Chapter 7

Personal computers

Selwyn Arrow

Selwyn Arrow joined the New Zealand Post Office in 1960 and has been involved in telecommunications since then. His introduction to EDP came when he was appointed as a lecturer at the NZPO National Transmission Training Centre at Hamilton in the late 1970s. He regularly contributes to computer magazines as a part-time journalist, is chairman of the New Zealand Microcomputer Club Inc and untiring editor of the club’s magazine ‘NZ MICRO’.

Just ten years ago an event occurred which signalled the start of a revolution that has now come to the notice of nearly everyone in this country. This event was the birth of the microcomputer. Aptly described as an extension to the human mind, this relatively small electronic device has developed so many capabilities in those few years that it has become the ‘personal computer’ we know it as today. Because it can be used to advantage in most homes and offices this general purpose, but personalised tool, has the power to change the way we live, learn and communicate. Perhaps most important in this context is that this ‘new wave’ in computing is able to provide the means of access from homes and offices to the most up to date knowledge that mankind has acquired.

The start of this new era of computing can be traced back to January 1975 when Popular Electronics magazine printed details of the Altair 8800 computer using a microprocessor chip as its ‘brain’.

By today’s standards this mail order computer kit was really crude but it was capable of computing functions that up till then were only possible by visiting a computer centre belonging to a university, a government department or very large business concern. Nowadays anybody can make use of their computer’s power whenever they want to.

In recent years many people have discovered that the personal computer can be used in the home without special training. The personal computer, unlike its large predecessors, does not require staff to install, to program or to maintain. Within its small interior it has the potential to be a general purpose tool for making many small business, home or hobby activities much easier and more swiftly accomplished. Indeed many users have found it is a fascinating hobby to go on a voyage of discovery of their own computer, with its many and varied capabilities.

The original and alternative name for the personal computer was the micro­computer, this was because it was built around a microprocessor chip and was much smaller than, though not then as capable as, the fully fledged mainframe computers of that era. The production of the first ‘processor on a chip’ was an offshoot of the pocket calculator business, but several electronics hobbyists in the United States, soon realising its potential, started to build microcomputers for themselves. Hence in January 1975 the article on the Altair 8800 computer appeared. This mail order computer kit became an overnight success to the surprise and delight of its designer and it became the first in a line of commercially successful microcomputers. A variety of plug-in-boards soon became available including the first colour graphics board. The ‘Dazzler’ and its hypnotic ‘Kaleidoscope’ program achieved early fame in New York when left to run overnight in a shop window. The store owners were soon politely but firmly requested by the police department to shut it off as it was causing a major traffic jam to passers-by and traffic.

Microcomputing remained primarily a do-it-yourself activity until the first East Coast Computer Show held in Atlantic City in August 1976. It was then that the Apple I computer had its first public showing by its designer Steve Jobs. He was very pleased to receive orders from dealers for 20 units so he went back to his garage to produce the Apple II computer the next year. At that same show when a new hobbyist computing magazine, Kilobaud was announced, it sold more than a thousand advance subscriptions. The first issue was mailed in November and so computing as a hobby began to spread. Less than six months later there arrived the first all-in-one microcomputer package that could be bought, plugged in and turned on, it was the Commodore PET 2001 and it was shown at the West Coast Computer Faire. The third well known microcomputer to make its appearance in those early days, the Radio Shack TRS-80 Model I was released in August 1977. By 1978, with the advantage of being sold through a chain of thousands of Radio Shack stores, the TRS-80 was leading in sales in the United States. By then it was no longer necessary to be an electronics hobbyist to cope with computers, they had arrived in the homes and hearts of thousands of people.

That was the United States where the story began, but what was happening here in New Zealand during that time? With the then customary technology delay we were a little slower getting going, mainly due to the difficulty of obtaining the necessary specialised components. But some New Zealanders were keeping up with the play.

In early 1977, after reading about clubs being formed in the United States for this new hobby of computing, Brian Conquer called together a small group of interested people in Auckland to form a club. Letters were sent to individuals and electronics firms and an inaugural meeting called for May: 39 people attended and decided to call it the New Zealand Microcomputer Club. Members were invited from all over the country with the hope that other centres would continually form their own local clubs. National activities were to include publishing a national club magazine, the adoption of one microcomputer bus standard, and coordinating national activities.

In the main the members were technically oriented people with a sprinkling of mainframe computer users. All were keen to make and use their own microcomputers. In that inaugural year it was reported that visiting members of the Wellington Microcomputing Society were in agreement with becoming affiliated to a national body. But a later meeting was to report communication problems with Wellington and eventually the ideal of a national association of computer clubs was dropped. One original item that did continue was the club magazine, it is the primary link which has held the club together over the years. Although it faltered in some of those early years NZ MICRO continued to keep both Auckland and distant members in touch as it reflected the changes which occurred to both the club and to microcomputers. Today, as well as being sent to members and to major libraries throughout the country, NZ MICRO also sells in computer stores and bookshops.

One of the inevitable changes over the years was the move from the original build-it-yourself type of member of the first few years, to the emphasis the club and its members now place on the use of personal computers, a swing from hardware orientation to software and its uses. For instance, 1981 first saw the appearance of user groups within the club. By 1984 there were 15 such groups, each specialising in different types of applications or makes of computers. With such a wide choice of groups under the club’s umbrella the members can now participate in any group’s activities for just the one membership fee. As an example, the Business User Group has members with many different makes of computers but they share the common interest of small business programs and their applications.

Such a diversity of groups also provides a membership strength which enables the club to tackle large projects. This is clearly shown with the micro­computer exhibition organised annually by NZ Microcomputer Club members on a volun­tary basis. The first microcomputer exhibition was held in a school hall in late 1980 and about 800 members of the public attended this one day show of home and hobby computers. Indicative of the increasing public interest in personal computers, the attendance at successive exhibitions very nearly doubled in each of the following three years. By 1983 the much higher profile exhibition had moved to the Auckland Showgrounds, as there was nowhere else that could accommodate such large crowds. It was very much like holding a tiger by the tail and having it take off.

Micro Show ’84 brought in an attendance of 8500 people in just the one day. It featured 58 commercial stands, the New Zealand Micro Club’s more active user groups and seven other computer groups from the Auckland area. Special attractions were a maze complete with a Micro Mouse from the Wellington Microcomputing Society to ‘run’ in it, and a series of talks and presentations on personal computers which ran throughout the day.

The Club’s original objective of showing personal computers and their variety of uses to the public at this annual event, has now become a worthwhile fund raiser for the club as well, enabling it to embark on other projects. One result was the purchase in 1984 of a business computer for club use. With a library stocked with well over 1200 computer magazines and books, an efficient library system was needed, plus the essential task of updating the records of the 600 plus members. A more significant members’ use for the club computer is the provision of a Computer Bulletin Board enabling them to send messages and programs over the telephone to the club computer for later access by others. This system started up in January 1984 with a commercial computer company, Attache Systems, generously donating time on their computer. They provided a dial-in line and members were able to test and suggest updates for the bulletin board software that had been acquired from Sydney. This facility became very popular with members of the various clubs and groups as well as the public.

The New Zealand Micro Club started their own Computer Bulletin Board System for members in 1985, with improved means of uploading and downloading programs, so that these could be shared by others. A large library of public domain software is now available from the club and several of its user groups. The ability to access the CBBS at a reasonable cost to users was not entirely due to the New Zealand Micro Club, one important item that made it all possible was the design and manufacture of low cost acoustic modems, which enable a computer to communicate over the telephone. The modem project was one long term result of a combined group representing all of the Auckland clubs and groups.

Formed in January 1982 the Combined Microcomputer Users Group was established as an informal body to provide a forum for communication between its member clubs and groups. The modem project was one such combined project. The Combined Microcomputer Users Group lasted just over a year but in that time the succesful design of a modem was presented and this item was the main means of communication until low cost commercial modems became available in 1984.

Longer lasting relations were established with many local and overseas clubs over the years with the exchange of magazines and newsletters. In particular the Canberra club MICSIG invited the New Zealand Micro Club to send their chairman to present a paper on New Zealand software at their conference in August of 1982. The next year one of their members, Chris McEwen, was a guest at our club’s exhibition. He then presented the club with a VIC-20 computer and this is made available for hire to members.

With the proliferation of user groups, many of them having their own meeting nights, the meeting venue was quite often found to be overcrowded so that late in 1984 the club initiated a search, for the third time, for a better and more central meeting place. As well as holding regular monthly evening meetings, since 1983 a monthly computer Saturday, for members to take along their computers, has been a popular activity. So much so that these were also organised for suburbs as well late in 1984, again with great success. For the last few years it has been realised by the club that it must not remain static and that it would need to continue to provide new services for its existing members as well as enticements to continue to get new members.

The Christchurch Microprocessor User Group was initiated in 1980 as a users’ group for government and university scientists interested in microcomputer applications in agriculture. The first meeting in August was attended by repre­sentatives from DSIR, Lincoln College, Canterbury University and Christchurch Polytechnic. At that time information on microcomputers was hard to obtain and the group spent some time swapping information. It was felt that there was a need for those in the field to have a means of meeting each other, but that there was no reason to limit it to public servants. The first public meeting the next month at the Christchurch Polytechnic was attended by well over 100 people and overflowed the room so it was necessary to shift to a larger auditorium. At the end of this meeting the group broke up into separate groups concentrated around specific microprocessors, and numerous discussions resulted. The group remained an informal one with annual dues of four dollars, mainly used to provide postage. A board of trustees was elected, but it was primarily a source of speakers for each meeting over the next couple of years. Despite a wide ranging set of interesting topics and the discussions which followed, the numbers attending began to dwindle. One meeting’s highlight was the demonstration of the HP 85 computer by a hapless salesman before an audience which knew a lot more about it than he did. As he went through the prepared list of features, he got to the part about ‘all keys are soft keys’. After obvious puzzlement, he vigorously pounded the keyboard and said, ‘See, it doesn’t hurt my fingertips at all.’ During this time active user groups dedicated to specific computers were formed in Christchurch. The Christchurch TRS-80 Users’ Group was formed in early 1981 since members felt that they should be independant of the TRS-80 suppliers. When the System 80 started to arrive from Australia in mid-1981, the question arose as to whether the group should allow owners of Radio Shack ‘copies’ to participate? A decision was eventually made to extend membership to include any computer capable of running TRS-80 software and the name was changed to the Christchurch ’80 User’s Group to emphasise this fact. This group now has a membership of 120, 80 per cent of whom own a System 80. It continues to publish an informative newsletter and meets informally each month. At last count a dozen such independent groups were meeting in Christchurch.

The original group has not faired so well and the last meeting was on 10 November 1982, appropriately with a talk on Farm Management to commemorate their beginning as a workshop on Computers in Agriculture. In retrospect, according to Jay Mann the prime mover of the group, the Christchurch Micro User Group was formed to supply an information gap, and it ended when easier ways of obtaining information became available. The strength of the group lay in its range of members, able to speak about and to appreciate talks on a wide variety of topics. Most members seemed to prefer attending user groups devoted to specific hardware and to concentrate on their specific machines. ‘I believe,’ he said, ‘that there still could be room for an umbrella organisation that would sponsor talks on more general topics. To some extent, the local branch of the New Zealand Computer Society performs this kind of service here.’ It is an interesting contrast that this umbrella function is provided by the major computer clubs themselves in both Auckland and Wellington. In both centres, the local groups are communicating more now than ever before, as they each recognise the need to pool resources for mutual benefit in such projects as publicity and combined gatherings such as computer exhibitions. It could be that the Christchurch groups will again get together as the personal computer market matures, or the pendulum may swing away in the other main centres.

One thing is certain, the computer revolution we are experiencing is still in its relatively early days. We’ve seen it grow from the dedicated do-it-yourselfer of the first few years, to the mass production of what were originally considered to be only hobby machines. In the early marketing plans for the first TRS-80s for instance, it was considered to be of interest only to those who had experience with its bigger brothers, people such as programmers, engineers and perhaps scientists. As we now know the ready-to-run micro computers quickly caught on, much to the surprise of some of the manufacturers. Many people found they were of great interest and, better still, of use to them in their daily lives. In most cases the designers themselves were caught unawares by the potential of such innocent looking devices, as their owners put them to use in their businesses as well as in their homes. Such are the makings of a micro revolution.

The personal computer can be looked at from many points of view. It’s a device that can provide a lot of fun, it can be a time waster. It can save recalculating figures each time a job is done, it can drive some people away by its complexities or by its simple-mindedness, or it can provide plenty of opportunity for extending our knowledge of ourselves and our surroundings. In the last couple of years we have been bombarded by insidious advertisements, television programmes showing happy and satisfied users. Even friends and workmates who have taken the plunge join in. They all seem to have survived the experience more or less intact. For some this new toy is eventually shoved in a cupboard to be forgotten until a visitor arrives. While others rave on for hours about this wonderful new ‘thing’ in their life. How can an electronic device be so many things to so many different people? Nearly everyone who has had a chance to interact with one has eventually become infected with the personal computing malady and people seem to come up with an amazing range of uses for it.

Many home computers are bought for their games capabilities, and that may be all they will be used for. But some of us have other ideas. These include using it as a learning device, as a tool to get a range of jobs done, or as an aid to spare-time activities such as a hobby or community work. Then there are those who end up with it as a hobby activity in itself. Let us have a closer look at some of these uses to get an idea of how wide ranging a personal computer can be. Bear in mind that some of these activities do require add-on or peripheral equipment and the cost of these must be added to the original cost of the computer.

There are numerous entertaining and educational games available for all ages. These can be as simple as ABC, or as complicated as backgammon or chess. In buying a small computer for games there is the advantage of using it for many other functions as well when the games become too well known. The difference between a game unit and a home computer is getting more blurred all the time. By plugging a BASIC language cartridge, instead of a game cartridge, into some advanced game machines it is possible to have access to a range of computer uses. Of course there are games and games. Many sophisticated ones are actually simulations of air and space craft. An immense amount of work on simulation has been carried out by NASA and this has now spun-off into commercial pilot training and, of course, computer games as many enthusiasts will testify. Again some well-written games are designed to enhance or teach skills, such as hand-eye co-ordination, as well as provide entertainment.

Housekeeping activities can include keeping easily updated lists of household assets with descriptions for insurance purposes. Shopping lists can be printed out before going to the supermarket, and prices can also be included for cost comparisons. Perhaps one day it will be possible to do a stocktake in the cupboards with a bar code reader as is used in many supermarkets.

Recipe lists are another possibility. These can be handled in a variety of ways, such as indexed under fruit in season, or meals for five etc. Of course the really keen cook has been known to type each recipe in, but it has been suggested that a computer index or database of recipes is much more efficient as this allows recipes to be kept in existing folders and books. Anyway how would you include those delicious photos in the computer? Perhaps with Teletex we may be able to call up the recipe of the day and store it in the home computer but until then … Family accounts and budget programs are fairly well established. But their usefulness really depends on what the program can offer. Kept accurately and updated regularly this can be a most useful function. The type of program most used in the home, apart from word processing, would involve itemising collections. Stamps, records, books, magazines, jigsaw puzzles, gems — the personal computer makes a useful adjunct to keeping an accurate record of all types of collections. Here a printer is a necessity as it is not always convenient to turn the computer on to consult a list and of course a print-out is handy to take along when making new acquisitions.

Not surprisingly there can also be pitfalls. Bringing the first computer into the home can be compared to having a first baby. It is eagerly anticipated but nobody realises just how time consuming or complicated it can be until it arrives. It can be fun, challenging, relaxing and at times most frustrating. It ends up growing, consuming money rather than food, it soon becomes part of the family. Like any new addition it can put a strain on family relationships, but once you have one you will not easily give it up, save on those days when it burps and messes up all you were trying to achieve.

When considering the purchase of a home computer, the family environment into which it must fit should be considered. Where should it be located, in the family room or lounge so that it can first use the television set? Or should a separate room be used and another television or monitor purchased? Will it interfere with other activities in the same room? The one point to sort out very early is just who will have priority after school, after work, during the weekends and in the evenings. Much frustration and disharmony can be avoided if a few simple rules are implemented when the computer is first introduced.

The use of microcomputers in schools is covered in the chapter on Education but the lessons learned there can be supplemented in the home. Obtaining skills through using a computer can begin at an early age. Preschoolers enjoy games and programmes that give a reward, such as a smile or a tune for a correct response. Co-ordination and manipulation skills are improved with many games. So is the child’s perception of shape, colour and sound. With suitable feedback, such as with the teaching language LOGO, they are able to experiment artistically with mathematical concepts via the computer screen and learn intuitively what adults had to learn the hard way with pencil and paper. Playing computer games can mean children are unafraid of computers and keyboards. Their knowledge increases with familiarity and confidence. Properly directed, their use of computers will allow full reign of their artistic creativity in many areas we are only just beginning to appreciate. A word processor at home can materially assist the older children with their homework tasks.

Many people obviously want to learn more about this personal computer and turn towards the computer magazine. In the United States alone there are more than 200 computer magazines on sale; one of them with a monthly circulation of 600,000. Different magazines vary in their approach, from beginners to heavily specialised subject matter, and the better ones keep their readers in close touch with the leading edges of computer technology and its applications. Less than half of overseas magazines reach our shores, but still their numbers grow, overflowing the shelves and crowding out other magazines. New Zealand has so far produced five magazines of our own, selling in total something like 35,000 copies per month. These home grown magazines suffer a little from having to cover a wider spectrum of computer uses than their overseas counterparts. With all these magazines and of course the vast range of computer book titles now being sold here as well, this adds up to a lot of interest being shown in the personal computer and its software.

Sooner or later most computer users get into the situation where they are stuck. Perhaps a problem arises in deciding what database program will be best for certain needs, or there is trouble getting that darned printer to work properly. Magazines are not much help here nor, in general, are sales staff much better. They simply cannot afford the time to acquire the in-depth knowledge necessary. Quite possibly they have not even had time to read much more than the glossy pamphlets. The first line of defence is the handbook that came with the computer. That is not to say that reading a handbook provides full understanding but happily the quality of handbooks is improving as the product matures. Gone are the days of Jenglish (Japanese English) and obscure technicalities in the user’s manual — we hope.

When further assistance is required it can usually be found relatively easily, at least in cities and most towns. In many cases this is as easy as locating the computer club or user group which is involved with that particular brand of computer. A list of all known clubs and groups is printed from time to time in BITS & BYTES magazine or can be obtained from the New Zealand Computer Society. Computer clubs are not just for the fanatics, they cater for all, from prospective purchasers and beginners, to those with experience and the willingness to share. Many of their members have trodden the same path that newcomers to personal computing are considering and they are more than willing to give assistance by sharing their experiences and knowledge with new members.

An area of immense potential for the personal computer owner is the use of his machine to access the growing number of public databases containing information on subjects of every kind. Even now the two standard household communication items in this country are undergoing a change to enable us to increase our personal communication facilities. The first is the television set, the second is the telephone. Viewdata enables television to be used as a direct information gathering device, rather than just for entertainment. This information continuously transmitted along with your favourite television programmes can he displayed at will.

So far this information cannot be easily saved as required but eventualy we should be able to capture it with our home computer for storage and later use as necessary. Far more flexible as an information gatherer is the combination of telephone and television. Teletex services, as these are called, allow us to select at will from a broader range of information on a variety of computer databases by means of our telephone and a suitable terminal. At least two popular makes of personal computer have the capability to work this way and more are sure to follow. The requirement for keeping reference books and encyclopedias that are outdated before appearing on your shelves will be gone, when you can dial-up information that may have been entered in the database only minutes or days before.

The concept is not without its difficulties of course. There was the case recently of the person who studied dolphins. He subscribed to a news service in the United States and received a lot of information and references on this subject via his computer. But at certain times of the year he also received baseball scores mixed in with it. This had him thinking, until he realised he was getting the scores of a team called the Florida Dolphins. Computers still have a way to go yet before they can match humans in lateral thinking.

I see such communications coming of age when we can all have a set of subject selection filters on our household computer, so that we can then read our own personalised news over breakfast. Then in the evening we can catch up on more wide ranging follow-ups, including specialised items relating to our activities and hobbies. The use of the home computer for the disabled is another area with well-nigh unlimited potential but this is a subject in itself and I will leave it to be discussed elsewhere.

The personal computer is rapidly changing the world as we know it. We are familiar with it producing words and data on a screen or on to paper and we have probably heard of computer speech. But given the right add-ons and programs, computers are now starting to move about, use a silicon chip to see with and even understand the spoken word. The next development for computers as a hobby is robotics. Thousands of robots are currently used in factories and laboratories to do work considered too dangerous or unpleasant for humans and it may well be that they will also find a use in the home some day. In any case this is an area now under a lot of study and one which is being eagerly followed by some hobbyists. A limited number of simple robot models have made their appearance here recently. They are controlled by an inbuilt computer, and have a range of functions, including speech. Only last year a well known American magazine published details on using a ‘seeing’ chip that can be used as a simple camera or robot’s eye. A lot of research is at present going into an efficient ‘listening’ program that can understand a range of human speech, so that we can eventually do away with having to use our fingers to input information into a computer. Some business computers already have a limited speech input capacity but it is still not yet possible for anybody to speak and have a personal computer recognise their meaning. It will be available to some extent within the next ten years and then we will be able to communicate verbally with our personal computer.

The word, computer, means different things to many people. Once most of us only had contact with one when the computer produced bills arrived. Now computers are infiltrating our homes and businesses. Soon, they may well be as indispensible to us at home as they are at work. They have the potential for many functions that are presently beyond our wildest imagination. As mentioned earlier personal computers can be an extension of ourselves, especially our minds. Given the right conditions we can use them for many functions, some good, some bad and some just time wasting. With their help many people are now accomplishing an ever widening variety of tasks that were previously considered too time consuming, boring, or just not worth-while doing. Of course not everything can be improved by using a computer, like most objects they have their limits, even if we have not found them all yet.