by Jay R. Allgood
The author is a retired engineer who now devotes his time to property and invention development and other activities – including entertaining his microcomputer.
ARTICLES touting microcomputers (micros) are as ubiquitous these days as toothy cartoons of President Carter. They tell of present and projected uses in glowing terms that tend to leave one frothing to run down to the local Byte Shop, Radio Shack, Computer Store, or their counterparts to buy one. But wait! Are they really all they are purported to be? Is a microcomputer for you? And is this the time to buy one?
The remainder of this epistle addresses these questions from the point of view of one who has lived with a micro for a year and whose “flow of juices” has subsided sufficiently to provide a somewhat objective evaluation of the practicality of these creatures to the home owner.
First, let’s briefly review what a microcomputer is, then delineate some of their current and potential uses around the home, and subsequently attempt an evaluation of the queries posed above. After all, there is reason for hesitation before buying one; those of us who own micros have found that sometimes instead of being for us, they are definitely against us.
In contemplating the acquisition of a micro, as with most other major decisions, one should always consider alternate uses of one’s time and money. For example, as another use of your time you may wish to ponder the question, “Did space have a beginning?” (If space is an absence of something, how could there be a beginning of nothing?) Or, as an alternate use of your money you might want to invest in a few bottles of the recently marketed dehydrated water. Unless you consider the matter carefully, your time and money could be equally well spent either way.
What is a Microcomputer
A microcomputer is a physically small general purpose computer that uses a microprocessor chip as its central processing (computing, etc.) unit. It is, in effect, a subminiature macrosystem that permits bringing into the home a computer as powerful as the giants of the industry of a few years ago. The equivalent of the 1950 computer that cost $1 million now costs less than $50 and has 100,000 times faster computing speeds. Further, the 1950 version occupied nearly a city block while its present counterpart is a chip less than the size of a postage stamp! Reduction in the size and cost of the necessary peripheral equipment such as video monitors has been much less dramatic, nonetheless, significant improvements have also been made in those areas.
The microcomputer has become possible through advances in semiconductor technology from whence such subminiature marvels as the Z-80 and other CPU (central processor unit) chips were spawned. It is fascinating to look through a microscope and see the hundreds of interconnecting leads on these Lilliputian giants. It is also fun to imagine riding an electron through such a complex maze; that would be a ride to remember.
CPU’s incorporated with power supplies, memory elements, and certain other elements constitute what is called a microcomputer. My micro is slightly larger than a portable typewriter and, together with minimal peripheral equipment, cost less than a new mid-sized automobile.* Thus far it has been reliable and trouble free.
To use a micro there is no more need to understand the details of its circuitry and operation than there is to comprehend the detailed mechanical operation of your automobile to drive it. Many microcomputers have nothing more than an on-off switch and a reset button – plus, of course, one or more cables through which you input programs, commands, and data; and get back output.
Micros operate by use of prepared programs. You may use “canned” programs or write your own. Most of these programs use a modified form of the BASIC program language whereby you give the computer instructions in abbreviated conversational terms. BASIC is easy to learn, but writing your own programs can become a tedious, time consuming, frustrating task. It is usually during the program debugging stage when one begins to feel that his computer is more against him than for him.
Another source of frustration is program “wipe-outs” from transients or juxtaposed magnetic fields. I have learned the hard way not to use the open socket of the double wall plug where my computer is plugged in. Likewise, the magnetic field from such things as hi-intensity lamps can cause malfunctions. These types of problems result from the low voltage levels at which the micros operate.
A more serious limitation of micros at present is the limited amount of software (programs) available. Thus, one of the major considerations in selecting a micro must be the availability of software. This is especially true if the micro is to be used for business or professional applications. Altair has one of the best business software packages available at present. There are a few books of miscellaneous programs in print.
Much of the capability of a micro is dependent upon the peripheral equipment employed. A great variety of such equipment is available. Minimal input-output gear might consist of a Selectric typewriter and a cassette tape recorder. An alternate would be a simple keyboard and a video display (your TV may do). A far better, but considerably more expensive, setup would be a keyboard, two floppy disks, a video display, and a high-speed printer. In deciding what to include in your system, keep in mind that only three of every 100 men are financially comfortable at age 65. (Dollars compound much faster in a money market fund than in a microcomputer.)
* For computer freaks: It is an IMSAI 8080 with a Vector Graphic reset-and-go prom/ram board, three 8K Seal memory boards, a Tarbell board (to control a cassette tape recorder), and a serial I/O board (to control an ASR-33 Teletype).
Home Uses of Microcomputers
CURRENT and potential home uses of micros are so extensive that even a complete delineation of them would be impractical here, much less a discussion of such uses. Some of the possibilities are listed in the accompanying table (page 9).
As one example, Bob McCaslin, a young Californian, incorporated a CPU in a toy van that responds to the voice commands: start, stop, left, and right. The van is currently being marketed as a high-priced novelty item. These same units could be incorporated into dolls and other toys. Such toys may be the introduction of robotics in your home.
When you have considered the mind-boggling possibilities of the micro computer, including having your own R2-D2, you may ask, “Why not get one now?” The main reason, as previously mentioned, is that adequate program systems to permit the computer to perform the many functions you may want it to are not available. No doubt adequate program packages will be developed – already Tandy Corporation is marketing an inexpensive micro that performs a variety of functions including home accounting, child education, and computer games. Likewise, Sears is reportedly ready to market a micro that performs various functions such as controlling a burglar alarm, fire alarm, sprinkler, and energy systems. The cost of home systems is coming down rapidly, and as yet it is not clear which function will best be done by the central home computer and which will be done by separate units. Further, new developments such as bubble memories and photonics promise further revolution of the technology.
As amazing as many of the current developments are, they pale to insignificance compared with the self-learning computers of the future. Imagine the consequences of a computer that is many times smarter than any man! The self-learning computer is the brain child of the amiable genius, Klaus Holtz. His methodologies, together with emerging very inexpensive mass memories, assure an exciting new age in the history of man.
Is a Microcomputer For Me?
ANSWERING the question, “Is a microcomputer for me?” involves many considerations in addition to those mentioned above. When I faced that decision, I made a short list of the factors favoring a purchase and a long list of reasons why it was impractical – then I bought one anyway.
Surveys show that most people have at least one practical application in mind when they buy a micro. Mine was purchased for the principal purpose of helping make timing decisions in the purchase of stocks and commodities. (So far those efforts have been less than successful.) For electronic buffs, the purpose is often the challenge of building their own computer; a number of kits and an awesome variety of peripherals are available to satisfy their creative needs. Incidentally, many of the new applications are attributable to these hobbyists.
One of the largest current markets for micros is for computer games. A lot of money is currently being wasted in buying specialized computer games when one could buy a general purpose micro and have the capability of playing hundreds of different games plus the advantage of a myriad of other uses besides. People probably do this because they are afraid of computers as being something too complicated and mysterious for them. Actually, operating a micro is relatively simple, and to my knowledge they have never inflicted a physical injury on anyone yet.
Clearly, a microcomputer is more practical for someone who has a technical background and has had programming experience. Nonetheless, there is absolutely no doubt that the microcomputer is going to force itself into all of our lives on an ever-expanding basis. You may just as well get used to that idea and spend a little time learning about them – if you are not already so informed.
Most computer stores have a variety of books on microcomputers in addition to magazines such as Interface Age and Byte. Many of these stores also sponsor short courses on microcomputers that assist one in understanding how micros function. Then there are computer fairs where manufacturers show their wares, hobbyists demonstrate their systems, and technical papers are presented. The annual West Coast Computer Faire is a particularly good place to get an exposure and keep up with the burgeoning advances in the field. Naturally, your local computer club will provide opportunity for those of you who are hobbyists to interact with others of similar interests.
The real question seems to me not if you get a microcomputer, but when. In my judgment, now is too late for the technically trained and too soon for those without technical backgrounds. As was the case with the hand calculator, the cost of home systems will drop further and their capability will increase markedly in the next few years. We are on the forefront of so many advances in technology, however, that the potential will not be fulfilled nor stabilized in the foreseeable future.
I hope you are convinced by now that the microcomputer is going to have an enormous impact on your life. Owning one will be tantamount to having another spouse – one that gives you less comfort at night, but takes orders without quibbling, performs innumerable services, and gives you less trouble in the daytime. When you make the plunge, I hope you have as much fun with yours as I have had with mine.
Home Uses of Microcomputers
Keeping financial records in order
Stock, bond, and commodity market analysis
Education: teaching children math, etc.
Prompting: reminding father of next step in home repair jobs
Planning meals, parties, etc.
Decision making aid
Providing computer music; playing the electronic organ
Memory and Operational Uses
Addresses and telephone numbers
Keeping a family calendar
Typing form letters, etc.
Talking/singing door bells, scales, etc.
Talking clocks, watches, and appliances
Inventory control and shopping list preparation
Control-function and Monitoring Uses
Appliance and utility control and monitoring
Monitoring children’s activities
Burglar and fire alarm control
Watering system regulation and control
Automated and interactive children’s toys
Indirect Home Uses
Aids for handicapped persons
Communications: C.B. radios, etc.
Hand set in Deepdene; display type is Univers and a lovely typewriter face. Initials are Gallia. Inks are Van Son Rota Brown, Ivy-Mint Green (with a lot of white), and 40904 Black. Text paper is 70-lb Hammermill Ledger. Edited and published by Jake Warner and 535 copies were printed by him on a 10×15 C&P.
The Boxwood Press
Greenbelt, Maryland 20770