Home Computers—Are They for You?
“AT 6 o’clock every morning, Takeaki Yoshida’s favorite music begins to filter through his Tokyo condominium. Then the bedroom curtain opens automatically, the lamps light up and an electric rice cooker clicks on. By the time Yoshida steps out of his electronically controlled sauna, his breakfast is ready and the television is on. Every appliance in Yoshida’s apartment . . . is monitored by a micro computer.”
That is not a passage from a futuristic novel. Rather, it is from a report published in Newsweek on the current state of technological development in Japan. It is an indication of how the computer has affected the life-style of people.
Today, in Japan and elsewhere, not only is the computer greatly influencing the world of science, industry and business, and changing the way people work, but it is also making its way into the home, affecting the way people live, play and think. Yes, it can be said that the age of the home computer is upon us.
‘A Computer in Every Home’
Some people when they hear about computers still think of antiseptic, air-conditioned rooms filled with rows of switches and flickering lights. Such imposing main-frame computers, as they are called, are still very much in use in industry, business, military installations and elsewhere.
But development in electronics has brought down both the size and the price of computers to such an extent that even schoolboys are buying their own computers with money from their newspaper delivery routes. In fact, one expert estimated that if the same advances had been made in the automotive industry as have been made in computer development, a Rolls Royce would cost only $2.75 (U.S.) and go three million miles on one gallon of gasoline!
Attractive prices, however, are but one of the factors that have encouraged people to ‘take the plunge.’ Among the many buyers of home computers is a 37-year-old artist who had been reading about computers and what youngsters are doing with them. “I feel like I missed out on so much at this point from what I see 10-year-old kids being able to do,” he said. But after purchasing the machine, he confessed: “I don’t know how it’s going to be of use to me, but it’s fascinating.”
This fascination is carefully exploited by the computer industry. Clever advertising along with stories about young ‘computer wizards,’ many barely in their 20’s, commanding six-digit annual incomes, has played no small role in sparking the sale of home computers. Expressions such as “high-tech society” and “computer literacy” often make the consumers feel uneasy if they, or their children, do not have a computer or do not know how to use one. “You and I and the rest of the nation have been conditioned that every home will ultimately buy a computer,” said the marketing manager of a major American computer manufacturer.
‘With a Computer You Can . . .’
The typical question asked by a person who is considering getting a home computer is: ‘What can it do for me?’ More often than not, the answer is just as perplexing: Anything you want. As facetious as it may sound, that is apparently the firm belief of those in the business.
For example, an advertisement by one of the leading computer makers shows a hundred ways of using their product, along with the promise that “whoever you are and whatever you do,” you could use one of their machines and do a better job with it. Besides truly technological feats, such as monitoring experiments aboard the space shuttle, which you probably will never do, the list includes more mundane uses, such as helping you to lose weight, “keep up with the Dow Joneses,” maintain mailing lists, monitor home security and, above all, play games of all sorts.
So, it seems that the dream house of Mr. Yoshida, mentioned earlier, may soon be very popular. People envision the day when, at the touch of a button, many of the jobs around the house will no longer be tedious—thanks to the computer.
Others look forward to the time when they will no longer have to fight the traffic each day to get to work in the crowded cities. With a home computer they can work in the peace and quiet of their suburban house, presumably getting a lot more satisfaction, if not also a lot more money, out of it. They can use the home computer as a word processor. With a hookup to a telephone, they can tap into information services for news and financial reports, send messages, order merchandise, and conduct their business without leaving their house.
Then there are the children. With a computer around the house they can learn math, improve their reading ability, take up a foreign language and, of course, entertain themselves with nonviolent, morally clean electronic games. Maybe they will even watch less television and be more involved in learning something useful.
Ideas such as these have influenced many people to buy a home computer. In fact, the sale of home computers is rising so rapidly that an expert predicts that by the end of the decade, seven out of every ten homes in the United States will be equipped with a home computer.
But Is It Worth It?
The idea that a home computer can help you balance the checkbook, work out recipes, figure out gasoline mileage, and so forth, may sound exciting at first. But the question that must be considered objectively is: Is it worth it? A report in The New York Times answers: “Those applications, however, are usually not sufficient to justify purchase of a computer, since they have been performed for years with pencil, paper and calculator.”
It must be remembered that, in addition to the initial investment, it takes time and money to use the home computer to do these things. This is because the computer, though fast and accurate, is nothing more than a tool. It cannot do anything unless it is instructed, or programmed, to do so. There are two ways to accomplish this. You can take the time and effort to learn how to do programming. But, if you are like most people, you will probably buy prepackaged programs and the necessary attachments for feeding the programs into the computer.
Since each task requires its own program, the cost of getting the programs for all the little jobs around the house can pile up very quickly. If you decide to do it yourself, each program takes many hours to write and it takes many more hours to get out the ever-present “bugs.” After you have the computer programmed, say to balance your checkbook, you still would have to go through essentially the same steps that you did with pencil and paper and a simple calculator. It is not difficult to see why the above quoted New York Times report says that “so far, the most popular use [of the home computer] is to play games.”
Is There a Practical Use for You?
“There is no question that computers are essential for many business or scientific uses,” writes a magazine editor and computer designer. “If you bring work home, you may find a home computer valuable. I have one in my home, and I use it for research and for word processing. . . . If you need to do these things at home, I recommend getting one.”
That is a rather realistic view of the matter. People, such as the magazine editor mentioned above, who have a need for it will find the home computer a bargain at today’s prices. For them the computer at home is really an extension of the one at their place of work. Others who run small businesses may also find the home computer a great asset in helping them keep records and schedules.
Individuals who are interested in a career in the computer field will find the home computer a fine introduction to the subject, even though they may soon outgrow all but the most advanced home machines. And students who are using computers in school may find a home computer helpful in doing their homework, although most schools where such courses are offered do provide machines for students to use at home.
But what about the average person who is simply fascinated by the idea of owning a home computer? Of people in this category, The New York Times report quoted earlier says: “Those who have purchased home computers report mixed results. Some become enthralled with them, even if they never find a practical use.”
Finding practical uses, in the opinion of many experts, appears to be the real issue with home computers today. The magazine editor mentioned puts it this way: “I thought I would find other uses for my machine. But I haven’t thought of anything.” What he means is that besides using his home computer for his work, he has not thought of anything else that he felt was really practical.
On the other hand, some people will tell you about all the wonderful things they are doing with their home computers. Usually, though, these are people you meet at computer stores, centers, camps or workshops. Or they are in some way involved with computers in their work. In other words, they are either computer hobbyists or people with a vested interest in computers.
What about the rest of us? You may be intrigued by all the things that the home computer is said to be capable of doing. But the question is whether you will have the time and patience to make use of it and whether you will find a practical use for it. True, you may be thinking of the future of your children. Here the situation is rather like that of deciding whether to buy an encyclopedia for the home or not. The potential may appear to be limitless, but is there a real need? How often will it be used? And how long will the interest last?
In some respects, the home computer has taken on the role of a technological triumph in search of a practical identity. Therefore, before deciding that a home computer is for you, it would be wise to weigh its practical value and benefits against its cost and time consumption.
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