Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 57 / FEBRUARY 1985 / PAGE 6


Senior Editor Richard Mansfield speculates on the perfect computer in this month's guest editorial.
    -Robert Lock, Editor in Chief.

Configure, in your mind, the ideal computer. Forget about cost or the limitations of current technology. What would the ultimate thinking machine be able to do? What would it be like?
    For example, everyone seems to agree that a perfect automobile would combine the safety of trains with the speed and ease of planes and the freedom and low cost of cars.
    In fact, ideal things are generally safe, fast, easy to use, versatile, and cheap. On our planet, many things already qualify:
light, water, electricity, TV, some kinds of love, to name a few. Not, however, computers. Not yet, anyway.
    If we imagine the qualities of the perfect computer, the first thing that comes to mind is that it should be easy to use, but we have to be careful with this one. What you might find easy to use might perplex or annoy me.
    For example, "userfriendly" is a selling point, a current fad, among computer manufacturers. Ads are filled with pop-up menus, windowing, icons, and mouse devices-all ways to make computing possible for nontypists and seductive to noncomputerists. For those of us who have learned to type or to program, however, things like this can sometimes just get in the way. It's far easier, for many people, to simply type LOAD "PROGRAM" than it is to move a mouse to a menu, pull down the disk menu, move to the program name, move the mouse up to the word LOAD, etc.
    Perhaps all these features are efforts to make computing easier to learn as distinct from easier to use. But as more people find themselves comfortable working with computers, maybe icons and such won't be as desirable as they now seem.
    But what would be the easiest computer to use? Probably one which could communicate in English.
    The second quality, safety, is related to ease of use. In computing, a safe environment prevents you from making serious mistakes like erasing an entire disk by accident. Current computers are fairly safe in this respect. But, again, some software goes too far. You can get very frustrated with a program which says ARE YOU SURE?, and then, after you type YES, responds with ARE YOU REALLY SURE?
    The safest computer would be able to grasp the context and intent of your actions. If you have been reformatting a number of new disks, it should realize that and dispense with ARE YOU SURE? for each one. Such a computer would have, in effect, common sense.
    Speed, in computing, also means more than it first appears to. In many ways, even the most limited computers are now far faster than humans. But a truly quick computer would have the same qualities as a quick person: a fast brain with a large memory. Speed, in this sense, promotes versatility and power.
    In some ways, the current trend toward integrated software is an effort in this direction. The larger, faster personal computers are combining word processing, data base management, telecommunications, spreadsheets, etc., into one huge program. It's quite impressive when you can ask your word processor to look over a letter, spend a couple of seconds verifying all the spelling, and then mail the letter for you over a modem.
    So, the perfect computer would speak English, have common sense, and be brilliant and versatile. Depending on your personal predilections, such an entity might be indistinguishable from Einstein or Agatha Christie: It would have all of their good qualities and none of the bad; it would be honest, patient, always there. An ideal intellectual companion, a silicon and plastic angel.