Computers And Society
David D. Thornburg, Associate Editor
Until this year, the personal computer industry had been moving steadily forward in the quality and utility of the technology made available to the user.
I remember in 1978 when choices were largely limited to Commodore's black-and-white display of characters (no high-resolution graphics), Radio Shack's black-and-white display of capital letters and limited low-resolution graphics, and Apple's color display with low- and high-resolution graphics, but no lowercase letters.
Over the intervening years, new players like Atari created improved computers with superb sound and graphic capabilities, simply because improving the technology was the way to win new customers. This type of advancement rippled through the early computer manufacturers, leading, for example, to computers like the Commodore 64.
Innovation Meant Profits
It was the American Dream in action. If you wanted to compete in the personal computer marketplace, you had to create better technology so the customer got more perceived value for each dollar spent. The customer and the computer manufacturers were clear winners. Each technological advancement sparked new enthusiasm in the marketplace and in the hearts of the designers.
Companies who lacked the vision or the ability to keep in step fell by the wayside, and new companies entered the field knowing they would be judged on technological performance and price. It didn't matter if you were a new company or an old-timer to the industry; the issue was one of performance.
Benjamin Franklin would have been proud.
Enter Big Blue
But then something strange happened. A sleeping giant awoke and entered the personal computer marketplace with a system that would have gathered dust on the shelves had it been created by a small company. Given IBM's newness to the personal computer field, the awkwardness of the PC could perhaps be forgiven.
But, rather than letting IBM take its lumps with the other companies who delivered less than expected, analysts and just about everyone else started jumping on the PC bandwagon. "IBM legitimatizes the small computer market" was a common statement, as though this thriving industry somehow needed IBM's belated blessing to even exist. Many people quickly forgot that this industry was doing just fine, thank you, years before IBM was willing to concede that computers might be owned by individuals rather than by corporations.
And so, as an industry, we had to live with fewer colors, cumbersome peripheral cards, and expense after expense. But, we were told, don't compare the PC to the Commodore 64. The PC is not a home computer, it's a computer for business. Big, bold, expensive, time-consuming to use—after all, who ever said computing should be fun?
Nonetheless, many software artisans and hardware copyists said, "If IBM does it, it must be right."
Within a short period, IBM work-alike computers were appearing in droves, and almost every software house in the country rushed to produce software for this machine. It made great business sense, and everybody thrived.
Some of us thought that IBM's home entry would make up for some of the PC's shortcomings.
After all, the consumer marketplace had been bombarded with technological marvels for years: Atari had shown us that good colors can be created when you have independent control of hue and luminance.
The sound chip capabilities of Atari and Commodore computers took computers out of the beep and click stages and gave us harpsichords and pipe organs instead.
Waiting For Junior
One processor was no longer enough—multiprocessor computers for home use became commonplace. Apple redid the II and produced the crisp and competitively priced IIe. All was right with the home computer world as we eagerly awaited IBM's announcement.
When the long-awaited PCjr was announced, some of us thought that IBM hadn't even looked at the competitive products. Borrowing a page from the past, the PCjr used a bulky external power transformer. Yes, so does Commodore and Atari, but we never liked this external transformer, and IBM had a chance to improve in this area.
Looking at the PCjr overall, it reminds me of the Coleco Adam—a computer system that for under $700 provides everything you need—software, letter quality daisy wheel printer, etc. The PCjr may have borrowed from Adam's good looks, but the IBM starter system has no mass storage device, no software, no printer, and doesn't even come with a cable to connect the computer to a TV or monitor.
The Controversial Keyboard
Aside from its striking price difference from the Adam, the PCjr does have one other difference: The Adam has a decent typewriter-like keyboard while the PCjr has what we call a "Chiclet keyboard."
Old-time readers might recall that in 19801 wrote of the TRS-80 Color Computer's keyboard: "I do find the noise from the keyboard to be a bit annoying—somewhat like typing on a plate full of pennies…." The fact is that Chiclet keyboards were poor choices when Radio Shack and TI used them. In the intervening years, Radio Shack and TI switched to full-stroke, typewriter-style keyboards.
To my knowledge, IBM entered the market as the only personal computer manufacturer to promote a keyboard design that had been tried and rejected by the customers of several other computer manufacturers.
Once again, almost every trade magazine includes an editorial claiming that "IBM has now made the home computer market legitimate."
Buying The Brand
What is happening to us? Why are we apparently so willing to have our technological expectations sacrificed on the altar of brand-name recognition?
Yes, it is true that companies like Apple haven't been in the computer business as long as IBM, but that doesn't mean that their service is any poorer. Somehow, even though they had no prior experience in this marketplace, IBM had cultivated an image that so excited the computer-buying public that they could have sold anything and people would have bought it.
To me it is tragic that, given the history of IBM, they didn't use their entry to establish new standards of excellence, user-friendliness, and sensitivity to the price expectations of the public. Had they done that, the PCjr would have been worth the wait.
If the PCjr is one step backward, it is not alone. When I first heard about the MSX computers, I was quite pleased. For the first time since the start of this industry, several manufacturers got together to create a standard for everything from disk drives to joysticks.
From the customer's perspective, this was a dream come true. Every time I address the general public, someone asks why they can't run an Apple disk on their Atari computer.
Good question. After all, everybody knows you can play the same phonograph record or video tape on equipment from any number of manufacturers.
So, a standard was a good idea in my mind. The problem with the MSX computers is that the standard was designed around the Z-80A microprocessor. As a result, we are going to see 1970's technology locked into a standard with total disregard to the advancements in 16-bit and 32-bit architectures that are much more powerful. One always expects some tradeoff when several companies share in a joint decision (after all, it is said that a camel is a horse designed by a committee), but this technological back-step seems to be too high a price to pay.
Saved By Competition?
Will the marketplace take care of this problem by itself? After all, consumers have made their desires known in the past. Well, if SONY, Yamaha Hitachi, Mitsubishi, Pioneer, Fujitsu and the others (yes, Virginia, there is an American MSX machine—from Spectravideo) enter our market with a media blitz equal to that used to sell televisions, it will take a lot of resistance to keep from falling in line. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised to see companies like Commodore introduce an MSX computer just to preserve their market share.
But the darkest hour is always just before dawn, and there is a refreshing glimmer that shows an alternative to these two technologically backward steps.
A Bright New Apple
This refreshing one-step-forward is the Apple Macintosh—a computer designed for anyone to use. Macintosh is reasonably priced ($2500 including display and disk drive and operating system software—IBM, please note). But more important than Macintosh's system price is the almost intuitively simple manner in which it is used.
I maintain that any COMPUTE! reader can master Macintosh in 30 minutes. It is, by far, the easiest computer I have used since I worked at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center. PARC was the spiritual home of some of the software ideas so masterfully implemented in Macintosh. This computer is designed from the ground up to be responsive to the user's way of doing things, rather than forcing the user to bend to the arbitrary constraints of the computer.
To take just one example, suppose you want to edit a letter you have written with the MacWrite word processor. Once you have inserted your disk, your screen shows you a set of icons representing the various items stored on the disk, with their names beneath them. These items might be documents, pictures, programs, schedules, etc.
You use the mouse to move the cursor to the icon representing the document you want to edit, and with a couple of clicks you have automatically loaded the word processor which has automatically loaded the document for you to edit.
Macintosh is, quite simply, a civilized machine. After working with it for a while, I found myself quite intolerant of my other computers. The
Computers And Society, June 1984
David wrote his first article for me in the first issue of COMPUTE!, Fall 1979. Since then he has been a regular columnist. One of the constants of our working relationship in all these years is that David has been free to share his thoughts—after all, who could ever justify curbing a column called "Computers and Society," especially in 1984?
I have some problems with this particular column of David's. Among our editorial staff here I do not have unanimous support. On the other hand, I'm not alone in my concerns. Thus, David's column is presented here in full; my comments appear below.
Robert C. Lock, Editor In Chief
It would seem that the primary criticism of IBM is their "failure" to introduce personal computing products that are hallmarks of technological innovation. In any maturing industry, there are always leaders, entrepreneurs, bastion stormers who take the risks, blaze the trails, and yes, make several mistakes and fail—or make fewer and survive. I would suggest that IBM passed through that phase in its maturation as a company some decades ago. Right or wrong, such a process is also a part of the American Dream in action.
The Case Is Overstated
To characterize IBM as a sleeping giant, stumbling awake to inflict awkward products on a naive public, is unrealistic. In part, it simply reflects the changing values one frequently encounters in a maturing market. While it may be frustrating that the IBM products don't reflect a state-of-the-art technology, it can also be argued that they reflect a tested, tried, and reliable technology.
Is this a sidestep argument? I don't think so. No more than to argue that IBM computers sell simply because they're IBM computers. Built into that statement is a tradition that's also a reflection of the various levels of maturation of the marketing process. Given appropriate emphasis, the statement can be negative; given another emphasis, it can be exceptionally positive.
Consumers Trust IBM
I don't think that IBM could have sold "anything," and that people would have bought it. At least not for long. That's not what IBM's all about. Their business is to deliver reliable working products that meet a need in the market.
Have they done that? The demand for their personal computer products would seem to indicate their success. Have they failed to "establish" new standards of excellence? I would disagree. Have they had the design problems, delivery problems, service problems, continually revamped operating systems, bugs and fixes, that have bedeviled less mature companies over the years? Have we seen them "experiment" with the public by quickly, hastily bringing to market a product that's gone in six months—or worse, never delivered? Have we seen them vacillate in and out of the market with promises and visions never to be fulfilled?
I think not. And I'm not quite sure why all of these "failures" indicate a deviation from their history, or a step backwards for the industry.
Rather than saying "If IBM does it, it must be right," I would argue that "If IBM does it, it will probably be valid." After all of the arguments and questions over the last few years about the true utility of home computers, and the myriad of attempts to expand their usefulness to a broader base of the population, IBM is showing a willingness to take a certain kind of risk. It may not be in the area of sophisticated graphics, or breakthroughs in software, but I would venture to guess that the recently announced joint venture between IBM, Sears, and CBS to develop mutual utilization of home computers will have a chance at making a massive step forward in the ability of our industry to mature as a functional home "utility."
Innovation comes in many guises, not all of them hardware- or software-based.
And David, a p.s.: I agree with you on that strange little keyboard.
Macintosh is qualitatively distinct from any other personal computer. It has defined a new tier of the market.
This definition had happened not because of its 32-bit architecture, its 1 to 2 million instructions-per-second speed, or its price, but simply because of its functionality. For years the industry has been telling us that computers are easy to use. Macintosh finally came out to fulfill that promise.
But will Macintosh be successful? I hope so. Apple appears dedicated to supporting third-party software developers, and several powerful languages are available for users who like to create their own programs.
Back On The Right Track
There is another reason I hope Macintosh is successful. This country was built on the concept that people with good ideas could compete in the open marketplace. This spirit of open competition guaranteed not only that the customer got a good deal, but that technology would improve as newer and better products were developed. If, by pure force of corporate identity, we can be convinced to drop our high standards of cost-effective performance, we can kiss the free enterprise system goodbye.
Macintosh is more than a computer—it is a statement in response to the clearly stated needs of the consumer. How will we respond?