Computers, the myth, the promise, the reason. Ken Williams.
Sierra On-Line (my company) has been publishing home computer software for four years now. I remember when I got into this business projecting that everyone would have a computer within five years. Now that four of those years have passed I find that home computers have failed my expectations miserably. There are 92 million households in just the U.S.A. Of these, fewer than 2 million have home computers. Worse yet, many of the 2 million wonder why they bought computers in the first place. In this article I want to reconcile my prediction with the disastrous results and make some predictions for the future.
Before I begin I should clarify what I am talking about when I use the term "home computer." I divide computers into four categories; dedicated computers, business/office computers, game machines, and home computers. Dedicated computers are the processors that control your microwave oven, car, and TV set. Whether you know it or not, you probably have dozens of these around your house that you use every day.
Business/office computers to me are computers used as part of a profession. Applications vary from a realtor operating out of his home on an Apple to General Motors doing their tax returns on a multi-million dollar mainframe.
Video game machines are computers used primarily for home entertainment. The Atari VCS-2600 and the Mattel IntelliVision typified this category.
A home computer is used in the home to do personal things such as educating your children or balancing your checkbook. Perhaps it is used for playing games, but that is not its principle use. Using a home computer to play a game that is strictly eye/hand coordination is like buying a car because it looks pretty in your driveway.
You may have heard rumors that 20 million home computers have been sold. Those rumors are wrong. My guess is that 20 million game machines have been sold, zillions and zillions of dedicated computers have been sold, 5 million business/office computers have been sold, and only 2 million home computers have been sold. That doesn't mean that 20 million people didn't think they were buying a computer. Herein lies a big chunk of the problem. Only Three Home Computers
The only mass marketed home computers on the market today are the IBM PCjr, the Apple II, and the Commodore 64. Frankly put, if it doesn't have at least 64K of RAM, a keyboard, and a disk drive it doesn't have the hardware potential to be a home computer. As for software, if it isn't one of these three, I doubt you'll be able to buy enough software to satisfy you. The Atari 800XL would be the only possible fourth I know of. Perhaps the TRS-80 if I had to list five. But the rest of you who bought Timex/Sinclairs or NECs or IBM PCs, forget it, perhaps the machine is OK in another category, but it is not a home computer. Most machines fit into several categories. For instance all of the machines I recommend are OK as game machines and business/office computers.
OK, now that we all know what I consider a home computer, let's look at why the numbers are so small. What about price? A Commodore 64 can be bought if you look around for $199. For another $249 you can add a disk drive. From 1979 to 1980 more than 10 million game machines were sold in this price range. The price is not too high if people believe in and understand what they will get. People understood video games; they were a cute new form of entertainment. They spent.
Some forms of entertainment like Monopoly last forever. Video gaming apparently was closer to the hula hoop to people. The novelty wore off. I'm not sure whether the video game industry is dead or just evolving into a new form. The current crop of video game machines limits game expression too much. More versatile machines must exist for this industry to live forever. It is rather like having a record player that plays only 50's rock music. Not bad, but you gotta roll with the times or die.
I could write a book on the video game industry. A bigger more complex problem though is the home computer industry. I don't understand how a home computer is justified at home yet, and I have ten. My family spends fewer than two hours a week on our home computer and could certainly live without it. Therein lies the real problem. Appliance or boat anchor? That is the question.
There are three obvious uses for a computer at home: education, entertainment, and productivity. Let's examine how well home computers perform in each of these areas. Education
For education I think we have to look at those we are trying to educate and why a home computer might be a better means of educating them than more conventional means. I'll divide the family into pre-schoolers, 5- to 18-year-olds, and adults. Up to age 3 I'm not sure kids have the mental capacity to learn much more than just what life throws at them. Furthermore, current computer I/O devices such as keyboards and televisions aren't appropriate to this age group.
I consider the year prior to kindergarten a critical year in preparing a child for school. A child who begins school already confident and able to manage his tasks easily has a tremendous headstart. I read once that some lunatic had advanced the theory that "All men are created equal." Well, maybe everyone started equal in your family. But not in most. Sometimes even in the same family one child can be a great reader while another is great at math. Conversely, sometimes a perfectly bright child can have problems with the fundamentals of up and down. Worse yet is the bright child who has the capacity to read but won't be taught how until third grade "because that is what the curriculum dictates."
The American school system, among the best in the world though it may be, is paced to move at a rate that keeps it first ahead of the slowest and well behind the smartest. I know, I was an early reader. I spent 12 years sleeping through school then hiking five miles to a public library to "push" my education. What children without the determination I had do I don't know. (Forgive me being emotional through just one sentence, I promise not to do it for the rest of the article.) I do not curse schools, they do their best. But I do thank God for computers!
At the 5 to 18 age level, software is needed to reinforce the information introduced in the schools. I never understood economics until I ran a computer simulation that allowed me to pretend to run my own country and manage its affairs. History need not be just a collection of facts to be memorized anymore. Rather, through the magic of computer simulation, a child can pretend to be Abraham Lincoln dealing with his problems. A computer is like having your own personal tutor who is an expert on everything and able to help you learn at your own pace without ever laughing at you or accidentally presenting material faster than you can absorb it. In fact, the computer is programmed to make sure boredom doesn't set in while you learn. Using a properly programmed computer, your children will fight to learn.
At the adult level, the computer can make learnable subjects that never could have been taught any other way. Most of us can't afford to learn to fly. Some of us want to experience the feeling. It is easy if you own a computer. Subjects such as auto repair, interior design, and almost anything including career training can be taught better on a computer. Entertainment
Home computers have tremendous potential in home entertainment. For me there is a large area of fuzziness between education and entertainment software. Educational software on a home computer doesn't have to be the simple mindless games usually seen on video game machines. Sierra's games typically challenge the player's mind as well as occasionally his wrist. This is possible due to the far greater capacity and computing power of the computer. I suspect that computers will be found to be a much more involving form of entertainment than movies or books. Why watch or read when you can participate? Productivity
Home productivity software refers not just to word processing and record keeping. Computers have far better uses in the home than that. Computers can help you lose weight, help keep track of your time, help you plant and maintain your garden, help improve your sex life (I won't elaborate), help prepare you for taxes (not just do the return), help keep you within your budget, help you choose investments, help you lay out furniture, pick curtains, mix paint and thousands of other things.
I am not saying the computer will teach you to do these things. If you want to learn how, of course, the computer can teach you. More important, though you don't always want to learn how. You just want the job done. The computer already knows how, just tell it what you want, and let it figure the solution.
Home productivity means making better use of your time, not spending hours feeding a computer only to have it regurgitate the same old stuff you gave it in a new sequence. Trust me, good productivity software does exist. A Lesson in Marketing
Of these three categories education alone justifies the presence of a computer in every home. When combined with the other categories, who could not demand a computer. So where is the problem? For the answer let's look at a statement made by a top marketing executive at Atari to the Wall Street Journal on June 1, 1983:
"Atari . . . is switching its advertising strategy. Instead of, say, depicting a child learning French on an Atari, the new ads will debunk competitors."
Now do you understand why people don't know why they might want a computer? Our own industry isn't concerned with why you might want a computer or what you might use one for, just that you buy. I don't blame hardware manufacturers for this type of advertising. They have to sell their machines by comparing them to the competition. Unfortunately, this leaves no one to tell people why they want computers.
There's another, bigger problem. It is the software. Because of the small number of home computers, software must be built to please everybody. It is expensive to develop software. All software must be developed to reach the widest possible market. If your software applies only to men or only to women, you have already lost half of your potential customers.
To give you an example we developed an educational game, Learning with Leeper, for 3 to 5-year-olds. This product received many awards as best educational product of 1983. Unfortunately, of those 2 million households with computers fewer than half a million have children in this age group. Our sales indicate an unbelievable penetration of this target group; however, Learning with Leeper has never appeared on a best seller chart. Our development cost on Learning with Leeper was higher than on most of our games. Clearly, we don't break even until lots of units have sold. I don't really make money until a product "hits the charts."
Another example: we designed a fantastic diet and exercise system. The project was scrapped because there are too many skinny people. I am pushing forward on a gardening program as my donation this year to people who are not generic. As to even more narrow applications like help in completing Boy Scout projects or painting your house, forget it. The market is too small.
Where does this leave us? Most of the great things I said a computer can do don't exist only because not enough people have bought computers. Sierra is one of the biggest software publishers around. Even when a project is justified it takes us a year to get it to market. We only publish about 15 new products a year. It will take time for computers at home to reach their potential. Be patient, encourage your friends to buy computers. When there are 10 million computers in homes I promise all these great things will be there too.