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An essay reprinted from Personal Computing 2/83, pp. 48-53.

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Recent computer advances indicate that an era of easy computing – where more efficiency is achieved with little cost in time and effort – is finally upon us

James P. Philbin, president of the electrical instrument division of Eaton Inc., in many ways characterizes the typical chief executive grappling with the enormous potential of personal computers. Though he knows that the personal computer could open the door to a simplified approach to painstaking and complicated, long-range business projections, he hasn’t yet found the key that unlocks the mysteries of the machine for himself. The Apple computer he bought months ago sits in his office unused. “The only thing of consequence that I’ve done so far is approve the purchase of personal computers for my company,” Philbin says ruefully. “We’ve bought enough of them to outfit me and many of the managers under me. But I haven’t really used mine yet. I flayed with it for nearly eight hours, trying to figure out the electronic spreadsheeting process, but I haven’t been able to understand what the computer can do nor make the computer understand what I want it to do.”

The situation is mixed within Philbin’s division. Some of his employees and managers are working adroitly at the keyboards of their machines; some won’t touch them, unsure how to begin. As for James Philbin, he’s determined. “I’m going to have to learn to communicate with the machine, because I need it,” he says.

What Philbin is wrestling with has been an unfortunate consequence of the personal-computing experience. Many people have put up with the inherent difficulties involved in working with the computer because they’re determined to use it to overcome management problems and a growing mountain of paperwork. In a sense, they have exchanged one set of problems for another. On balance, it has been a good exchange. But the first generation of personal computing, while awesomely powerful in terms of catalyzing efficiency, has left its residue of frustration on those who battled with its idiosyncrasies. But that generation is now over as the introduction of Apple’s LISA computer, a high-powered executive workstation that is not difficult to manage, denotes. Also, the popularity of the “friendly” Commodore VIC-20 and 64, and other recent personal computing achievements – some tied closely to the IBM Personal Computer – add to this notion.

Looking back

A new computing era has begun – one that could be called the age of the “easy computer” – and it promises to make Philbin’s problems relics of a bygone day. He won’t have to learn how to communicate with the machine anymore using its terms, because the machine now has been commanded to communicate on people’s terms.

The virtues of the personal computer are obvious. Since its first appearance in 1976, it has succeeded in taking the vast potential of computing power out of institutional control and putting it into the hands of individuals. In effect, the personal computer has remolded the enormous information explosion of the past 10 years and – while not debilitating it – tamed it into a form that enables everyone to share the power.

But its virtues notwithstanding, the experience of working with the personal computer too often has been difficult and tedious. Much of the blame for this is attributed to the fact that the personal computer was the invention of technologists who cut their eye teeth building and working with mainframe computers. Consequently, from its manuals, to its keyboard, to its basic way of operating and “thinking,” the first generation of personal computers was burdened by an electronic shorthand that is better-suited and more understandable to mainframe managers – institutional computing professionals – than to the individual who wants to plug the machine into an AC socket and make it perform. The inability of the personal-computer user to communicate with and understand the computer using the concepts that make up his own, everyday language and actions has been a nagging frustration for many otherwise satisfied users. And this frustration has added up to a hidden cost within personal computing – one that can be measured in the time and effort needed to learn to use the computer well, and in the fact that some would-be users have been dissuaded from buying a machine at all.

As Nels Winkless, a long-time computer observer and currently a member of the Savvy Machine Language team at Excalibur Techologies in Albuquerque, N.M., puts it, “Up to now, there have been no mutual ground rules. The burden has always been on people to meet the computer, rather than on the computer to meet the user. It’s been difficult for many to accomplish a meeting of the minds with these things.”

But with the arrival of the easy computer, all of this is changing. Those difficulties that were grudgingly accepted as part of the personal-computing framework, because the machines were so clearly an improvement on what existed before, are finally being resolved. It has been a quick and radical evolution, considering that the history of personal computing only began in 1976.

A true benchmark

With the announcement of Apple’s LISA, the era of the easy computer has gained another benchmark with which to measure future machines. And it’s not only LISA; there are other recent machines and software that serve as impressive examples of the arrival of this new easy-computer age. The Corvus Concept from Corvus Systems (San Jose, Calif.); the Fortune Computer from Fortune Systems (San Carlos, Calif.); the Wang Professional Computer by Wang (Lowell, Mass.); the Savvy Machine Language by Savvy (San Mateo, Calif.); the 1-2-3, all-in-one business package from Lotus Software (Cambridge, Mass.); the MBA interpreted package from Context Management Systems (Torrance, Calif.); and the VisiOn “operating environment” from VisiCorp (San Jose, Calif.) – the last three developed with the IBM Personal Computer in mind – all of these bear testimony that the easy-computer concept has found its way into many important products of the past year.

The secret of the easy computer is generally contained in a more powerful interaction between software and hardware than ever existed before. Everything from special function keys, using a mouse as an input device, human-style communications and language, and a range of computing abilities never before achieved on the personal computer are set in motion by truly accomplished programming.

But that’s the technical angle. More important, what the easy computer means for the personal-computer owner is that there is finally a device that not only serves his purposes, but also cuts through the barrier of resistance between him and the machine. The easy personal computer crosses the intimidation gap and meets man on his side of the line, in his own territory. In speaking to movers and shakers of the easy-computer age from Apple to Wang, the sentiment is consistent: “What we have attempted to create is a computer that knows how its owner thinks and constantly tells its owner how to make it do what he wants it to do.”

How, then, can you recognize one of this new breed of computers? At first glance, when the machine is initially unwrapped, it will not look very different from the personal computers you’re used to seeing. But from the moment you start to use the machine and begin to integrate it into your life, the differences will be obvious.

Documenting itself

At its most basic level, the easy computer is one that people can use without training, a personal computer that offers built-in self-documentation. The most obvious example of this is the intelligent HELP key that is prominent on the new Wang Professional and Fortune computers. This is a dedicated slot on the keyboard that is always at the same spot, no matter which software package is being used. It allows the user to avoid memorizing the cryptic commands required just to get to the HELP function on many of the older computers.

After pressing the intelligent HELP key, the user can indicate what he would like aid in doing. He’s then given a series of simple prompts, at the end of which the computer offers the solution to the user’s problem. The kinds of questions that can be answered by the HELP function can be anything from “How do I add five disparate columns with varying percentages to my current spreadsheet?” to “How do I transmit a message to New York City from my office in Dubuque?”

And for those who are still lost even after a solution to their problem is shown – or who would like to understand the solution better – the easy computer will run a minitutorial that explains, in detail, the entire problem-solving process that took place.

In people’s language

Photo (by George B. Fry)
This image can be zoomedPhoto (by George B. Fry)
One of the most exciting features that identifies easy computing is powerful software that communicates in terms people understand. This type of software is best exemplified by the packages offered for LISA. Take LisaDraw, for example, an extremely complex graphics package that Apple promises will take only one-half hour to learn. By using the mouse as a paintbrush and pointing to any one of the palettes that are displayed on the screen, the LISA user can draw lines that are automatically straightened by the computer. He can also draw circles and rectangles and then add any of 36 different shadings for portions of the drawing, using 11 separate type styles. In addition, it’s possible to cut and paste over the entire dimension of the graphic, which can be as many as 25 pages long, by simply pointing with the mouse to direct the movement of one part of the graph to another place on the diagram.

With LisaDraw a very essential element of the easy computer is delineated: direct communication between the user and the computer in symbols and actions that a person can understand. The mouse becomes the drawing implement and is handled much like a pencil; the diagram is drawn by simply pointing to the picture on the computer screen that describes the necessary graphics action, from straight lines, to circles, to bar graphs, to pies.

But there’s an additional piece to the software patchwork that has been created with the advent of easy computers. Not only are the individual or stand-alone software applications simplified, but much of the new software is so tightly integrated – or all-in-one, as it is called – that a user can also switch back and forth between computing functions with no difficulty. This was nearly impossible with the earlier generation of computers.

One of the strongest complaints about the first era of personal computers is that those who need to jump between many job functions, using similar files for each – such as making charts from spreadsheets and data bases or tying information from word-processor files into data-base managers – find it to be an exceedingly cumbersome chore. Often it requires juggling as many as eight or a dozen floppy disks – and sometimes even that bit of magic proves fruitless. But many of the new software packages born out of the easy-computer era are so significantly bundled together that simply pressing a button accomplishes these previously time-bound or impossible computing tasks.

For instance, the 1-2-3 business package for the IBM Personal Computer and the software written for LISA and the Wang Professional Computer allow the computer owner – by either using dedicated keyboard strokes or the LISA mouse – to go from one type of professional task to another with a single motion. And they let the user keep a central pool of information under his control that he can carry between these tasks. For example, he can use parts of his pool of data to create a five-year spreadsheet. Then, with only a few dedicated and uncomplicated keystrokes, he can use a portion of his spreadsheet for a pie chart while dumping another portion into his data-base manager.

This is a signal accomplishment of the easy-computer age, because it bypasses the need to switch constantly between software modules and to deal with new command codes for each business function. It allows the personal-computer owner to change gears on a given job without having to change disks or software.

Further signposts

This is just the tip of the iceberg. Additional signposts of the easy-computer era include the ability to speak to the computer as a user would talk to his product manager or secretary. For instance, the user can tell the computer to get everything that he sold in Cleveland from 1969 to 1976, and ask for the data in just those words. This is the ultimate promise of Savvy-type software. He can also separate instruction manuals that are written for the novice from those written for the advanced user. He will be able to use pages of text and huge columnar spreadsheets on the computer screen that simulate the paperwork he is more used to. And he will find simplified computer-installation directions, including diagrams, on the monitor that show how and where to hook up a new printer. The user will be able to use “undo” keys that allow him to take back more than a few previous computing actions when he changes his mind about something – the Corvus Concept, in particular, sports this feature. And so-called operating environments like VisiOn will permit the user to boot up and integrate two or more traditional stand-alone application software disks at a time, while “icons”-such as graphically drawn file drawers – will appear on software menus and vastly simplify the computer commands.

The testimonies of those who have worked in the trenches to bring the easy-computer age to its maturity bespeak a strong respect for the personal-computer owner and how he has provided the funds and the ground rules for the current marketplace. “All the influx of money made in the first few years of personal computing is the capital that the most far-reaching manufacturers used to go back to the drawing boards and develop these friendlier computers,” says Winkless of Excalibur Technologies. “Despite the problems, the first harder-to-use machines were still so popular that they provided enough money to ensure the creation of the new generation of computers that people were saying they wanted. In a sense, the power of the marketplace wrested the personal-computing field from the overly technical influences it first had.”

“The concept behind these new computers is simple,” adds an industry observer who was involved with the earliest personal computers and also took part in the original discussions of LISA at Apple. “They want to build a computer that people can use without training, a computer that can provide self-documentation. They want to remove the intimidation factor that some of the old technology brought to its users and remove all the time and effort costs that went with that. And perhaps above all, they want to provide a computer that makes working with it a natural extension of the user’s mental processes.”

And that kind of talk is music to the ears of James Philbin and others who are convinced that they need personal computers to improve their lives, but who don’t want to do battle with the inherent idiosyncrasies of machines to accomplish that.

by Jeffrey Rothfeder, Associate Editor

Page added on 2nd October 2006.

Copyright © 2002-2006 Marcin Wichary, unless stated otherwise.