Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 49 / JUNE 1984 / PAGE 78

On The Road With Fred D'lgnazio

The Morning After:

Anti-Computer Backlash And The Arrival Of The Mass-Market Home Computer

Part 2

In this month's column, we conclude the text of Fred's speech at the West Coast Computer Faire. Part 1 appeared last month.

A Failure To Explain Computers

What could make computers go out of style? What could make the market for home computers dry up?

First, the personal computing revolution is already nine years old, yet the revolution's leaders (computing educators, manufacturers, authors, journalists, and spokespersons) have still not succeeded in explaining computers to the average person. Underneath the surface, the average person remains just as fearful, just as ignorant of computers as he was nine years ago.

Second, the computer industry has persisted in focusing on hardware and high technology instead of on human beings and human needs. Computers and computer programs have evolved based on their own logic and strengths rather than on human nature and human psychology. Most of the industry's imagination has gone into making the computer a gaudy "show-off" machine rather than on tailoring the computer to average human beings who want only to think like human beings, work like human beings, and have fun like human beings, and not like computers.

We need a new generation of computer programs which reflect the workings of the human mind. We have had enough computer programs that put human minds on the rack and try to squeeze them and stretch them to become more computerlike.

A Wellspring Of Resentment

Last, the computer industry, in its well-founded enthusiasm and zeal, has not been completely honest. Advanced computer applications are shown regularly on TV commercials. The average consumer sees these commercials, so he thinks that his $50 computer will be able to do something similar. His expectation, of course, is absurd. But it is creating a huge wellspring of resentment and disappointment among disgruntled consumers who discover that their low-cost home computer cannot perform the miracles that computers in TV ads commonly perform.

Educational Advertisements

Manufacturers should respond quickly and directly to this growing consumer backlash to computers by beginning a series of educational advertisements on TV and in the other media. For purely commercial reasons, these computer ads should be carefully designed, ongoing tutorials on the fundamentals of computing.

Manufacturers can begin their campaign by showing bare-bones computers. They can explain that low-cost computers are "kits" that require lots of time, effort, and money before they can do anything useful.

In later ads manufacturers can take consumers by the hand and show them how they can put their kits together, how they can "grow" their' kits into full-fledged computers, and how they can buy full-fledged computer systems outright.

Preventing A Consumer Backlash

To prevent a consumer backlash against computers, manufacturers need to advertise computers honestly; they need to start educating the average consumer. In addition, they need to admit that computer software is far more important than hardware. The simplest, most ugly computer can be a better buy than an advanced computer if it comes with good, easy-to-use software.

In addition, manufacturers need to design new computers that are more suitable for the average consumer. Low-cost, bare-bones computers should still be offered. They meet the needs of people and groups who operate on a tight budget. And they are perfect programming laboratories for young people who will become our next generation of software inventors, engineers, designers, artists, and entertainers.

However, manufacturers should also offer higher-priced computer systems that come completely bundled with hardware and software. The entry-level computer system should come with at least 256K of memory (for powerful yet simple software), a built-in modem, a disk drive, and a printer. And it should come, at minimum, with a library of software, including a word processor, an electronic notebook, a file cabinet, communications software (a post-office, mailbox, library, telephone program), a spreadsheet program, and a calendar-scheduler program.

Computer systems should also come with a program (like "Apple Presents Apple") that lets the computer introduce itself. And every program on the computer should have the responsibility to teach the new user how it (the program) works.

The First Mass-Market Computer

Into this rapidly evolving market comes the IBM PCjr. This computer arrives at a fateful time. It may well become the catalyst for a new generation of mass-market home computers.

According to many industry experts, the PCjr is something of a disappointment as a computer. But this is absolutely inconsequential! From the looks of things, the PCjr will probably still emerge as the standard in the home computer market the way its big sister, the PC, has emerged as the standard in the business market.

The PCjr is attracting third-party software and equipment the way the Apple computer did before it. But there is an important difference: The industry has grown and matured enormously since the introduction of the original Apple computer.

What does this mean? It means that third-party support for the PCjr is materializing much faster than it did for the Apple. It means that, within a year to 18 months, there will be a vast supply of equipment and software for the PCjr. It means that the quality of this equipment and soft-ware will be as advanced as anything that is on the market. The guidelines for the best new computer products are low cost, productivity, friend-liness, and simplicity. The products for the PCjr that incorporate these features will be a better buy than older products for home and business computers, products that probably cost hundreds of dollars more.

All these developments will totally transform the PCjr. Within a year after its introduction, the basic PCjr computer will cease to be of any consequence. Instead, all that will matter will be:

  • The quality and variety of its third-party software.
  • The quality and variety of its third-party equipment.
  • The IBM name and reputation for stability and excellence.
  • IBM marketing, technical support, hand-holding, and service.

Splitting Into Two Markets

The PCjr, as a galaxy of hardware, software, and equipment, will reflect the emerging sophistication of the American consumer. If it is marketed honestly, it may play a major role in educating the American consumer and in combating anticomputer backlash.

The PCjr should be sold at two levels. The less expensive model will appeal to people on a tight budget, to schools and budding computer inventors, and to the computer literates. It is a computer "kit" for people who want to learn more about how computers work or who have to do their computing on a shoestring.

The more expensive model will become the preferred computer of the computer intimates. Computer intimates will choose their computer the way they buy their home stereo. They will purchase the complete computer with all its components and with a library of record albums (software). They will want to take the computer home, plug it in, and let it become the heart of a family work station, communications network, and entertainment center.

A New, Expensive Standard

By mid-1985 the Japanese will be ready to follow IBM into the U.S. home computer market. By then the market will have consolidated, matured, and stabilized to the point where the risk of entering the market will be small and the rewards will be immense.

By mid-1985 a full-blown PCjr, with supporting third-party equipment and a library of software, may well have emerged as the home computer industry standard. But it will be an expensive standard, thus severely limiting the market size.

This is where the Japanese come in with their proven ability to market high-quality, high-technology products at a mass-market price. The Japanese will offer the lower-priced computer "kits," but they will concentrate on mass-marketing complete systems at only a fraction of the price of the PCjr and its clones and look-alikes.

As a result of the entry of IBM, and later the Japanese, by 1986 computers for the first time may become a truly low-cost, mass-market home appliance. Christmas 1986 will be like Christmas 1983, but with Americans buying millions of bundled home computer systems.

Software At The 7-11

The biggest revolution over the next three years will not be in home-computing computer hardware or software. It will be in software distribution.

Today the computer software industry is a dwarf about to become a giant.

Until now, the software industry's offerings have been narrow, primitive, and far too expensive for mass-market merchandising. The problem has been the medium on which the software is distributed—cassettes, diskettes, or ROM cartridges. The medium was either cheap but slow and inappropriate for large programs (tapes), or fast but too expensive and too limited in memory (cartridges), or fast and spacious but expensive (diskettes).

There are more than 35,000 computer programs on the market, stored on a tape, cartridge, or diskette. But buyers can afford to buy only a few programs apiece because of their high cost, and because there has been no way to evaluate or preview the programs. At the same time, retailers are reluctant to stock a large number of programs because program packages are bulky, and programs have a limited shelf life. (Like records and books, they stay "hot" for only a short time.) The retailers are afraid of acquiring a big inventory of programs that aren't moving.

But the software industry is on the verge of changing—suddenly and explosively. Software manufacturers have now found an amazing shortcut—a new way to distribute their products. Over the next year they will begin distributing software electronically. This one change will enable the industry to quadruple itself in under a year's time.

How will software manufacturers manage this miracle?

New software kiosks will soon be popping up in all sorts of places, including department stores, stereo stores, toy stores, computer stores, discount stores, and even 7-11s, drugstores, and videogame arcades. The kiosks will feature computer terminals that are capable of running thousands of piped-in programs on all subjects and for all major computers. A powerful "expert system" will guide the average consumer through the myriad choices and help him decide on his next software purchase.

When the consumer is ready to purchase a program, he will place a disk into a slot on the terminal. He will have purchased the disk for about $10. A moment later, software for his home computer will be beamed over a telephone link from a mainframe computer to the store's terminal and stored on his disk. He will pay the machine, vending machine style, with a credit card, or make his purchase as he leaves the store. The software itself will cost him only a nominal price—from $5 to $10.

The real savings comes to the consumer (and the real meaning of the revolution emerges) the next time he wants to buy a new program. He returns to the kiosk, picks out a new program, and has to pay a total of only $5 or $10. The computer automatically erases his old program from the disk and replaces it with the new program.

Piping in new programs electronically and reducing the cost of individual programs will turn software into an overnight mass-market industry. And software, of course, must be run on computers.

However, when the electronic distribution of software cranks into high gear, computers themselves will quickly sink into obscurity. The computer industry will become like the record industry, with the real focus not on the hardware but on the software.

In the record industry, the focus is on the hot new songs. In the computer industry, the focus will be on the hot new programs. Because of their instantaneous, low-cost availability, new programs will be in great demand. The average person will be able to acquire programs almost on a whim, and he or she will be anxiously awaiting all the new programs the moment they come on the market.

A New Synthesis

During 1986 the huge group of computer intimates (people who love to use computers, but don't have the faintest idea how they work) will merge with the much smaller group of computer literates (people who insist on being knowledgeable about the goings-on under a computer's "hood"). As a result of this merger, the home computer market will again be relatively homogeneous and unified.

At that time both groups will realize that the average person doesn't want to buy a computer "kit." But they will also realize that computers can never become black boxes—like toaster ovens or TVs. No matter how friendly the software, no matter how simple computers are to use, computers will still need to be programmed. Programming is an unavoidable part of computing.

But programming, in 1986, will not be equated with learning BASIC or Logo or Pascal. Instead, it will be a more general-purpose discipline of (goal-oriented, problem-solving, and algorithmic) thinking. And it will be practical and application-oriented.

Even when people use a friendly, commercial program, they must do some programming themselves. No matter how advanced the program, the computer cannot do everything itself. When people use a word processor, they are programming a document. When they use a data base manager, they are programming their electronic file cabinet. When they dial up CompuServe or the Source, they are programming their electronic telephone, post office, newspaper, catalog, or library. Programming can be easy, menu-driven, and done with icons and mice, but it is still programming. Human beings still have to do some of the work.

Computer Builder Kits

We are on the verge of a new generation of computer programming languages—high-level, application-oriented builder kits. In the future, computer literates and intimates alike will use these new languages to "build" their own music, colorful pictures, animated cartoons, robot pets, interactive simulations, computer advisors, and electronic tutors.

With the right software, the computer can be a multipurpose appliance. It is the ultimate "Mr. T": a Toy, a Tool, or a Tutor. But whatever it is, the computer will still need further programming after we bring it into our home. We will have to program it so that we can mold it exactly to our evolving needs and our desires.