blown computer keyboard (with keys labeled CTRL and ESC) can be quite intimidating. Also, any computer which says READY when first turned on certainly isn't ready for the average user who is used to nothing more complex than a record changer.

To be useful in the true mass market, the computer must display a list of meaningful options when it is first turned on. The user must be given as much guidance as possible. Fortunately, most of the personal computers on the market today are capable of being programmed so that a user-friendly interface program is loaded automatically when the system is powered up.

The situation is far from hopeless. Even with all its defects, the personal computer is being purchased by consumers who want to be on the leading edge of this technology. Those of us who understand these machines need to listen to these new pioneers when they tell us what they want. We need to be responsive to the suggestions of all users, regardless of their level of technical sophistication. Most of all we need to experiment with a wide variety of software covering a wide spectrum of applications until the truly appropriate "home" application is discovered.

Only then can we rightly call this the age of the personal computer, and only then can we say that this technology can be appropriate for all users. The personal computer promises to give each of us control of our informational universe — and when that day arrives, we will have achieved real power!

Next Time...

We will explore User-Friendly languages — why BASIC may not be basic any more.