Living With a Computer


M

MICHAEL

http://www.theatlantic.com/ideastour/technology/
http://www.theatlantic.com/ideastour/technology/fallows-full.mhtml

Living With a Computer
by James Fallows

July 1982

I'd sell my computer before I'd sell my children. But the kids better watch their step. When
have the children helped me meet a deadline? When has the computer dragged in a dead cat it
found in the back yard?

The Processor Technology SOL-20 came into my life when Darlene went out. It was a bleak, frigid
day in January of 1979, and I was finishing a long article for this magazine. The final draft
ran for 100 pages, double-spaced. Interminable as it may have seemed to those who read it, it
seemed far longer to me, for through the various stages of composition I had typed the whole
thing nine or ten times. My system of writing was to type my way through successive drafts
until their ungainliness quotient declined. This consumed much paper and time. In the case of
that article, it consumed so much time that, as the deadline day drew near, I knew I had no
chance of retyping a legible copy to send to the home office.

I turned hopefully to the services sector of our economy. I picked a temporary-secretary agency
out of the phone book and was greeted the next morning by a gum-chewing young woman named
Darlene. I escorted her to my basement office and explained the challenge. The manuscript had
to leave my house by 6:30 the following evening. No sweat, I thought, now that a professional
is on hand.

But five hours after Darlene's arrival, I glanced at the product of her efforts. Stacked in a
neat pile next to the typewriter were eight completed pages. This worked out to a typing rate
of about six and a half words per minute. In fairness to Darlene, she had come to a near-total
halt on first encountering the word "Brzezinski" and never fully regained her stride. Still, at
this pace Darlene and I would both be dead—first I'd kill her, then I'd kill myself—before she
came close to finishing the piece. Hustling her out the door at the end of the day, with $49 in
wages in her pocket and eleven pages of finished manuscript left behind, I trudged downstairs
to face the typewriter myself. Twenty-four hours later, I handed the bulky parcel to the
Federal Express man and said, "Never again."

Over the next few weeks, my thoughts often drifted to the advertisements I had seen in airline
magazines, in which trim and cheerful secretaries effortlessly produced documents by typing in
front of computer screens. Were these devices real? I checked with a salesman for a company
called Lanier and discovered that while their word-processing system, called "No Problem," was
quite real, it cost some $15,000. If I had drawn a pie chart representing my annual income, No
Problem would have been a very large piece of pie. I called Wang, Digital Equipment, and some
of the other big-name manufacturers and got roughly the same news. If I called the same
manufacturers today, I'd hear much more encouraging news, but my options were to start writing
shorter articles, go into hock, or take my chances again with Darlene.

The way out of my dilemma came from an unexpected quarter. My father-in-law often dealt with
inventors who put together computer systems to monitor various industrial processes, and he
thought that one of them might have the answer. On his advice, I followed a trail of leads and
suggestions that eventually led me to a converted church in the farmlands of central Ohio.
There, Bill Cavage, Marv Monroe, and Bill Jones, three young engineers doing business as the
Optek Corporation, tinkered with disk drives, photo-sensors, and other devices in hopes of
making the big sale. Optek's specialty is making machines like the one they produce for drug
companies, which counts pills as they pass by at a rate of 24,000 per minute and kicks out any
bottles that receive the wrong number of pills. For men who can do all this, I thought, turning
a small computer into a word-processing system should be a cinch.

For a while, I was a little worried about what they would come up with, especially after my
father-in-law called to ask how important it was that I be able to use both upper- and
lower-case letters. But finally, for a total of about $4,000, Optek gave me the machinery I
have used happily to this day.

The ingredients were the basic four of any word-processing system. First was the computer
itself, the Processor Technology SOL-20. Its detailed specifications—its 48K of random access
memory, its Intel 8080 microprocessing chip—are now of antiquarian interest, since Processor
Technology went out of business several months after I bought my computer.

The second element in my system was the monitor, a twelve-inch TV screen. Some monitors are
like black-and-white TVs; mine—which, oddly enough, was produced by the same company, Ball
Corporation, that makes home-canning supplies, displays light-green letters against a
background of dark green and is supposed to be easier on the eyes. Third was the external
storage device—the equipment that saves the documents you've written when the computer is
turned off. The equipment I chose, two small tape recorders, was such a complete disaster that
I must discuss it separately later on. Fourth was the printer, a ponderous machine, built like
a battleship, which had been an IBM Selectric typewriter before it was converted to accept
printing instructions from a computer.

These four machines, and the yards and yards of multi-strand cable that connected them, were
the hardware of my system. The software consisted of a program called The Electric Pencil, with
a manual explaining the mysteries of "block move," "home cursor," and "global search and
replace."

I skip past the day during which I thought the computer didn't work at all (missing fuse) and
the week or two it took me to understand all the moves The Electric Pencil could make. From
that point on, I knew there was a heaven.

What was so exciting? Merely the elimination of all drudgery, except for the fundamental
drudgery of figuring out what to say, from the business of writing. The process works this way.

When I sit down to write a letter or start the first draft of an article, I simply type on the
keyboard and the words appear on the screen. For six months, I found it awkward to compose
first drafts on the computer. Now I can hardly do it any other way. It is faster to type this
way than with a normal typewriter, because you don't need to stop at the end of the line for a
carriage return (the computer automatically "wraps" the words onto the next line when you reach
the right-hand margin), and you never come to the end of the page, because the material on the
screen keeps sliding up to make room for each new line. It is also more satisfying to the soul,
because each maimed and misconceived passage can be made to vanish instantly, by the word or by
the paragraph, leaving a pristine green field on which to make the next attempt.

My computer has a 48K memory. Since each K represents 1,024 bytes of information—each byte
representing one character or digit—the machine can manipulate more than 49,000 items of
information at a time. In practice, after allowing for the space that The Electric Pencil's
programming instructions occupy in the computer's memory, the machine can handle documents
6,500 to 7,500 words long, or a little longer than this article. I break anything longer into
chunks or chapters and work with them one at a time.

When I've finished with such a chunk, I press another series of buttons and store what I have
written on my disk drive. This is a cigar-box-shaped unit that sits next to my computer,
connected through a shocking-pink ribbon cable containing thirty-four separate strands. Inside
the drive is the floppy disk, which is essentially magnetic recording tape pressed into the
shape of a small record and then enclosed in a square cardboard envelope, 5 1/4 inches on each
side. The system transfers data from the computer to the disk, or vice versa, at about 1,000
words per second, so it is no nuisance to pause after each fifteen or twenty minutes of writing
to store what I've just done. Each of the disks in my system can hold about 100K of
information, or more than twice as much as a full load from the computer memory. If one disk is
full, I pull it out and snap another in.

When I finish what I'm working on, I switch on my printer. If I'm sending a letter, I load the
stationery into the printer and push the print button, and then fish each piece of paper out of
the printer when it is done. There are machines that automatically feed single sheets of paper
into the printer, but that takes us back to big slices of the income pie. If I am printing a
draft of an article, I can hook up my tractor feed, push the print button, and go out for a
beer. The tractor pulls an endless sheet of paper through the printer—and the perforated paper
can be separated into pages when the printing is done, so it looks like a normal manuscript.

The system prints about thirty characters per second, which means it takes less than a minute
per double-spaced page. When it has completed its work, I take the manuscript and start working
it over with a pencil, just as I did in days of old. The difference is that after I've made my
changes, I have only to type in the changes I have made and start the printer up again—rather
than retype the whole mess.

None of this may sound impressive to those who have fleets of secretaries at their disposal, or
to writers who can say precisely what they mean the first time through. Isaac Asimov recently
complained in Popular Computing that his word-processor didn't save him much time on revisions,
since he composes at ninety words per minute and "95 per cent of what I write in the first
draft stays in the second [and final] draft." My first-draft survival ratio is closer to one
percent, so for me the age of painless revisions is a marvel.

You won't catch me saying that my machine has made me a better writer, but I don't think it has
made me any worse. Since I now spend less time and energy retyping, I have more left over for
editing and rewriting, There is even an editing step possible only with the machines. When I
think I'm finished with an article, I set the print speed to Slow. This runs the printer at
about 100 words per minute, or roughly the pace of reading aloud. I stuff my ears with earplugs
and then lean over the platen as the printing begins. Watching the article printed at this
speed is like hearing it read; infelicities are more difficult to ignore than when you are
scooting your eye over words on a page.

I have not yet stooped to the politician's trick of programming the computer to write standard
letters of reply. I have, however, discovered a few other sneaky word-processing feats. Suppose
you are writing an article in which an unusual word appears frequently—let us choose
"Brzezinski" once again. When writing the draft, you simply type a certain character, say * or
+ , each time Brzezinski should appear, and then when you're ready to print you signal the
computer to insert "Brzezinski" in place of the character.

In addition to The Electric Pencil, I bought the software for a computer-programming language
known as BASIC. The B in BASIC stands for Beginners (the full name is Beginners All-purpose
Symbolic Instruction Code), but I have not yet found a mathematical project for which BASIC is
inadequate. When I want to know how many prime numbers there are between one million and two
million, or how quickly my mortgage payments would bankrupt me if interest rates rose to 35
percent—that is, when I don't want to do my work—I can kill ten minutes writing programs to
tell me the answer. Getting down to business, I use the computer to do my income tax. My
economic life is a mess of $2.75 parking-lot tickets and $13.89 lunch receipts, which used to
pile up like fall leaves until I spent a week burrowing through them at income-tax time. Now
all I do is sit down at the machine for five minutes every few nights and type in all
transactions of interest to the tax man—so much in from my employers, so much out to the
credit-card company. At the end of the year, I load the income-tax program into the computer,
push the button marked "Run," and watch as my tax return is prepared. Since it took me only
about six months to learn BASIC (and the tax laws) well enough to write the program, I figure
this approach will save me time by 1993.

To be sure, a computer does bring problems into the home. For one, it creates yet another
reason to feel vulnerable to the workings of fate.

Shortly after I got my machine, I was typing away in the basement as a summer thunderstorm
moved into town. Knowing what I now know, these days I immediately shut off the machine and
unplug it from the wall whenever thunder is reported any nearer than West Virginia. But I was
not so wise then. I had turned on the printer and gone upstairs when a bolt of lightning struck
the house. There was a huge boom, and a white flash outside windows on all sides of our house.
Several million volts coursed through our wiring and blew out nearly every electrical appliance
that was plugged in. The blast burned out a clothes iron, and if it had that effect on a big
hunk of steel, you can imagine what went on in the computer's delicate interior. For a month I
was machine-less, thrown back on my Smith-Corona, while computer repairmen replaced one silicon
chip after another that had melted in its casing.

Computers cause another, more insidious problem, by forever distorting your sense of time. When
I first saw the system in the back room at Optek, I was so dazzled by the instantaneous
deletion of sentences and movement of paragraphs that I thought I could never want anything
more. When the scientists at Optek warned me about certain bottlenecks, I had to stifle my
laughter. In particular, they warned me that I might grow impatient with tape recorders as a
way to store data. You have to understand, they told me, it can take five or ten minutes to
load a long draft into the computer from tapes, whereas a disk drive (which would add a
thousand dollars to the cost) could do the job in seconds. Typical vulgarians of the machine
age, I told myself. How could they imagine that I would object to five or ten minutes, when I
had been spared Darlene?

Three weeks later, I was griping constantly about the tapes and scanning the pages of Byte
magazine, looking for a good deal on a disk drive. Ten minutes was intolerable when everything
else happened in a flash. Worse, the tapes had the fatal defect of unreliability; even after
waiting ten minutes, you were never quite sure that the information was safely stored. The only
way to tell was to try to feed the data back from the tapes into the computer, which took
another ten minutes and often led to the infuriating message "Tape Error." After one article
disappeared forever behind a thicket of Tape Errors, I scraped up $800 for a cut-rate disk
drive. Now my discontent is awakened only when I read stories about the new disks—larger ones
that hold twice as much data as mine, and double-density models that hold twice as much as
that.

I can hardly bring myself to mention the true disadvantage of computers, which is that I have
become hopelessly addicted to them. To the outside world, I present myself as a man with a
business need for a word-processing machine. Sure, I have a computer: I'd have a drill press if
I were in the machine-tool business. This is the argument I make frequently to my wife. The
truth, which she has no doubt guessed, is that I love to see them work.

I nearly destroyed my health, to say nothing of my marriage, during the months when I switched
off The Electric Pencil at ten or eleven at night-and then switched on BASIC and spent a few
hours refining a tax-and-accounting system. At first my goal was merely to design a program
that would work, that wouldn't print "Syntax Error in Line 2140" when I tried to run it. Then I
started playing around, seeing if I could work out a scheme for financial projections that
would take care of estimated tax payments to the IRS. Would it have been easier to mail in the
$150 each quarter and then square accounts with the IRS at the end of the year? Of course—but
that was not the point. Eventually, I aspired even to elegant programming, designing the
matrices and the nested loops in a way that added the beauty of simplicity to the scheme.

When I contemplate my future with computers, my emotions are mixed. Because time and progress
have passed my machine by, I simply can't buy any new programs for the SOL. They don't exist.
This is a source of unending frustration: how I'd love to use a new word-processing program,
one that could insert footnotes at the bottom of the proper page or automatically prepare an
index for a book. How I'd love to get VisiCalc or SuperCalc or one of the other accounting
systems that can turn a home computer into a miniature version of the National Bureau of
Economic Research. How deprived I feel as I read the fliers for CompuServe and The Source, the
over-the-phone services that enable you to make airline reservations, call up old newspaper
articles, and send computer mail, all from the privacy of your home. How I wish my employers
would install computers in their headquarters, so I could submit articles over the telephone,
one computer to another, instead of fighting the crowds at the Express Mail window.

Yet even as I think these thoughts, I fear their fulfillment. My computer already competes with
wife and children for my affection: can our family stand anything more? The question will
remain moot until the price of replacement computers comes down a little more—or until I
succeed in convincing my wife that she, too, needs a computer, so I can give her mine and rush
out to buy a new one for myself (for business purposes, of course).

By now, you probably want to be like me. Your first step is to avoid several of the major
mistakes. Since I made them, I know what they are.

1. Guessing wrong. The chances are that you have already avoided this, my most costly mistake.
The microcomputer industry these days is like the auto business in 1910, with a thousand little
hustlers trying to claim a piece of the action. The next time you feel depressed about the
vigor of the American economy, pick up a copy of Byte—or Personal Computing, or Popular
Computing, or Interface Age, or InfoWorld —and look at the columns upon columns of ads from
small-time companies with new products to sell.

Still, some parts of the industry have calmed down, at least compared with the chaos of three
or four years ago. To extend the comparison with the auto industry, it was as if different
models ran on slightly different kinds of fuel, and no one could be sure which would be the
standard when the struggle for survival sorted itself out. When I bought my computer, many
programs were designed for one model of computer only, since the protocols and disk-operating
systems varied from one brand to another.

If I had guessed right, my brand, the Processor Technology SOL, would have caught on, and today
I'd have the equivalent of a Mercedes-Benz instead of a Hupmobile. I'd be able to buy new
programs at the computer store, and I'd be able to plug in to all the over-the-phone services.
But I guessed wrong, and I'm left with a specimen of an extinct breed. When I need new
programs, I try to write them myself, and when I have a breakdown, I call the neighborhood
craftsman, Leland Mull, who lovingly tends the dwindling local population of SOL-20s.

You won't have this problem, because the war of standardization for personal computers is just
about over. The crucial, bitterly contested territory was the disk-operating system, the coded
instructions that enable computers to interface (the word cannot be escaped in this business)
with the disk drives. My system uses the North Star Disk Operating System, abbreviated DOS and
pronounced doss, but North Star didn't win. The winner was a DOS called CP/M (for Control
Program for Microcomputers), which has become the industry standard and is earning millions for
a formerly small company known as Digital Research. Almost any kind of computer you buy these
days will be compatible with CP/M, and almost any kind of software will come in CP/M versions.
To put it another way, you should be wary of any machine or any program that won't run CP/M.

There are a few exceptions to this rule. For instance, the Tandy Corporation sells various
models of its TRS-80 computers, at Radio Shack stores. These can be configured to accept CP/M,
but they're designed for the company's own operating system, known as TRSDOS, pronounced
trissdoss. Radio Shack offers so many TRSDOS programs and such an extensive repair-and-support
network that you are hardly leaving the mainstream by buying one of their machines.

Another important exception is IBM, which has just burst onto the home market with its Personal
Computer. For those who are deep into the world of gigantic mainframe computers—engineers, for
example, who want a home computer so that they can draw over the phone from the main data banks
at the office—it offers obvious advantages, since it is compatible with other IBM products. But
it is also part of another war for DOS dominance. The Personal Computer's microprocessor—the
chip that operates the computer's logic—is a "16-bit" microprocessor, as opposed to the "8-bit"
chips of most other small computers. (A bit is a basic yes-or-no, 0-or-1 unit of computer
information. The IBM chip can handle twice as many bits at a time.) The difference between 16-
and 8-bit chips is of no practical significance at the moment for most home-computer systems,
although the 16-bit chips should support faster-operating and more powerful computer programs,
when the software industry catches up with this advance in hardware. The new machines will
require different disk-operating systems, and may therefore inspire another DOS war. Digital
Research has produced a version called CP/ M-86, which will work on the Personal Computer and
other 16-bit systems, such as the Victor 9000, but many people suspect that IBM will wage a
counteroffensive with a DOS of its own.

2. Scrimping on storage. Computers are now reaching the "commodity" stage. With a few glaring
exceptions, to be mentioned in a moment, they're all more or less the same. Not so the storage
devices—the disks or tapes on which you store information when the machine is turned off. Tapes
are obviously a terrible idea, but the wrong kind of disk can be almost as bad.

The practical limit on what a computer can do is not the memory built into the machine itself,
although any serious computer should have at least 48 and preferably 64K of random access
memory, but rather how much information it can quickly draw from its disks. Here again I speak
from the perspective of the sadder-but-wiser man. In moving up from tapes to a disk drive, I
took the bargain route. I bought one rather than two, used small disks (5 1/4" diameter) rather
than large (8"), and chose single- rather than double-density storage. I saved a couple of
hundred dollars but bought myself a source of frustration, since each disk fills up too quickly
and I have to keep rotating different disks in and out of the drive. (Again, this may not sound
like much to you, but live with it for a year or two and you'll see what I mean.) I think
you're cheating yourself if you get anything less than two double-density 5 1/4" drives, which
together should be able to store 400K or more of data. The exact capacity varies quite a lot,
depending on the configuration a manufacturer chooses. A two-drive system of 5 1/4" disks for
the Apple III, for instance, can store as little as 280K, while Heath-Zenith and Victor each
offer two-drive 5 1/4" systems that hold more than 1,000K, or one megabyte. In some cases, you
may do better to get two 8" drives, depending on the specific prices and configurations
different manufacturers offer.

The top of the line among storage systems is the hard disk, most often available in the form
called the Winchester. (This is not a brand but a nickname, applied by wits in the computer
world because the model number on one of the earliest drives was 3030, reminiscent of a rifle.)
The other disks, known as floppies, get pulled in and out of their drives like tape cassettes,
but a Winchester is permanently sealed in its case. You don't need to remove the hard disks
because each one stores a prodigious amount of data, from two or three on up to several dozen
megabytes. With even a small Winchester, you can store some 2,000 pages of data at once—enough,
for example, to contain all the notes for a book, along with drafts of all chapters, or a
record of all your correspondence over a period of years. Winchesters are expensive; cheap
models go for about $2,000, and some of them cost at least twice that much. But you shouldn't
buy one right now anyway They're just entering the period of soaring volume and falling prices
and will be cheaper in a year.

3. Scrimping on the printer. The same misguided frugality that directed me toward tape
recorders also tempted me to think that my converted Selectric printer was a great deal. True,
I could have made an even worse mistake. I could have bought a dot matrix printer, which is
fast and cheap but which leaves you with a manuscript resembling a grocery receipt. If eyes
other than your own are going to see the things you print, you're foolish to get anything
except a letter-quality printer. This means either a converted Selectric, like my first
printer, or one of the systems known as daisy wheels or thimbles. These have small wheels or
drums that spin across the page and print at a phenomenal rate. They cost more than the
Selectric to begin with, but they're a bargain in the long run. The real cost of the Selectric
is the headaches of repair and breakdown. In operation, it is a blur of rods and connectors,
one of which is always about to go awry. But daisy-wheel printers have only one main moving
part. A year ago, I gave in and bought a daisy wheel, the Anderson-Jacobson 830 model, which
cost about $1,400. In a year of steady use, it has broken once, which is about one tenth as
often as the Selectric. You should get one from the start.

Now that you know what not to do, you're ready for more positive advice. If I were a shrewder
man, I would refuse to give it. One of the perils of dispensing specific advice is that it may
be outdated by the time the magazine is in your hands. The products that are available—and
their relative values—are changing almost day by day. Fortunately for the consumer, all the
change seems to be in the direction of more value for less money. This spring, Radio Shack
knocked $400 off the price of its small business computer, the Model II—which sounded
impressive until Digital Equipment Corporation knocked $3,500 off the price of its DECmate. The
Model II with 64K of memory and one 8" drive went from $3,899 to $3,499, and it can be bought
from mail-order firms for about $400 less. The DECmate, with the same memory and two drives,
went from $6,595 to $3,095. Meanwhile, several other companies brought small computers onto the
market, and there is no end in sight.

Yet another hazard is that recommending the right computer is a little like recommending the
"right"' religion. People tend to like the system they've ended up with. The most important
point about computers, more so than about religions, is that the difference between a good one
and a bad one is tiny compared with the difference between having one and not.

Finally, a computer will be more or less right depending on what you want to do with it. If you
are mainly interested in playing chess against a computer, you may be quite happy with some of
the low-cost computers that Atari, Commodore, and Radio Shack have put out for under $400. (All
three companies also offer good business systems.) If video games are your exclusive interest,
you'd probably do better to buy a $150 TV adapter from Atari—although you'd then be shutting
yourself off from all the wonders I have described. If getting the feel of a computer is your
goal, you could buy a Sinclair ZX81 for $149.95 or $99.95 as a kit. But if you're also
interested in business uses for your computer, you might think of systems and programs like the
ones mentioned below.

Hardware: Once you move above the bargain-basement machines, to the tier where the computer
memories are 48K or larger and the price is $2,000 and up, almost any computer you find will do
the job. Over the past few months, in the interests of thorough research, I have tried
computers by Apple and Zenith, Victor and Vector, Digital and Wang, Superbrain and Radio Shack,
Atari and North Star, to name just a few. Despite their differences in detail, the machines
seemed to fall into two big general categories.

One is computers per se, which will cost between $1,500 and $4,000 for the machine itself, plus
(for some machines) up to $1,500 for an adequate complement of disk drives. Most good
letter-quality printers will cost $1,500 or more, which means the cost of a complete
word-processing system is between $5,000 and $6,000. These computers are not specially designed
for word-processing, or for anything else. They will run whatever program you feed into them.

In the other category are the dedicated word-processors, which are designed for one purpose
only. The IBM Displaywriter is one such machine, and the Wangwriter is another. NBI and Exxon
produce similar systems. These cost a lot more than the all-purpose computers—the Displaywriter
with a good printer was quoted at $11,350 by my local IBM dealer. They're also easier to use,
since they have keys for such things as "delete para" which isn't feasible for more versatile
machines. (When I want to delete a paragraph with my machine, I must place a marker at the
beginning of the paragraph, place another marker at the end, and then press both the control
button and the U key, which is the signal to remove the material between the markers. Easier
than scissors and paste, but harder than the Displaywriter.) These single-purpose machines are
generally sold not to individuals but to organizations, which presumably would rather pay the
price for easily understood machines than train typists in complicated computer routines.

Within each category, your choice of machine depends mainly on taste. You'll spend a lot of
time with the keyboard: does it feel right? The Xerox 820 model and my own SOL-20 are my
favorites on this score; I liked the Apple least. Screens come in different colors, sizes, and
angles-to-the-horizon. Sometimes the monitor comes attached to the computer, sometimes you buy
it separately; you have to try them to know your own taste. Of the ones I've seen, a
green-tinted monitor by NEC (model JB 1201M) seemed the best bargain, at $210; but patriots
should take note that NEC stands for Nippon Electric Company. Many computers now offer a
detachable keyboard, which you can hold on your lap while typing or lay next to a document
while you are copying figures or text. Those who have them say they are wonderful; since my SOL
doesn't have one, I consider them silly.

Your choice should probably turn on the best deal you can make, in this blissful era of
plummeting prices. As of press time, some of the systems that struck me as being good for
business uses, and also good values, were (in no particular order) the Xerox 820 ($3,795 with a
64K memory and two 8" drives), the Heath-Zenith 89 ($2,895), and the North Star Advantage
($3,125). The Atari 800 uses your home TV for its monitor, which makes it less desirable for
business purposes, but at $1,700 for a 48K system it's a very good buy. The Atari also offers
more interesting graphics—for example, color- coded bar graphs for a family budget—than many
other systems. The DECmate—at $3,095, as explained above—is a pleasure to use, with a variety
of keys usually found only on dedicated word-processors. Its disadvantages are that its
software is overpriced—$500 for word-processing,, $800 for a mathematical package including
BASIC and FORTRAN—and that, at least for now, it is not compatible with CP/M. The TRS-80 Model
II from Radio Shack is more expensive than some others—about $4,100 with two 8" drives—but it
is the only machine that can operate the word-processing program I prefer above all others,
Scripsit 2.0. Both IBM's Personal Computer and the Victor 9000 use a 16-bit microprocessor;
both are handsomer than usual; but the Victor has a better screen, more internal memory, and
larger external storage, so all in all it gives better value for money ($4,995 for the Victor
9000 with a 128K memory and 1.2 megabytes of storage; IBM offers only a third as much storage
for $4,000). The IBM might be the safer long-term choice, however, since manufacturers are
already offering accessories designed specifically for it. Both of these machines are, for the
moment, caught in a software drought, because the established CP/M programs for 8-bit machines
have not been adapted to 16-bit operation. This situation will obviously correct itself, not
least because IBM is expected to sell more than 100,000 Personal Computers this year.

The best-known small computer is probably the Apple. Because there are so many Apples in
circulation, and because the company has pushed software so aggressively, you can get a wider
variety of programs and accessories for an Apple than for any other system. The Apple II, which
costs $1,350 with a 48K memory, is good for games, simple graphics, and other home uses, and
with about a thousand dollars' worth of extra circuitboard it can make a good word-processor.
But for business purposes, you'd probably do better to look instead at the Apple III. It costs
more than twice as much to begin with, but now that the initial bugs have been worked out, it
is ready to do the job without extra attachments.

One of the most interesting new computers, both as a piece of machinery and as a specimen of
capitalism in action, is the Osborne I. Its creator is Adam Osborne, an author of computer
books who decided to break the price on-computers. The Osborne I is a very strange-looking
piece of equipment. When folded up, it resembles a bulky white briefcase; it is advertised as
the only computer that will fit underneath an airline seat. When unfolded, it looks like an
outdated military radio. It comes with a full-sized keyboard, a 64K memory, two disk drives,
and software for word-processing and accounting that would cost more than $1,000 if bought
separately. Osborne offers the whole package for $1,795, which makes it the best bargain on
computer power in the business. The catch is that the built-in screen is about the size of a
postcard, although it is much easier to read than that would suggest. For an extra $300, you
can buy a normal-sized monitor and attach it to the Osborne.

In a perfect world, everyone who had a home computer would also have an Osborne to travel with.
According to dealers, Osbornes are selling so fast that many people must have decided that it
makes sense not just as their second computer but as their first.

The Otrona Corporation also makes a portable computer, called the Attache. It is smaller and
lighter than the Osborne (less than twenty pounds, versus the Osborne's twenty-three), it has
dual-density disk drives, and its higher-resolution screen displays a full eighty-character
line, instead of the Osborne's fifty-two. Its only drawback is that, at $3,995, it costs more
than twice as much as the Osborne.

One other tip on hardware: If you live in a climate less humid than Panama's, you must invest
$100 in an anti-static mat to place under your desk. If you don't, in wintertime you'll get
shocks of static electricity when you touch your machine. There is always the possibility that
this will erase what you're working on at the time.

Software: If you were a logical creature, you would start here rather than with hardware in
making your decision, since certain programs run better on certain machines. Unfortunately, you
will find this hard to do. It takes weeks or months of use to know a program well enough to
judge it, and to get that much experience you usually have to own a machine. But don't worry:
most people seem happy with whatever program they use. I thought my version of The Electric
Pencil was the greatest thing invented until I examined the newest word-processing programs and
realized I was stuck with something outdated and crude.

The basic choice here is between simplicity and complication. Any word-processing program will
do the basic jobs—adding and deleting copy, moving material from one place to another,
searching for a word or phrase and replacing it with another. What you get with the fancier
versions is mainly refinements in formatting—for example, the automatic placement of footnotes
at the bottom of the appropriate pages. There is a cost, however, which is a more cumbersome
operation. You have to punch more keys to get things done, and you have to sit longer and wait
for the disks to stop whirring and the results to show on the screen.

My program, The Electric Pencil, is a stripped-down model. It's very fast and easy to operate,
but there are a lot of things it just can't do—for example, automatically center a line, or
stop the printer at the end of each page so you can feed in a new sheet. Today's most popular
word-processing program is WordStar. Its users swear by it. It does perform a variety of
complicated formatting chores, but to me, on the basis of several hours' worth of
demonstration, it seems to have the benefits of neither simplicity nor complexity. It's slow
and clumsy to operate, at least in the version I saw on an Apple, without the flexibility of
the most sophisticated programs.

If I were looking for a simple program, I'd stick with The Electric Pencil—which I am forced to
do in any case, since nothing new on the market will run in my poor obsolescent SOL. Or I might
choose Magic Wand, which is simpler to use than many of today's complicated programs. If you're
looking for sophistication, I'd suggest you pass by WordStar to choose between two other
programs. One of them, Perfect Writer, is available by mail from Perfect Software, Inc., 865
Conger Street, Eugene,Oregon 97402. (The other programs are available from computer stores for
prices between $200 an ' d $400.) It is so sophisticated that one might as well be operating a
nuclear reactor, but it does things I've seen nowhere else. For example, it allows you to
divide the screen with a horizontal line, display one document in the top half and another in
the bottom, and move material from one document to the other. It also has a bigger variety of
printing formats than most other programs.

The other choice would be Scripsit 2. 0, which is put out by Radio Shack and runs on its TRS-80
Model II computer. (Confusing nomenclature: the TRS-80 Models I and III are the cut-rate
versions, while the Model II is the serious business machine.) I had snobbishly resisted Radio
Shack because of the low-rent appearance of its products, but I was forced to the conclusion
that, all in all, Scripsit is the best program on the market. To give one example, it allows
you to program up to twenty keys with your own commands. If you press one key, it might print
your return address in the upper corner of the page; press another, and it can perform a
search-and-replace routine you often use. Like many other programs, Scripsit can also include a
spelling-checker, which proofreads documents and is a godsend to the careless typist.

My Picks: If money were no object, I'd buy an IBM Displaywriter, which is the prettiest of all
the models and has the simplest commands.

Money being an object, I would vacillate helplessly among the TRS-80 Model II with an extra 8"
disk-drive and Scripsit 2.0, the Xerox 820 with two 8" drives and Perfect Writer, and the
DECmate. And yet, a year from now, when its software has caught up with it, I'd expect to be
choosing the IBM Personal Computer. If I received a small bequest, I'd also buy an Osborne I—if
the bequest were large, an Otrona—to take on the road. For any of these systems (not including
the Osborne), I'd spend no more than $6, 000, or half as much as for the Displaywriter.

Godspeed as you follow this advice; meanwhile, I'll be spending nothing, sticking with SOL and
The Electric Pencil, and hoping for a world in which my sons can grow up to have a better
computer than their father had.
------------------------------------

This is a funny article, too.
http://www.theatlantic.com/ideastour/technology/twain-full.mhtml
A Telephonic Conversation
by Mark Twain

I consider that a conversation by telephone—when you are simply sitting by and not taking any
part in that conversation—is one of the solemnest curiosities of this modern life. Yesterday I
was writing a deep article on a sublime philosophical subject while such a conversation was
going on in the room. I notice that one can always write best when somebody is talking through
a telephone close by. Well, the thing began in this way. A member of our household came in and
asked me to have our house put into communication with Mr. Bagley's, down town. I have
observed, in many cities, that the gentle sex always shrink from calling up the central office
themselves. I don't know why, but they do. So I touched the bell, and this talk ensued:—

continued......
http://www.theatlantic.com/ideastour/technology/twain-full.mhtml
 
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T

Tom Lake

MICHAEL said:

<<major snip>>

That was great! I love stories about the old days.
Kids today (anyone under 45 or so) don't remember
cassette-only storage or the three month wait when floppy drives first
came out. A $3995.00, 5 MB (not GB!) hard drive boggles their minds.
Keep writing! We need to hang on to our perspective.

Tom Lake
 
L

Lang Murphy

Great article, thanks for posting.

Lang

MICHAEL said:
http://www.theatlantic.com/ideastour/technology/
http://www.theatlantic.com/ideastour/technology/fallows-full.mhtml

Living With a Computer
by James Fallows

July 1982

I'd sell my computer before I'd sell my children. But the kids better
watch their step. When have the children helped me meet a deadline? When
has the computer dragged in a dead cat it found in the back yard?

The Processor Technology SOL-20 came into my life when Darlene went out.
It was a bleak, frigid day in January of 1979, and I was finishing a long
article for this magazine. The final draft ran for 100 pages,
double-spaced. Interminable as it may have seemed to those who read it, it
seemed far longer to me, for through the various stages of composition I
had typed the whole thing nine or ten times. My system of writing was to
type my way through successive drafts until their ungainliness quotient
declined. This consumed much paper and time. In the case of that article,
it consumed so much time that, as the deadline day drew near, I knew I had
no chance of retyping a legible copy to send to the home office.

I turned hopefully to the services sector of our economy. I picked a
temporary-secretary agency out of the phone book and was greeted the next
morning by a gum-chewing young woman named Darlene. I escorted her to my
basement office and explained the challenge. The manuscript had to leave
my house by 6:30 the following evening. No sweat, I thought, now that a
professional is on hand.

But five hours after Darlene's arrival, I glanced at the product of her
efforts. Stacked in a neat pile next to the typewriter were eight
completed pages. This worked out to a typing rate of about six and a half
words per minute. In fairness to Darlene, she had come to a near-total
halt on first encountering the word "Brzezinski" and never fully regained
her stride. Still, at this pace Darlene and I would both be dead—first I'd
kill her, then I'd kill myself—before she came close to finishing the
piece. Hustling her out the door at the end of the day, with $49 in wages
in her pocket and eleven pages of finished manuscript left behind, I
trudged downstairs to face the typewriter myself. Twenty-four hours later,
I handed the bulky parcel to the Federal Express man and said, "Never
again."

Over the next few weeks, my thoughts often drifted to the advertisements I
had seen in airline magazines, in which trim and cheerful secretaries
effortlessly produced documents by typing in front of computer screens.
Were these devices real? I checked with a salesman for a company called
Lanier and discovered that while their word-processing system, called "No
Problem," was quite real, it cost some $15,000. If I had drawn a pie chart
representing my annual income, No Problem would have been a very large
piece of pie. I called Wang, Digital Equipment, and some of the other
big-name manufacturers and got roughly the same news. If I called the same
manufacturers today, I'd hear much more encouraging news, but my options
were to start writing shorter articles, go into hock, or take my chances
again with Darlene.

The way out of my dilemma came from an unexpected quarter. My
father-in-law often dealt with inventors who put together computer systems
to monitor various industrial processes, and he thought that one of them
might have the answer. On his advice, I followed a trail of leads and
suggestions that eventually led me to a converted church in the farmlands
of central Ohio. There, Bill Cavage, Marv Monroe, and Bill Jones, three
young engineers doing business as the Optek Corporation, tinkered with
disk drives, photo-sensors, and other devices in hopes of making the big
sale. Optek's specialty is making machines like the one they produce for
drug companies, which counts pills as they pass by at a rate of 24,000 per
minute and kicks out any bottles that receive the wrong number of pills.
For men who can do all this, I thought, turning a small computer into a
word-processing system should be a cinch.

For a while, I was a little worried about what they would come up with,
especially after my father-in-law called to ask how important it was that
I be able to use both upper- and lower-case letters. But finally, for a
total of about $4,000, Optek gave me the machinery I have used happily to
this day.

The ingredients were the basic four of any word-processing system. First
was the computer itself, the Processor Technology SOL-20. Its detailed
specifications—its 48K of random access memory, its Intel 8080
microprocessing chip—are now of antiquarian interest, since Processor
Technology went out of business several months after I bought my computer.

The second element in my system was the monitor, a twelve-inch TV screen.
Some monitors are like black-and-white TVs; mine—which, oddly enough, was
produced by the same company, Ball Corporation, that makes home-canning
supplies, displays light-green letters against a background of dark green
and is supposed to be easier on the eyes. Third was the external storage
device—the equipment that saves the documents you've written when the
computer is turned off. The equipment I chose, two small tape recorders,
was such a complete disaster that I must discuss it separately later on.
Fourth was the printer, a ponderous machine, built like a battleship,
which had been an IBM Selectric typewriter before it was converted to
accept printing instructions from a computer.

These four machines, and the yards and yards of multi-strand cable that
connected them, were the hardware of my system. The software consisted of
a program called The Electric Pencil, with a manual explaining the
mysteries of "block move," "home cursor," and "global search and replace."

I skip past the day during which I thought the computer didn't work at all
(missing fuse) and the week or two it took me to understand all the moves
The Electric Pencil could make. From that point on, I knew there was a
heaven.

What was so exciting? Merely the elimination of all drudgery, except for
the fundamental drudgery of figuring out what to say, from the business of
writing. The process works this way.

When I sit down to write a letter or start the first draft of an article,
I simply type on the keyboard and the words appear on the screen. For six
months, I found it awkward to compose first drafts on the computer. Now I
can hardly do it any other way. It is faster to type this way than with a
normal typewriter, because you don't need to stop at the end of the line
for a carriage return (the computer automatically "wraps" the words onto
the next line when you reach the right-hand margin), and you never come to
the end of the page, because the material on the screen keeps sliding up
to make room for each new line. It is also more satisfying to the soul,
because each maimed and misconceived passage can be made to vanish
instantly, by the word or by the paragraph, leaving a pristine green field
on which to make the next attempt.

My computer has a 48K memory. Since each K represents 1,024 bytes of
information—each byte representing one character or digit—the machine can
manipulate more than 49,000 items of information at a time. In practice,
after allowing for the space that The Electric Pencil's programming
instructions occupy in the computer's memory, the machine can handle
documents 6,500 to 7,500 words long, or a little longer than this article.
I break anything longer into chunks or chapters and work with them one at
a time.

When I've finished with such a chunk, I press another series of buttons
and store what I have written on my disk drive. This is a cigar-box-shaped
unit that sits next to my computer, connected through a shocking-pink
ribbon cable containing thirty-four separate strands. Inside the drive is
the floppy disk, which is essentially magnetic recording tape pressed into
the shape of a small record and then enclosed in a square cardboard
envelope, 5 1/4 inches on each side. The system transfers data from the
computer to the disk, or vice versa, at about 1,000 words per second, so
it is no nuisance to pause after each fifteen or twenty minutes of writing
to store what I've just done. Each of the disks in my system can hold
about 100K of information, or more than twice as much as a full load from
the computer memory. If one disk is full, I pull it out and snap another
in.

When I finish what I'm working on, I switch on my printer. If I'm sending
a letter, I load the stationery into the printer and push the print
button, and then fish each piece of paper out of the printer when it is
done. There are machines that automatically feed single sheets of paper
into the printer, but that takes us back to big slices of the income pie.
If I am printing a draft of an article, I can hook up my tractor feed,
push the print button, and go out for a beer. The tractor pulls an endless
sheet of paper through the printer—and the perforated paper can be
separated into pages when the printing is done, so it looks like a normal
manuscript.

The system prints about thirty characters per second, which means it takes
less than a minute per double-spaced page. When it has completed its work,
I take the manuscript and start working it over with a pencil, just as I
did in days of old. The difference is that after I've made my changes, I
have only to type in the changes I have made and start the printer up
again—rather than retype the whole mess.

None of this may sound impressive to those who have fleets of secretaries
at their disposal, or to writers who can say precisely what they mean the
first time through. Isaac Asimov recently complained in Popular Computing
that his word-processor didn't save him much time on revisions, since he
composes at ninety words per minute and "95 per cent of what I write in
the first draft stays in the second [and final] draft." My first-draft
survival ratio is closer to one percent, so for me the age of painless
revisions is a marvel.

You won't catch me saying that my machine has made me a better writer, but
I don't think it has made me any worse. Since I now spend less time and
energy retyping, I have more left over for editing and rewriting, There is
even an editing step possible only with the machines. When I think I'm
finished with an article, I set the print speed to Slow. This runs the
printer at about 100 words per minute, or roughly the pace of reading
aloud. I stuff my ears with earplugs and then lean over the platen as the
printing begins. Watching the article printed at this speed is like
hearing it read; infelicities are more difficult to ignore than when you
are scooting your eye over words on a page.

I have not yet stooped to the politician's trick of programming the
computer to write standard letters of reply. I have, however, discovered a
few other sneaky word-processing feats. Suppose you are writing an article
in which an unusual word appears frequently—let us choose "Brzezinski"
once again. When writing the draft, you simply type a certain character,
say * or + , each time Brzezinski should appear, and then when you're
ready to print you signal the computer to insert "Brzezinski" in place of
the character.

In addition to The Electric Pencil, I bought the software for a
computer-programming language known as BASIC. The B in BASIC stands for
Beginners (the full name is Beginners All-purpose Symbolic Instruction
Code), but I have not yet found a mathematical project for which BASIC is
inadequate. When I want to know how many prime numbers there are between
one million and two million, or how quickly my mortgage payments would
bankrupt me if interest rates rose to 35 percent—that is, when I don't
want to do my work—I can kill ten minutes writing programs to tell me the
answer. Getting down to business, I use the computer to do my income tax.
My economic life is a mess of $2.75 parking-lot tickets and $13.89 lunch
receipts, which used to pile up like fall leaves until I spent a week
burrowing through them at income-tax time. Now all I do is sit down at the
machine for five minutes every few nights and type in all transactions of
interest to the tax man—so much in from my employers, so much out to the
credit-card company. At the end of the year, I load the income-tax program
into the computer, push the button marked "Run," and watch as my tax
return is prepared. Since it took me only about six months to learn BASIC
(and the tax laws) well enough to write the program, I figure this
approach will save me time by 1993.

To be sure, a computer does bring problems into the home. For one, it
creates yet another reason to feel vulnerable to the workings of fate.

Shortly after I got my machine, I was typing away in the basement as a
summer thunderstorm moved into town. Knowing what I now know, these days I
immediately shut off the machine and unplug it from the wall whenever
thunder is reported any nearer than West Virginia. But I was not so wise
then. I had turned on the printer and gone upstairs when a bolt of
lightning struck the house. There was a huge boom, and a white flash
outside windows on all sides of our house. Several million volts coursed
through our wiring and blew out nearly every electrical appliance that was
plugged in. The blast burned out a clothes iron, and if it had that effect
on a big hunk of steel, you can imagine what went on in the computer's
delicate interior. For a month I was machine-less, thrown back on my
Smith-Corona, while computer repairmen replaced one silicon chip after
another that had melted in its casing.

Computers cause another, more insidious problem, by forever distorting
your sense of time. When I first saw the system in the back room at Optek,
I was so dazzled by the instantaneous deletion of sentences and movement
of paragraphs that I thought I could never want anything more. When the
scientists at Optek warned me about certain bottlenecks, I had to stifle
my laughter. In particular, they warned me that I might grow impatient
with tape recorders as a way to store data. You have to understand, they
told me, it can take five or ten minutes to load a long draft into the
computer from tapes, whereas a disk drive (which would add a thousand
dollars to the cost) could do the job in seconds. Typical vulgarians of
the machine age, I told myself. How could they imagine that I would object
to five or ten minutes, when I had been spared Darlene?

Three weeks later, I was griping constantly about the tapes and scanning
the pages of Byte magazine, looking for a good deal on a disk drive. Ten
minutes was intolerable when everything else happened in a flash. Worse,
the tapes had the fatal defect of unreliability; even after waiting ten
minutes, you were never quite sure that the information was safely stored.
The only way to tell was to try to feed the data back from the tapes into
the computer, which took another ten minutes and often led to the
infuriating message "Tape Error." After one article disappeared forever
behind a thicket of Tape Errors, I scraped up $800 for a cut-rate disk
drive. Now my discontent is awakened only when I read stories about the
new disks—larger ones that hold twice as much data as mine, and
double-density models that hold twice as much as that.

I can hardly bring myself to mention the true disadvantage of computers,
which is that I have become hopelessly addicted to them. To the outside
world, I present myself as a man with a business need for a
word-processing machine. Sure, I have a computer: I'd have a drill press
if I were in the machine-tool business. This is the argument I make
frequently to my wife. The truth, which she has no doubt guessed, is that
I love to see them work.

I nearly destroyed my health, to say nothing of my marriage, during the
months when I switched off The Electric Pencil at ten or eleven at
night-and then switched on BASIC and spent a few hours refining a
tax-and-accounting system. At first my goal was merely to design a program
that would work, that wouldn't print "Syntax Error in Line 2140" when I
tried to run it. Then I started playing around, seeing if I could work out
a scheme for financial projections that would take care of estimated tax
payments to the IRS. Would it have been easier to mail in the $150 each
quarter and then square accounts with the IRS at the end of the year? Of
course—but that was not the point. Eventually, I aspired even to elegant
programming, designing the matrices and the nested loops in a way that
added the beauty of simplicity to the scheme.

When I contemplate my future with computers, my emotions are mixed.
Because time and progress have passed my machine by, I simply can't buy
any new programs for the SOL. They don't exist. This is a source of
unending frustration: how I'd love to use a new word-processing program,
one that could insert footnotes at the bottom of the proper page or
automatically prepare an index for a book. How I'd love to get VisiCalc or
SuperCalc or one of the other accounting systems that can turn a home
computer into a miniature version of the National Bureau of Economic
Research. How deprived I feel as I read the fliers for CompuServe and The
Source, the over-the-phone services that enable you to make airline
reservations, call up old newspaper articles, and send computer mail, all
from the privacy of your home. How I wish my employers would install
computers in their headquarters, so I could submit articles over the
telephone, one computer to another, instead of fighting the crowds at the
Express Mail window.

Yet even as I think these thoughts, I fear their fulfillment. My computer
already competes with wife and children for my affection: can our family
stand anything more? The question will remain moot until the price of
replacement computers comes down a little more—or until I succeed in
convincing my wife that she, too, needs a computer, so I can give her mine
and rush out to buy a new one for myself (for business purposes, of
course).

By now, you probably want to be like me. Your first step is to avoid
several of the major mistakes. Since I made them, I know what they are.

1. Guessing wrong. The chances are that you have already avoided this, my
most costly mistake. The microcomputer industry these days is like the
auto business in 1910, with a thousand little hustlers trying to claim a
piece of the action. The next time you feel depressed about the vigor of
the American economy, pick up a copy of Byte—or Personal Computing, or
Popular Computing, or Interface Age, or InfoWorld —and look at the columns
upon columns of ads from small-time companies with new products to sell.

Still, some parts of the industry have calmed down, at least compared with
the chaos of three or four years ago. To extend the comparison with the
auto industry, it was as if different models ran on slightly different
kinds of fuel, and no one could be sure which would be the standard when
the struggle for survival sorted itself out. When I bought my computer,
many programs were designed for one model of computer only, since the
protocols and disk-operating systems varied from one brand to another.

If I had guessed right, my brand, the Processor Technology SOL, would have
caught on, and today I'd have the equivalent of a Mercedes-Benz instead of
a Hupmobile. I'd be able to buy new programs at the computer store, and
I'd be able to plug in to all the over-the-phone services. But I guessed
wrong, and I'm left with a specimen of an extinct breed. When I need new
programs, I try to write them myself, and when I have a breakdown, I call
the neighborhood craftsman, Leland Mull, who lovingly tends the dwindling
local population of SOL-20s.

You won't have this problem, because the war of standardization for
personal computers is just about over. The crucial, bitterly contested
territory was the disk-operating system, the coded instructions that
enable computers to interface (the word cannot be escaped in this
business) with the disk drives. My system uses the North Star Disk
Operating System, abbreviated DOS and pronounced doss, but North Star
didn't win. The winner was a DOS called CP/M (for Control Program for
Microcomputers), which has become the industry standard and is earning
millions for a formerly small company known as Digital Research. Almost
any kind of computer you buy these days will be compatible with CP/M, and
almost any kind of software will come in CP/M versions. To put it another
way, you should be wary of any machine or any program that won't run CP/M.

There are a few exceptions to this rule. For instance, the Tandy
Corporation sells various models of its TRS-80 computers, at Radio Shack
stores. These can be configured to accept CP/M, but they're designed for
the company's own operating system, known as TRSDOS, pronounced trissdoss.
Radio Shack offers so many TRSDOS programs and such an extensive
repair-and-support network that you are hardly leaving the mainstream by
buying one of their machines.

Another important exception is IBM, which has just burst onto the home
market with its Personal Computer. For those who are deep into the world
of gigantic mainframe computers—engineers, for example, who want a home
computer so that they can draw over the phone from the main data banks at
the office—it offers obvious advantages, since it is compatible with other
IBM products. But it is also part of another war for DOS dominance. The
Personal Computer's microprocessor—the chip that operates the computer's
logic—is a "16-bit" microprocessor, as opposed to the "8-bit" chips of
most other small computers. (A bit is a basic yes-or-no, 0-or-1 unit of
computer information. The IBM chip can handle twice as many bits at a
time.) The difference between 16- and 8-bit chips is of no practical
significance at the moment for most home-computer systems, although the
16-bit chips should support faster-operating and more powerful computer
programs, when the software industry catches up with this advance in
hardware. The new machines will require different disk-operating systems,
and may therefore inspire another DOS war. Digital Research has produced a
version called CP/ M-86, which will work on the Personal Computer and
other 16-bit systems, such as the Victor 9000, but many people suspect
that IBM will wage a counteroffensive with a DOS of its own.

2. Scrimping on storage. Computers are now reaching the "commodity" stage.
With a few glaring exceptions, to be mentioned in a moment, they're all
more or less the same. Not so the storage devices—the disks or tapes on
which you store information when the machine is turned off. Tapes are
obviously a terrible idea, but the wrong kind of disk can be almost as
bad.

The practical limit on what a computer can do is not the memory built into
the machine itself, although any serious computer should have at least 48
and preferably 64K of random access memory, but rather how much
information it can quickly draw from its disks. Here again I speak from
the perspective of the sadder-but-wiser man. In moving up from tapes to a
disk drive, I took the bargain route. I bought one rather than two, used
small disks (5 1/4" diameter) rather than large (8"), and chose single-
rather than double-density storage. I saved a couple of hundred dollars
but bought myself a source of frustration, since each disk fills up too
quickly and I have to keep rotating different disks in and out of the
drive. (Again, this may not sound like much to you, but live with it for a
year or two and you'll see what I mean.) I think you're cheating yourself
if you get anything less than two double-density 5 1/4" drives, which
together should be able to store 400K or more of data. The exact capacity
varies quite a lot, depending on the configuration a manufacturer chooses.
A two-drive system of 5 1/4" disks for the Apple III, for instance, can
store as little as 280K, while Heath-Zenith and Victor each offer
two-drive 5 1/4" systems that hold more than 1,000K, or one megabyte. In
some cases, you may do better to get two 8" drives, depending on the
specific prices and configurations different manufacturers offer.

The top of the line among storage systems is the hard disk, most often
available in the form called the Winchester. (This is not a brand but a
nickname, applied by wits in the computer world because the model number
on one of the earliest drives was 3030, reminiscent of a rifle.) The other
disks, known as floppies, get pulled in and out of their drives like tape
cassettes, but a Winchester is permanently sealed in its case. You don't
need to remove the hard disks because each one stores a prodigious amount
of data, from two or three on up to several dozen megabytes. With even a
small Winchester, you can store some 2,000 pages of data at once—enough,
for example, to contain all the notes for a book, along with drafts of all
chapters, or a record of all your correspondence over a period of years.
Winchesters are expensive; cheap models go for about $2,000, and some of
them cost at least twice that much. But you shouldn't buy one right now
anyway They're just entering the period of soaring volume and falling
prices and will be cheaper in a year.

3. Scrimping on the printer. The same misguided frugality that directed me
toward tape recorders also tempted me to think that my converted Selectric
printer was a great deal. True, I could have made an even worse mistake. I
could have bought a dot matrix printer, which is fast and cheap but which
leaves you with a manuscript resembling a grocery receipt. If eyes other
than your own are going to see the things you print, you're foolish to get
anything except a letter-quality printer. This means either a converted
Selectric, like my first printer, or one of the systems known as daisy
wheels or thimbles. These have small wheels or drums that spin across the
page and print at a phenomenal rate. They cost more than the Selectric to
begin with, but they're a bargain in the long run. The real cost of the
Selectric is the headaches of repair and breakdown. In operation, it is a
blur of rods and connectors, one of which is always about to go awry. But
daisy-wheel printers have only one main moving part. A year ago, I gave in
and bought a daisy wheel, the Anderson-Jacobson 830 model, which cost
about $1,400. In a year of steady use, it has broken once, which is about
one tenth as often as the Selectric. You should get one from the start.

Now that you know what not to do, you're ready for more positive advice.
If I were a shrewder man, I would refuse to give it. One of the perils of
dispensing specific advice is that it may be outdated by the time the
magazine is in your hands. The products that are available—and their
relative values—are changing almost day by day. Fortunately for the
consumer, all the change seems to be in the direction of more value for
less money. This spring, Radio Shack knocked $400 off the price of its
small business computer, the Model II—which sounded impressive until
Digital Equipment Corporation knocked $3,500 off the price of its DECmate.
The Model II with 64K of memory and one 8" drive went from $3,899 to
$3,499, and it can be bought from mail-order firms for about $400 less.
The DECmate, with the same memory and two drives, went from $6,595 to
$3,095. Meanwhile, several other companies brought small computers onto
the market, and there is no end in sight.

Yet another hazard is that recommending the right computer is a little
like recommending the "right"' religion. People tend to like the system
they've ended up with. The most important point about computers, more so
than about religions, is that the difference between a good one and a bad
one is tiny compared with the difference between having one and not.

Finally, a computer will be more or less right depending on what you want
to do with it. If you are mainly interested in playing chess against a
computer, you may be quite happy with some of the low-cost computers that
Atari, Commodore, and Radio Shack have put out for under $400. (All three
companies also offer good business systems.) If video games are your
exclusive interest, you'd probably do better to buy a $150 TV adapter from
Atari—although you'd then be shutting yourself off from all the wonders I
have described. If getting the feel of a computer is your goal, you could
buy a Sinclair ZX81 for $149.95 or $99.95 as a kit. But if you're also
interested in business uses for your computer, you might think of systems
and programs like the ones mentioned below.

Hardware: Once you move above the bargain-basement machines, to the tier
where the computer memories are 48K or larger and the price is $2,000 and
up, almost any computer you find will do the job. Over the past few
months, in the interests of thorough research, I have tried computers by
Apple and Zenith, Victor and Vector, Digital and Wang, Superbrain and
Radio Shack, Atari and North Star, to name just a few. Despite their
differences in detail, the machines seemed to fall into two big general
categories.

One is computers per se, which will cost between $1,500 and $4,000 for the
machine itself, plus (for some machines) up to $1,500 for an adequate
complement of disk drives. Most good letter-quality printers will cost
$1,500 or more, which means the cost of a complete word-processing system
is between $5,000 and $6,000. These computers are not specially designed
for word-processing, or for anything else. They will run whatever program
you feed into them.

In the other category are the dedicated word-processors, which are
designed for one purpose only. The IBM Displaywriter is one such machine,
and the Wangwriter is another. NBI and Exxon produce similar systems.
These cost a lot more than the all-purpose computers—the Displaywriter
with a good printer was quoted at $11,350 by my local IBM dealer. They're
also easier to use, since they have keys for such things as "delete para"
which isn't feasible for more versatile machines. (When I want to delete a
paragraph with my machine, I must place a marker at the beginning of the
paragraph, place another marker at the end, and then press both the
control button and the U key, which is the signal to remove the material
between the markers. Easier than scissors and paste, but harder than the
Displaywriter.) These single-purpose machines are generally sold not to
individuals but to organizations, which presumably would rather pay the
price for easily understood machines than train typists in complicated
computer routines.

Within each category, your choice of machine depends mainly on taste.
You'll spend a lot of time with the keyboard: does it feel right? The
Xerox 820 model and my own SOL-20 are my favorites on this score; I liked
the Apple least. Screens come in different colors, sizes, and
angles-to-the-horizon. Sometimes the monitor comes attached to the
computer, sometimes you buy it separately; you have to try them to know
your own taste. Of the ones I've seen, a green-tinted monitor by NEC
(model JB 1201M) seemed the best bargain, at $210; but patriots should
take note that NEC stands for Nippon Electric Company. Many computers now
offer a detachable keyboard, which you can hold on your lap while typing
or lay next to a document while you are copying figures or text. Those who
have them say they are wonderful; since my SOL doesn't have one, I
consider them silly.

Your choice should probably turn on the best deal you can make, in this
blissful era of plummeting prices. As of press time, some of the systems
that struck me as being good for business uses, and also good values, were
(in no particular order) the Xerox 820 ($3,795 with a 64K memory and two
8" drives), the Heath-Zenith 89 ($2,895), and the North Star Advantage
($3,125). The Atari 800 uses your home TV for its monitor, which makes it
less desirable for business purposes, but at $1,700 for a 48K system it's
a very good buy. The Atari also offers more interesting graphics—for
example, color- coded bar graphs for a family budget—than many other
systems. The DECmate—at $3,095, as explained above—is a pleasure to use,
with a variety of keys usually found only on dedicated word-processors.
Its disadvantages are that its software is overpriced—$500 for
word-processing,, $800 for a mathematical package including BASIC and
FORTRAN—and that, at least for now, it is not compatible with CP/M. The
TRS-80 Model II from Radio Shack is more expensive than some others—about
$4,100 with two 8" drives—but it is the only machine that can operate the
word-processing program I prefer above all others, Scripsit 2.0. Both
IBM's Personal Computer and the Victor 9000 use a 16-bit microprocessor;
both are handsomer than usual; but the Victor has a better screen, more
internal memory, and larger external storage, so all in all it gives
better value for money ($4,995 for the Victor 9000 with a 128K memory and
1.2 megabytes of storage; IBM offers only a third as much storage for
$4,000). The IBM might be the safer long-term choice, however, since
manufacturers are already offering accessories designed specifically for
it. Both of these machines are, for the moment, caught in a software
drought, because the established CP/M programs for 8-bit machines have not
been adapted to 16-bit operation. This situation will obviously correct
itself, not least because IBM is expected to sell more than 100,000
Personal Computers this year.

The best-known small computer is probably the Apple. Because there are so
many Apples in circulation, and because the company has pushed software so
aggressively, you can get a wider variety of programs and accessories for
an Apple than for any other system. The Apple II, which costs $1,350 with
a 48K memory, is good for games, simple graphics, and other home uses, and
with about a thousand dollars' worth of extra circuitboard it can make a
good word-processor. But for business purposes, you'd probably do better
to look instead at the Apple III. It costs more than twice as much to
begin with, but now that the initial bugs have been worked out, it is
ready to do the job without extra attachments.

One of the most interesting new computers, both as a piece of machinery
and as a specimen of capitalism in action, is the Osborne I. Its creator
is Adam Osborne, an author of computer books who decided to break the
price on-computers. The Osborne I is a very strange-looking piece of
equipment. When folded up, it resembles a bulky white briefcase; it is
advertised as the only computer that will fit underneath an airline seat.
When unfolded, it looks like an outdated military radio. It comes with a
full-sized keyboard, a 64K memory, two disk drives, and software for
word-processing and accounting that would cost more than $1,000 if bought
separately. Osborne offers the whole package for $1,795, which makes it
the best bargain on computer power in the business. The catch is that the
built-in screen is about the size of a postcard, although it is much
easier to read than that would suggest. For an extra $300, you can buy a
normal-sized monitor and attach it to the Osborne.

In a perfect world, everyone who had a home computer would also have an
Osborne to travel with. According to dealers, Osbornes are selling so fast
that many people must have decided that it makes sense not just as their
second computer but as their first.

The Otrona Corporation also makes a portable computer, called the Attache.
It is smaller and lighter than the Osborne (less than twenty pounds,
versus the Osborne's twenty-three), it has dual-density disk drives, and
its higher-resolution screen displays a full eighty-character line,
instead of the Osborne's fifty-two. Its only drawback is that, at $3,995,
it costs more than twice as much as the Osborne.

One other tip on hardware: If you live in a climate less humid than
Panama's, you must invest $100 in an anti-static mat to place under your
desk. If you don't, in wintertime you'll get shocks of static electricity
when you touch your machine. There is always the possibility that this
will erase what you're working on at the time.

Software: If you were a logical creature, you would start here rather than
with hardware in making your decision, since certain programs run better
on certain machines. Unfortunately, you will find this hard to do. It
takes weeks or months of use to know a program well enough to judge it,
and to get that much experience you usually have to own a machine. But
don't worry: most people seem happy with whatever program they use. I
thought my version of The Electric Pencil was the greatest thing invented
until I examined the newest word-processing programs and realized I was
stuck with something outdated and crude.

The basic choice here is between simplicity and complication. Any
word-processing program will do the basic jobs—adding and deleting copy,
moving material from one place to another, searching for a word or phrase
and replacing it with another. What you get with the fancier versions is
mainly refinements in formatting—for example, the automatic placement of
footnotes at the bottom of the appropriate pages. There is a cost,
however, which is a more cumbersome operation. You have to punch more keys
to get things done, and you have to sit longer and wait for the disks to
stop whirring and the results to show on the screen.

My program, The Electric Pencil, is a stripped-down model. It's very fast
and easy to operate, but there are a lot of things it just can't do—for
example, automatically center a line, or stop the printer at the end of
each page so you can feed in a new sheet. Today's most popular
word-processing program is WordStar. Its users swear by it. It does
perform a variety of complicated formatting chores, but to me, on the
basis of several hours' worth of demonstration, it seems to have the
benefits of neither simplicity nor complexity. It's slow and clumsy to
operate, at least in the version I saw on an Apple, without the
flexibility of the most sophisticated programs.

If I were looking for a simple program, I'd stick with The Electric
Pencil—which I am forced to do in any case, since nothing new on the
market will run in my poor obsolescent SOL. Or I might choose Magic Wand,
which is simpler to use than many of today's complicated programs. If
you're looking for sophistication, I'd suggest you pass by WordStar to
choose between two other programs. One of them, Perfect Writer, is
available by mail from Perfect Software, Inc., 865 Conger Street,
Eugene,Oregon 97402. (The other programs are available from computer
stores for prices between $200 an ' d $400.) It is so sophisticated that
one might as well be operating a nuclear reactor, but it does things I've
seen nowhere else. For example, it allows you to divide the screen with a
horizontal line, display one document in the top half and another in the
bottom, and move material from one document to the other. It also has a
bigger variety of printing formats than most other programs.

The other choice would be Scripsit 2. 0, which is put out by Radio Shack
and runs on its TRS-80 Model II computer. (Confusing nomenclature: the
TRS-80 Models I and III are the cut-rate versions, while the Model II is
the serious business machine.) I had snobbishly resisted Radio Shack
because of the low-rent appearance of its products, but I was forced to
the conclusion that, all in all, Scripsit is the best program on the
market. To give one example, it allows you to program up to twenty keys
with your own commands. If you press one key, it might print your return
address in the upper corner of the page; press another, and it can perform
a search-and-replace routine you often use. Like many other programs,
Scripsit can also include a spelling-checker, which proofreads documents
and is a godsend to the careless typist.

My Picks: If money were no object, I'd buy an IBM Displaywriter, which is
the prettiest of all the models and has the simplest commands.

Money being an object, I would vacillate helplessly among the TRS-80 Model
II with an extra 8" disk-drive and Scripsit 2.0, the Xerox 820 with two 8"
drives and Perfect Writer, and the DECmate. And yet, a year from now, when
its software has caught up with it, I'd expect to be choosing the IBM
Personal Computer. If I received a small bequest, I'd also buy an Osborne
I—if the bequest were large, an Otrona—to take on the road. For any of
these systems (not including the Osborne), I'd spend no more than $6, 000,
or half as much as for the Displaywriter.

Godspeed as you follow this advice; meanwhile, I'll be spending nothing,
sticking with SOL and The Electric Pencil, and hoping for a world in which
my sons can grow up to have a better computer than their father had.
------------------------------------

This is a funny article, too.
http://www.theatlantic.com/ideastour/technology/twain-full.mhtml
A Telephonic Conversation
by Mark Twain

I consider that a conversation by telephone—when you are simply sitting by
and not taking any part in that conversation—is one of the solemnest
curiosities of this modern life. Yesterday I was writing a deep article on
a sublime philosophical subject while such a conversation was going on in
the room. I notice that one can always write best when somebody is talking
through a telephone close by. Well, the thing began in this way. A member
of our household came in and asked me to have our house put into
communication with Mr. Bagley's, down town. I have observed, in many
cities, that the gentle sex always shrink from calling up the central
office themselves. I don't know why, but they do. So I touched the bell,
and this talk ensued:—

continued......
http://www.theatlantic.com/ideastour/technology/twain-full.mhtml
 
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