Classic Computer Magazine Archive Article from Compute! magazine


Arlan R. Levitan

I work full-time in the IBM support district of a large telecommunications utility. About two weeks ago I was informed that my request to attend a one-week conference sponsored by IBM in San Francisco had been approved. Now, I don't particularly care for flying, especially a five-hour flight to the West Coast. Besides, the corporate travel bureau we use always has had a habit of routing me to my destination with three-hour stopovers in backwater airports and plane changes that would give Colonel Chuck Yeager fits.
    I decided to try a feature offered by most of the commercial information services, an electronic edition of the Official Airline Guide (OAG). A few words of explanation are in order for those of you unfamiliar with the OAG. The regular paper edition of the guide is printed once every two weeks and contains fare and schedule listings for all of the commercial airlines in the United States. It is theoretically available to regular travelers at little or no charge. Actually, getting a recent copy from an airline or travel agent usually requires giving up a complete set of fingerprints and your first-born child.
    The electronic edition of OAG, while not free, does have some advantages. Its on-line information is always current and, most important, it offers extensive search capabilities. Using the electronic OAG, it's a snap to find the lowest possible fares available, even ones that many travel agents can miss. Sure, I could have called around to every airline in town and got the same information for free. But "free" in this case means spending about an hour making ten or so phone calls, plus being subjected to canned Muzak while waiting for a reservations operator.
    Looking up the flights via the electronic OAG took around 90 seconds and cost about $1.50. Besides, it was a lot of fun to call the air line I had settled on and have all of the flight information before the fact. Electronic OAG will really come into its own when the information services also offer on-line ticket bookings for all airlines. Don't be surprised if such services are commonly available by the end of the year.

Telecomputing On The Run
Two days before I was to leave, I got a call from my editor at COMPUTE!.
    "Arlan, this is Tom. Where's the February column?"
    "Are you kidding? I just sent January two weeks ago, and I'll never live down the fact that it was actually on time. Besides, I'm going to be out of town for a week. There's no way I can get it to you by next week." I smiled, thinking of leisurely strolling along Fisherman's Wharf in the cool of a San Francisco evening.
    "Hey, didn't you just buy a lap computer with a built-in modem? You can take it with you, write the column on it and then transmit it directly into our computer via phone, right?"
    I silently cursed myself for ever mentioning my new acquisition in passing conversation.
    Actually, taking a modem on the run turned out to be a pretty good idea. The Sunday I arrived, it was raining heavily, and I was too jetlagged to want to go anywhere. Having a portable computer with a modem saved me from having to endure Knight Rider. From the comfort of my hotel room, I logged onto my favorite commercial information services, chatted with some of my electronic compadres, and perused items of interest on the various forums I participate in.
    Monday night, I left a message on a local computerized bulletin board system (BBS) asking for restaurant recommendations from the locals, rather than trust the "Dine At Our Advertisers" booklets that litter hotels.
    Wednesday, I received a call from my place of work in Michigan. There was a minor problem with one of the computer subsystems I was responsible for. I could have spent over an hour on the phone describing how to deal with the problem in detail. Instead, I dialed into the system with my lap computer, and analyzed and fixed the problem in about ten minutes. Also on Wednesday, I dialed back into the local BBS and read the response to my restaurant inquiry. One of the recommendations looked particularly enticing, and that evening my friends and I had a great Szechwan dinner at a place that wasn't listed in any of the where-to-eat booklets.
    And on Thursday night, after an exhausting day of meetings, I wrote this column in my hotel room when I could have been wasting my time touring the city in a cable car.
    But seriously, do I regret telecomputing on the run? Absolutely not. I doubt if I'll travel on business without telecomputing power again.
    Watch for more under-$500 consumeroriented lap portables with built-in modems in 1985. It's been found that integrated telecommunications is crucial to the success of lap computers. Consider two nearly identical lap machines, the Tandy TRS-80 Model 100 and the NEC 8201A. Both are manufactured by the Japanese firm Kyocera. The NEC has a clearly superior keyboard and more memory capacity than the Model 100. So why does the Model 100 outsell it by more than 20 to 1? The Tandy has a built-in modem, and as the sales figures show, that makes all the difference.
    Even Commodore is said to be considering adding a modem to its portable SX-64 in an effort to spur sales. Indeed, it may soon be difficult to buy a microcomputer without a modem. The current availability of a $10, 300 bps modemon-a-chip will have a profound effect on the telecomputing user base in the next few years. Because built-in modems add lots of functionality for little additional cost, you can expect the majority of new machines introduced in 1986 and beyond to sport integrated telecommunications.

The commercial information service wars are heating up again. Recently, CompuServe has been gaining ground in the corporate computing community with its business-tailored Executive Information Service. This has the No. 1 business info provider - Dow Jones News/Retrieval - scrambling in response. DJNR has cut its rates by 25 percent across the board for general services and regular stock quotes, and has announced a major new service-stock quotes based upon "last trade."
    What are last trade quotes? Until the announcement of this service, all of the stock quotes offered by the major consumer information utilities have been delayed 15 to 20 minutes. Anyone familiar with the stock market knows that 15 minutes can be a lifetime in the price of an individual issue. Last trade quotes report the most recent price paid for a stock, based on the last transaction logged by the exchange on which the stock is listed.
    Transactions are reported much more quickly under the new system. The time varies from exchange to exchange, but 20 seconds or less is not uncommon. Moderately serious investors who don't have a broker willing to spend an hour at a time on the phone with them will find the new service a real blessing.
    The last trade quotes will cost DJNR users a $12 monthly service charge in addition to the normal connect-time charges for quotes. The monthly surcharge covers the fees paid by Dow Jones to the exchanges for the more timely quote information.
    DJNR didn't have much time to gloat before The Source-a rival information service owned by Reader's Digest-struck back in spades, announcing its own last trade quotes. Although The Source's $20 monthly surcharge is a bit higher than DJNR's, The Source introduced a powerful adjunct service. By special arrangement with Spears Incorporated, a discount brokerage house, stock watchers on The Source can set up an account with Spears and issue trading orders on-line. According to Spears, most orders will be executed within two minutes of issuance. An extensive portfolio tracking system is also available on-line and may be used to value actual holdings or to track "paper portfolios" (for those who wish to dabble for fun rather than real money).

New On-Line Services
The information service war is spreading beyond the business sector as well. Two new on-line services-People/Link and Play/Net-are starting up with introductory connect-time charges significantly below those charged by the established leaders.
    People/Link will offer services similar to CompuServe's popular Nationwide CB and Special Interest Forums as well as electronic mail at only $2.95 an hour. Play/Net sounds even more aggressive, offering on-line games with mediumresolution color graphics to users who purchase its proprietary terminal program. Although the Commodore 64 is the only machine Play/Net supports at this time, the service claims it will support IBM and Apple computers by this spring. Play/Net's introductory connect time charges? An unbelievable $2.00 an hour! Both Play/Net's and People/Link's hourly charges will certainly rise after the two firms have lured enough users to make continued operation of the services viable, but such predatory pricing should help keep the rates charged by the big boys down to earth.

Arlan R. Levitan
Source: TCT987