THE WORLD INSIDE THE COMPUTER
The Home Computer Revolution:
Another False Start?
The Home Computer Revolution:
Another False Start?
Fred D'Ignazio Associate Editor
In my recent columns I have written about the overselling of the home computer. (See "The Morning After: Anti-Computer Backlash And The Arrival Of The Mass-Market Home Computer," COMPUTE!, May and June 1984; and "Is The Computer A Home Appliance?," COMPUTE!, August 1984.)
Now it seems that a genuine backlash against home computers has appeared. In publication after publication, and on TV and radio, we hear that the "home computer revolution" was a fluke. Commentators and reporters tell us that computers are still too difficult, too finicky, and too expensive to be a mass-market "appliance." And, unlike the TV, the telephone, and the toaster oven, there is no compelling reason to own a computer.
There is some truth to all of these charges, and, collectively, they have chipped away at the glossy high-tech image that home computers have enjoyed for the last couple of years. As a result, the glamour has worn off the home computer, and this has caused the industry to sag.
Fred D'Ignazio is a computer enthusiast, the father of two children, and the author of several books on computers for young people. His books include Katie and the Computer (Creative Computing), Working Robots (Hayden), The Star Wars Question and Answer Book about Computers (Random House), and Computing Together: A Parents and Teachers Guide to Using Computers with Young Children (COMPUTE! Publications).
Fred appears regularly as the "family computing" commentator on "The New Tech Times," a half-hour public-TV program on consumer electronics that airs weekly on over 240 stations across the country.
Fred's column appears monthly in COMPUTE!.
History Repeats Itself
But this is not the first time it's happened. In 1975, when the first computer kit (the Altair) appeared, there was a lot of discussion in the media about a "home computer revolution." This discussion was short-lived, however, because the first computers were strictly hobbyist devices. They had very little memory, almost no software, and were not built, distributed, serviced, or supported as consumer products.
The home computer hype started again in 1977 when Apple introduced its Apple II, Radio Shack came out with the TRS-80 Model I, and Commodore introduced its PET. Again we heard claims about how computers would soon be in everyone's homes. Unfortunately, these claims were just as premature as they were before. Like the machines before them, these new computers were suitable only for hobbyists and students as do-it-yourself educational devices.
We are now at the end of a third wave of claims that the home computer has arrived. This wave, like the others, has subsided and turned sour because our computer technology is still not mature enough to create a true, mass-market consumer product.
There have been three false starts in launching the home computer revolution, and there are sure to be more. Home computers are now in five million homes, but they're used daily in only a minority of those homes. It will be a long time before computers appear in 100 percent of people's homes and become a way of life like telephones or TV sets.
The Digital Utility Center
Experts predict that a real home computer will not appear until computers are integrated into all aspects of people's lives, including banking, shopping, working, communicating, and entertainment. A real home computer will not sit alone on a desktop and look like a typewriter plugged into a TV set. Instead, it will be a hybrid machine-part TV, part telephone, part videocassette recorder, and part stereo system. It will be the brains of a general-purpose digital utility center that a family operates to hear music, watch movies and TV, make phone calls, control household appliances, and pay bills.
The home computer of the present is made up of awkward, ill-fitted, and confusing components. The day its components fuse together into a single digital utility center that is sold at discount supermarkets, it will truly become a massmarket device.
The digital utility center will come in a single box and plug into the wall with a single cord. The center's audio, video, and computer software will be uniform and standardized (in some kind of optical or magnetic format), and will play everything-from educational games to Bruce Springsteen to the latest Burt Reynolds movie.
All the recordings will be digital and capable of being stored on a single, high-density storage device. All programming will be in English and will consist of making simple choices from a menu of selections that appears on a screen and are read to the user aloud by the center's synthesized voice. Input will be from a keyboard, light pen, mouse, microphone, or touch screen, depending on the individual's preference. No technical knowledge whatsoever will be needed to operate the center. And the center will come with one- to five-year warranties, full service contracts, and modular, replaceable parts.
Like The Electric Motor
When the digital utility center arrives, the home computer will really be a mass-market appliance. But when computers have become digital utility centers, they will no longer be computers. To paraphrase Joseph Weizenbaum, a digital utility center to a computer is the same as a vacuum cleaner to an electric motor.
Before we see consumers going wild over digital utility centers, a lot of separate developments have to take place. Audio, video, communications, and computer hardware must evolve much further and become more integrated, digital, compatible, and inexpensive. Software for the separate devices has to be integrated under a single multimedia operating system and has to adopt a standardized storage and data interchange format.
In addition, the software must have a friendly, human-like mouthpiece that deals with us in our natural, spoken language and is not only user-friendly but also user-forgiving. The software will have to fill in the gaps in people's commands, correct their typos and misspellings, not let them make any serious mistakes, hold their hand as they work their way through a task, and anticipate what they will want to do next.
Most important of all, a mass-market home computer will require a reliable, universal communications network that links the digital utility center into very-high-speed satellite channels that support two-way instantaneous transmission of voices, music, video images, computer-generated pictures, text, and numerical data. This network, too, must be standardized, instantly available at the push of a CALL button on the digital utility center, and invisible to the user.
Only when such a network is in place will the digital utility center become popular with a majority of consumers. Only then will all the pie-in-the-sky promises of computer enthusiasts become possible.
Such a network will make it possible to do home banking, telecommuting, shopping at home, and attending courses and classes at home. People will be able to purchase all the new records, movies, computer software, and books over the network and have them downloaded into their local mass-storage device or into a portable computer that they can detach from the main unit and carry with them when they travel.
The Computer As Translator And Terminal
The lesson in all this is that our vision of the home computer has been too limited, and that's why we keep having false starts. Our vision has been limited by the fact that we are still too close to the computer's birth; we are still too familiar with the computer's early stages and functions to see what it may ultimately become.
We are only now beginning to move beyond the image of the computer as a computing engine that juggles numbers and processes paychecks. But we must go much further. We must see the computer as only a part of the digital revolution of all human media-voice, music, art, graphics, film, literature, and so on. As all science, art, technology, and communications are digitized, the computer assumes a central role as a translator among the media, and as a terminal linking human beings to the media and to each other.
The computer should enable the average person to enter information in any medium (pictures, voice, text, whatever) and instantly translate it (at the discretion of the person) into any other medium-or into several different media. It should then enable the person to send the package to any other person. Likewise, anyone who uses a computer should have instant access to all media in any format they wish.
This sounds extremely abstract, so picture the home computer of the future as the United Nations Building. It will have two major functions: translator and terminal. It will house all the disparate streams of digitized information representing all the different media, and it will translate them back and forth at the needs and whims of the user. And it will be plugged into the outside world (of cultures, peoples, nations, and institutions) and capable of vital two-way communication with that world in any language that is appropriate.
Next Month: Redefining Computer Literacy