Micro History Part 16

History of the Microcomputer Revolution

Part 16 - Will the Circle be Unbroken?

They say that despite how rebellious we are in our youth, we always grow up to become our parents. The PC Industry at age 20 is in many ways different from its parent - the mainframe world - but in many ways also the same.

This industry was started by people with the dream of having computers available for everyone. They felt information should be free. They wanted to break the tyranny of their dependency on centralized Data Processing departments.

These are the people who in the mid 70's spent hundreds of hours building their own computer kits, then learning arcane languages just for the pure joy of seeing their own computer do their own commands. These are the people who later went out and bought their own Apple II computers with Visicalc, brought them into their departments at work, and got their budgets and forecasts out themselves in record time. These are the people who believed in their own abilities and who felt that given the proper resources - they could do things themselves; the true American pioneer spirit.

The idea of computers for everyone has become a reality. Virtually anyone can afford a PC today, and I've seen people buy pc's as impulse items at discount stores. With many PC users now on their 3rd or 4th system, you can buy older PC's at garage sales for bargain prices. Technologically obsolete perhaps, but still functional.

But the #1 obstacle to learning and using PC's is and has always been the issue of ease of use, with vendors always promising us that one version that really is easy enough for everyone will be here in their newest release. Microsoft's Bill Gates said that first about the Mac, then about early Windows, then about Windows 3.1, but now Microsoft introduces BOB - a GUI with talking animals - for those millions of folks who just can't figure out the ease of use of Windows. And we forever hear the promise of Programmerless programming. We just never see it.

People sit down at multimedia Pentium systems that come bundled with software that has online help, tutorials, and on-screen training videos with sound - and complain about ease of use. What would these people do if you sat them in front of an Altair?

What good is a spreadsheet program to someone who doesn't understand the concept? How can someone who struggles with word processing concepts ever hope to use a database program? We see people struggling - being forced to learn computers, whose aptitudes might lie in completely different areas.

Why do we feel that anyone can sit down and learn computers? Can anyone be a doctor, or a lawyer, or a welder, or a dental technician? Do people have different learning capacity and different aptitudes? Aren't there indoors and outdoors people?

Computer hardware and software has advanced remarkably over the past decade and decreased in price. Cdrom and telecommunications technology now give us instant access to vast amounts of information. Our children now walk to the computer, instead of to a bookcase or a library to do their homework. You can now - if you wish - spend your whole life in the emotionless void of Cyberspace - and withdraw from the world of humans.

The PC is becoming more of an entertainment and information appliance than a computer. We even sometimes see the ultimate irony of someone using a PC exclusively as a word processor - with one of these little stick-on calculators on the keyboard for when they need to actually compute something.

Millions of people are telecommuting; Technology has created the virtual office - wherever you are with your portable, faxmodem, and celphone - that's your office.

But while many things have changed, many things have stayed the same.

We see centralized PC services departments in companies that are just as inaccessible to end-users as the old DP departments. Computer priests still protecting their temples.

We see people in PC management positions with no real world PC experience.

We see owners of companies virtually held hostage by their computer people, because management is still computer illiterate. They watch their money being spent.

Several studies have challenged the actual true productivity of PC's.

We see commercial information services - Compuserve - AOL - where you pay for every online second, and even the Internet has its dark sides.

Vendors constantly promise faster and better, but deliver bigger, slower, and worse.

We see Microsoft dominating the PC world as much or more than IBM did the mainframes.

And we see businesses in 1995 in a continuing upgrade cycle - never getting to a point of stability because there's always the promise of something new and better.

There's an old blues term that says "No matter how much things change, things still stay the same." Maybe that's the nature of the computer world, in any form.

But for the PC world, as the Memphis bluesman Furry Lewis was fond of saying, "Times done been, won't be no more..".

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