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
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
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
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