Some Thoughts on the Development of Personal Computers by Duane Bristow, Computer Consulta

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Some Thoughts on the Development of Personal Computers by Duane Bristow, Computer Consultant The Helping Hand BBS (606) 387-4002 Albany, Kentucky 42602 June 14, 1991 Personal Computers were first available on the mass market in 1977. At that time there were basically three brands widely available, Apple, Tandy, and Commodore. I bought a TRS-80 model I in the fall of that year and began computer consulting the next spring. Things have changed a lot in the last 14 years. These are a few observations on some of the developments and trends. In the early 1980s a man would come to me and say, "I have a problem in my business. It concerns efficiency in office procedures. I am covered up in writing, bookkeeping, billing, paying, keeping track of customers, etc. They said you have been able to show other businesses how to use computers to solve these problems. Please show me." I would then analyse his business talking not only to him but primarily to his secretary and/or bookkeeper(s) to find just how his business ran, what the problems were, and what was unique about his business (something almost always was). I would plan hardware and develop software designed to work efficiently to solve his problems and to grow with his business for the next five or (wistfully) ten years. I would install the system, train his employees and support the system with further modifications, hardware and software maintenance, additional training, etc. as needed. This worked well and was always successful. Now a man comes to me and says, "I have a problem in my business. I heard computerizing would solve my problem, so I read the computer magazines, talked to the computer literacy instructor at the high school, talked to a number of computer salesmen, and asked a computer whiz I know who has three computers and unbelievable games on them (He has the highest score in town on "Shoot The Martians"). All these people told me that my problems would be solved if I got a 386 with 4 meg RAM, 40 meg. hard drive, VGA, laser printer, Windows, Lotus 123, Dbase and Wordperfect." "I bought all these, spent months reading the manuals and installing it all, and got the computer whiz to come by when school was out and show my employees how to use it all. And, you know, I still have the problem in my business. As a matter of fact my employees spend so much time using and learning the new computer system that I've had to hire an additional employee to make sure we get the billing out each month. Now, they say you have solved business problems for others with computers, so I am willing to pay you to show me how to use this stuff to solve my problems." I explain to this man that I was able to solve other's problems by an analysis of their business and by developing or installing software specifically for that purpose, that this will not use all the memory, Windows, 123, and Dbase that he has already installed, that I use cheaper hardware and charge more for systems analysis and custom programming and that therefore solving his problems will require an additional investment of $2,000 or more and that probably $2,000 of his original investment will be useless to him. He usually concludes at this point that I must not know much about computers. He ends up using parts of whatever of his software he can and decides that computers can't really do as much as he had been led to believe after all. This problem arises primarily because of the way the computer industry has marketed computers and software in the last 14 years. In the first stage the industry said, "Buy a computer!" John Q. Public said, "Why?" and the industry said, "Because they can do anything you tell them." The problem was JQP didn't know what he wanted them to do and he didn't know how to tell them to do it anyway. So a couple of real smart guys wrote Visicalc, the first spreadsheet program for microcomputers. JQP found that for some things that he was already doing on paper spreadsheets, a computer with VC was much more efficient. If he knew how to design a spreadsheet on paper, he could do the same thing on the computer and increase productivity immensely. He was programming a computer but he didn't know that. The industry marketing men saw what had happened and changed their tactic. They now said, "Buy a computer so you can run VC." And a number of accountants and other number crunchers did just that. As a matter of fact some of the more savvy salesmen began giving away pirated copies of VC with each computer sale. Their profit was on hardware, not software. Many salesmen who had never used a paper spreadsheet much less VC told people that to do anything now they just needed a computer and VC. When asked what type of thing they might do the computer salesman replied that JQP could now balance his checkbook with a computer. Never mind that if JQP didn't know how to balance a checkbook the computer wasn't going to help and if he did he certainly didn't need a computer for that. The next development of interest was the discovery that if one knew how to type he could increase productivity immensely with a word processing program. This then developed much the same way as the VC phenomena. From the beginning the computer marketers and the media had envisioned a computer in every household. Problem was that, so far, computers were selling primarily to accountants and typists. Apple computer decided that the thing standing in the way of more computer sales was the fact that not enough people knew how to use a spreadsheet or to type. Hence the GUI (Graphical Computer Interface) and the mouse. Theoretically, we could throw away the keyboard now and everyone could own a computer. Of course, since this didn't teach one to do accounting or use a spreadsheet and since you couldn't write a document with a mouse there was no reason to buy a computer, but Apple overlooked that. As a matter of fact, after the introduction of the Macintosh, Apple probably would have gone out of business if not for one further development. Someone, (I don't know who but somebody does) came up with the idea of using the Macintosh for Desktop Publishing, a quantum extension of word processing which was ideally suited to a GUI and a mouse. (Course, it also required a keyboard but that was OK.) This sold so many Macs that Microsoft and IBM took notice and decided that a GUI must be the way to go. Others decided that part of the problem with computer sales was that computers require programs and JQP could not or was afraid to program. So they wrote applications that would help JQP to write his own programs but would not let him know that he was doing so. These took the form of Dbase type programs and a tremendous increase in the size and complexity of VC which by now was owned by Lotus and was called 123. The thing they didn't tell JQP was that by trying to force a computer to do something with such a general purpose tool as Dbase or 123, he was sacrificing efficiency and that if the application became very complex it could be programmed and would work much more efficiently and easily in a true programming language like pascal, or C, or compiled basic or whatever. They also didn't tell JQP that a complex application would be just as hard to program in Dbase or 123 as in a true language even though it would not work nearly as well. I knew a hospital controller who tried to run a hospital billing and accounting system with 123. You can drill a hole with a hammer and nails too, but a drill is so much more efficient. From the very beginning the problem was that computers could perform miracles in efficiency but only the systems analysts and the programmers knew how. The marketing planners and the salesmen didn't, so they misled JQP. Those who most need computers, mostly businessmen, are not analysts or programmers and should not be. There were never enough programmers and analysts to sell the number of computers the industry wanted to sell. Therefore, efficiency was sacrificed by use of general purpose programs. Although these usually did not do the job well (sometimes not at all), they were cheaper than efficient programs and they were available. The hoax was that JQP was never told that use of these programs required a sacrifice of efficiency but was simply led to believe that the inadequacies of these programs was intrinsic to computers. Another hoax occurred as the price of computer hardware and software fell. It is necessary to charge $3,000 to $5,000 for a computer system to justify enough profit to support the industry. At first, the price could be maintained by simply selling more powerful and faster hardware and software to JQP for the same price that he was used to paying. After a while though, it became evident that the hardware and software was already as fast as JQP could ever want to perform most applications. The solution was to change the operating system to OS2 and to GUIs such as Windows that were inefficient in speed and in use of memory. By convincing the public that these were necessary it became possible to sell even faster machines with increased memory, etc. These are my nominations for most significant developments in microcomputers over the last 14 years with my designation of each as a right turn or a wrong turn for the industry. The microcomputer Right turn Visicalc Right turn Lotus 123 Wrong turn Dbase Wrong turn Hard disk storage Right turn MSDOS Right turn but a UNIX based OS would have been better. Word processors Right turn GUI Wrong turn Color Monitor & VGA Right turn Hayes standard high speed modems Right turn communications software Compuserve and BBSes Quickbasic, C, Pascal Right turn The shareware concept Right turn Desktop publishing Right turn Laser printers Right turn Graphics applications scanners, and mouses Right turn Networking Right turn CDROM drives and applications Right turn Simulations Right turn Sound applications Right turn


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