The "World Computer" Revisited
The School Of The Ozarks
Pt. Lookout, MO
This letter is written in connection with the responses I have received to my guest editorial in COMPUTE! #14 (page 18). In particular, I am concerned with Mr. Vern L. Mastel's letter in COMPUTE! #17 (page 16).
Mr. Mastel implies that my ideas regarding standardization would be the Armageddon of the personal computer industry. The questions he raises and the scenario he depicts are the products of his imagination, not mine.
Let me respond to some of his concerns by pointing out that standardization has long been an important factor in the electronics industry as a whole and in the computer industry as well. The IEEE has numerous committees working to standardize various components of the electronics industry, including bus structures, interfaces, and languages.
I can purchase a record from any manufacturer (RCA, Columbia, etc.) and put it on any turntable or record changer, connected to any amplifier, and I will hear music. This is the blessing that results from industry standardization of recording format, speed, and frequency response curves. It is neither "horrifying," nor is it a "nightmare" to operate. (Words in quotes were used by Mr. Mastel.)
Likewise, the industry standards for transmission, reception, and formatting of television pictures have not produced any "monstrous" results. On the contrary, the fact that any TV set (in the United States) can receive any network, all channels, and any local TV station, has been a boon to the industry. My 15-year old black and white set is perfectly compatible with the new color sets. I can purchase a video monitor from any manufacturer and it will work with almost any personal computer as a result of standardization.
Another person who responded to my editorial claimed that the "standard" computer would be restricted to a single microprocessor. Nonsense! The microprocessor and its unique assembly language are completely transparent to anyone who programs in a high-level language. Microsoft has written a BASIC interpreter for almost every microprocessor, it seems. The problem is that BASIC is not standardized. There are many different kinds of BASIC. The people who wrote ADA are apparently making efforts to insure that this does not happen to it.
Mr. Mastel implies that we must make a choice between one of the many high-level languages (he included CP/M, which is not a language). I do not think it is an either/or situation. Interpreters are either in ROM or on a disk, and may easily be changed. My idea of a standard computer would be one in which language cards could be plugged in or removed.
It might be well to reiterate my original points. In the context of educational uses of the personal computer (an elementary, middle, or high school classroom for example):
- The cassette recorder is an unacceptable device for storing programs and the industry, including software vendors, should be realistic about its weaknesses.
- Compatible disk operating systems and standard versions of any high-level language would allow software to be easily transported from one machine to another, resulting in reduced software costs and increased incentives for the people who like to write software.
- Standardized graphics commands (with the origin of the coordinate system in the lower left-hand corner where it was for several hundred years before the computer arrived on the scene) would also make transporting a program from one machine to another an easy task. Standardized graphics commands must be built into the interpreter.
- Standard printer, disk, modem, and plotter interfaces would make assembling a computer system much easier. In a sense this is history, since the RS-232C is already standardized for serial interfaces and Centronics handshaking has become a de facto standard for parallel interfaces, while the IEEE-488 bus is used for instrumentation.
My comments were not intended to unveil a poorly disguised communist plot to bring the personal computer industry to an untimely demise. On the contrary, I would like to see the industry become more standardized so that the use of a computer by any elementary school teacher or pupil is simple, inexpensive, trouble-free educational, and entertaining.