Personal Computer Not Yet in Every Pot
A DECADE ago, only the privileged had computer power.In corporations, a coterie of specialists worked data stored in huge mainframes. A few homes had desktop computers - but no one paid much attention except hobbyists and hackers. Then on Aug. 12, 1981 - 10 years ago this week - International Business Machines Corporation introduced the IBM Personal Computer and brought computing power to the masses. The PC and its descendants succeeded beyond what IBM could imagine. In the year it was introduced, there were 1.7 million personal computers in the United States. By the end of this year, International Data Corporation estimates there will be 59.2 million such machines. And millions more in other countries. Walk into an office or bank in any developed nation and you're likely to find personal computers at work. Executives use them to type their own letters, send and receive electronic messages, and even put out newsletters. The PC broke the stranglehold on computer power. Information now flows throughout an organization. Even the lowliest clerk can manipulate it in very sophisticated ways. Yet, for all its breathtaking strides in the workplace, the PC has stumbled on the home front. The promise of a PC in every home remains unfulfilled after 10 years on the market. Only one in four US homes has a personal computer. Contrast that with television. In five years, from 1950 to 1955, the percentage of US homes with TVs jumped from 9 percent to 64.5 percent. Even Nintendo claims a third of US households after only five years of selling its popular video-game systems to Americans. These figures raise some disturbing questions. Has the PC revolution stalled? Will historians looking back at 1991 take more notice of the 10th anniversary of the IBM PC or the fifth anniversary of the Nintendo video game? "The technologies that are the easiest to accept are those that can be used very passively," says Jacob Schwartz, a computer science professor at New York University. In other words, people are much more likely to accept television shows and video games, because they don't require them to think very much. Professor Schwartz still says the PC is the more significant achievement. Interestingly, even as PC makers try to build machines more compatible in the home, Nintendo is considering moving into the business realm. In Japan, its machines now allow users to retrieve stock quotes. In 1915, when radio was still the plaything of hobbyists, David Sarnoff charted out how it could become a "household utility." His solution: Let it broadcast music to the home. Radio became a hit, and Mr. Sarnoff went on to head RCA. If computers are to follow the same path and become "household utilities," they will have to become nearly as easy to use as a radio. The home computer will also have to do things differently from its business counterpart. It's not just that homes use other kinds of information. They use it in different ways. Communication is one example. After Iraq's invasion of Kuwait last August, Karen Buker of Seattle posted a note in the Prodigy computer bulletin-board service. "My son is on a ship in the Mideast and I would love to have some tried-and-true cookie recipes that stand up to being sent through the mail," she wrote. Responses started pouring in, launching Operation Cookie. Scout troops, church groups, and Vietnam veterans got involved in the program, sending cookies to chaplains in the war zone who distributed them to the troops. Creativity is another area. Jeffrey Froyd, professor of electrical and computer engineering at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Terre Haute, Ind., has seen his children tire of video games. Instead, they've started drawing computer pictures with the popular Microsoft Windows program. "People do want to be creative," Professor Froyd says. "Maybe you will have a lot more artists, more writers." Better communication? More creativity? Those are worthy goals for computer makers who want to bring home the computer revolution. Maybe they'll succeed in time for the IBM PC's 20th anniversary.