Personal Computing - A New Home Brew for You?

by R. N. Seitz

September, 1976

(Editorial Note: This paper was published in September, 1976, six months before the first true personal computers--the Tandy Radio Shack-80 computer and the Commodore Personal Electronic Translator 2001--were introduced in early March, 1977.)

    As a result of recent developments in the computer industry, the computer world may well be on the brink of a "market explosion" of programmable video terminals for home and small-office use similar to that which overtook the pocket calculator industry in the early 1970's. Based upon computer technology forecasts, and some market developments in the last few months, I predict that by 1981, you will be able to buy for less than $100 a small "black box" containing a typewriter keyboard, a microcomputer with 2,000 to 4,000 characters of read-write memory (on one chip), and the necessary electronics to display text on a TV set and to load and store the contents of memory on a good-quality audio cassette recorder (or possibly a digital cassette recorder by that time). At a higher price ($500 or less), you might find a programmable video terminal with at least 32,000 bytes of random access memory, a tape cassette drive or mini-diskette, a 512-by-512 black-and-white graphics display, a software-activated buzzer or bell, and a higher level programming language such as BASIC. A thermal printer might be available for $300. The key to this forecast is partly predicated upon anticipated circuit price/performance improvements and partly upon the mass production which may be expected to ensue once home computer prices fall below a critical price of $500 to $1,000. (A wide range of applications exist for home computers; these will be discussed later in this paper.) If such low cost microcomputer units come into being in four or five years, they should have important implications for users of NASA Applications Satellite data. Tax offices, realtors, large-scale ranchers, farmers, fisheries, mineral exploration companies, and universities which now order Landsat or Seasat photos might then use computer-enhanced or -classified overlay maps. A logical implication of this would be a major, rather-sudden demand upon NASA to deliver partial frames of satellite data (e.g., 15-20 miles on a side), raw or classified, on tape cartridges or mini-diskettes. By 1981, these media may store 2 to 4 times as much per cartridge as they do in 1976 and would be compatible with low cost "portable microcomputers".
    Now how would you use a home computer if you had one? Also, why should there be such a sudden development in home computers? And if it's going to happen, why hasn't it appeared in the computer trade journals?
    There are a number of answers to the first question in keeping with the wide range of applications for a home computer. One obvious application is entertainment, like a color TV set or the stereo hi-fi that your teenagers preempt to play rock-'n-roll..
    Among the Games Computers Play are:

Games of Chance - "slot machine", blackjack, roulette, etc.
Action Sports - ping-pong, baseball, hockey, racetrack, etc.
War Games - "Space War", "Battlefield", "Intercept", "Anti-Aircraft", "Artillery", etc.
Word Games - Scrabble, Anagrams, Password, etc.
Board Games - Chess, Checkers, Parcheesi", etc
Learning Games - Quiz Games, Math Games, Word Games, etc.

    Clearly, an almost unlimited variety of future games is possible, given the ease of creating and distributing them on pre-recorded tape cassettes or read-only memory modules or even 25 vinyl records, and given the unique capabilities of computers for true computer-oriented games. Other forms of computer entertainment might be pattern generation under human control, and perhaps music generation, with chording and accompaniment provided by the computer. These games may not justify a home computer in themselves but will open the door to, and supplement further applications. (It is worth noting that as this "goes to press", Fairchild, RCA, and National Semiconductor have announced microcomputer-based TV game boxes which will be introduced around Christmas, 1976, at a price of $100-$150; these will use plug-in read-only memory modules to store different games to make it more difficult to copy the software and to increase sales of read-only memories. The RCA game will have a keyboard for quiz games and may have alphanumeric output as a precursor to home computer applications.
    A second category of applications is concerned with multipurpose applications programs. A programmable home computer represents the ultimate in flexible desk calculators, as well as encompassing all special purpose calculator functions such as English/metric unit conversions----e.g., medical conversions such as grains to ounces or grams, or grams to ccs., home business and financial calculations, time and mileage computations from stored road maps, and unusual functions such as biorhythm or psychometric calculations, or special mathematical functions, or aircraft flight or marine computations, or real estate, income tax, depreciation, or profit-and-loss calculations, or question and answer medical and psychological tests. These programs will serve a tutorial as well as computational function and may become a new publishing medium, supplementing conventional printed matter. There will be applications programs for specialized but common trades or professions such as contracting, architecture (including computer aided design), civil engineering, tax law, real estate sales, etc.
    A third class of applications will be a daily calendar and scheduler. You will be able to program in a calender of events. With its internal clock and a chime or variable volume buzzer, the programmable terminal will be able to remind you when scheduled events are coming up—viz., administration of medications or scheduled appointments. Allied to this will be budget planning, with follow-up expenditure records (through the built-in checking calculator), or diet planning with the follow-up calculations (where you enter what you actually ate and the computer tells you how many calories you ingested).
    A fourth application will be computer-aided instruction in "how-to-do-it" activities such as time critical recipes or maintenance and repair, with user interaction for further information. If cars or major home appliances are built with the provision for computer diagnosis of malfunction, this might also be done by home computers (Volkswagens are equipped for this now). Computer-aided instruction for children (with cartoons) may become quite important. Not the least of such activity will be instruction in computer programming, since this can be a very fascinating, creative sort of activity. Correspondence courses and study aids are other serious didactic applications for home computers. The flexible and "live" interaction possible with computers—their ability to carry on a dialogue—can render them more interesting and entertaining than most textbooks.
    A fifth class of applications is that of accumulating up-to-date news, weather, sports scores, and stock market quotations, as well as weather warnings. The computer could accumulate and sort this information from broadcasts lasting a few seconds each hour and could display it upon call. This would require broadcast station cooperation similar to that furnished for weather warnings. This would be very attractive to anyone who has had to endure half an hour of "solid rock" to hear a news or weather report. A related use is text-editing with a printer or an electric typewriter. Collatoral to this will the home computer's role as a remote terminal for two-way cable TV, or central time-sharing computers and databases—e.g., at the public library. Another function is that of a more flexible and discriminating fire and burglar alarm system.
    Other applications include, possibly, dress pattern design, a "magic slate" and artist's palette for kids and serious "etch-a-sketch" and "potato head" games.
    Applications are legion and they depend upon the existence of a canned software industry of applications programs which, presumably, will spring up overnight like truffles, as husband-and-wife software shops arise to write and publish their programs.
    Having dealt with the first question, we now address the second question: why should there be such a sudden development in home computers?
    There appear to be six collaborating influences converging now or in the near future to produce such a market explosion.

  • (1) Microcomputer prices and technology are already within hailing range of such a development (presently running $1,000 to $1,500 for a system). Given reasonable technological progress and reasonable volume production, a home computer market can develop soon.

    (2) Home computer kits have enjoyed phenomenal success since they were first introduced about 1 1/2 years ago. Some 10,000 to 15,000 processor kits have reputedly been sold at $500-and-up per kit, with heavy representation of computer professionals among the buyers. Computer stores are opening in major cities around the U.S. and several magazines ("Byte", "Personal Computing", "SCSS Interface") have already been founded to service the new amateurs. This is still a small market but it is expanding rapidly and in the face of high prices and a bewildering lack of "how-to-do-it" documentation and local support. The fact that computer professionals are the "amateurs" supporting this activity make one feel that big things will happen, since their private interest will affect their professional affiliations in subtle ways.

    (3) Recent technological forecasts predict a price/performance improvement in semiconductor technology of as much as 10:1 over the next five years (by 1981) as 16K and later 64K RAM (Random Access Memory) modules overcome start-up problems and become dependable, reliable and cheap! Also, the recent announcement by Texas Instruments of 92-kilobit magnetic bubble memory (Electronic News, Sept. 13, 1976, pg. 8) and the imminent announcement of 64K Charge Coupled Device memory modules points the way toward very cheap electronic bulk storage by 1981—e.g., 256 kilobytes of memory for $200-$300. It seems likely that these devices are going to supplant "floppy" disks for program and data overlay, because of their greater reliability and potentially lower cost. This would leave a three-way competition among audio tape recorders, digital tape recorders, and mini-diskettes for use as input-output media, with either the audio cassette recorder emerging victorious because of its low cost, or the mini-diskette emerging triumphant because of its semi-random access, high reliability and high data transfer rates.

    (4) Six key peripherals for home computer use—video terminals, color graphics displays, film, digital, or video-tape storage devices, mini-diskettes, cassette tape recorders, and low-cost printers can probably drop considerably in price over time under high production competitive pressures. Alphanumeric character generators for black-and-white TV receivers or TV monitors are available for $200 to $250, with the cheapest color graphics display selling for $1,400 in kit form. Mini-diskettes are about to be introduced by Shugart and General Systems International at OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer) quantity prices of $200 to $300, not including the microcomputer interface. Many microcomputer kits now include interfaces to transfer the contents of memory to and from ordinary tape cassette recorders. A 40-column, 64-character matrix printer has recently been introduced by Microcomputer Peripherals, Inc., in kit form for $250 or assembled for $425. Five years and large-volume production runs can surely reduce these prices somewhat.

    (5) Home computers are a natural outgrowth of the video games which are beginning to receive market attention this year. An almost unlimited repertoire of kiddie-captivating games is possible with a small computer and a TV set. (I know. I've tried them on minicomputers.) The microcomputer-based games from Fairchild and National Semiconductor mark the first step in this direction. After that, it should proceed like the pocket calculator market. At first, these video games may come out as "black boxes" attaching to the family room TV receiver, but it won't be long before arguments break out over how the family's big color console is to be used, and parents may be glad to shell out $100 to $150 for a black-and-white TV for the family microcomputer in order to free up the $500 color TV so that Dad can enjoy the ball game again in peace and harmony. From the vendors' point of view, home computer TV systems promise new markets for black-and-white TV monitors, and for tape cassette recorders as well as for software (pre-recorded tape cassettes). More significantly though, this whole area leads into the home computer market of the 1980's—a potential multi-billion-dollar-a-year market.

  •     To summarize, a potential multi-billion dollar a year market exists for home microcomputers, the technology is approaching the takeoff point, and the only unknown is how long it will take for the wave to break. So choose your stocks carefully and place your bets now, before semiconductor stock prices go up.
        What does all this mean to NASA and the sale of space data products? I think it means the following. A rapidly-declining price in microcomputer products should make it economically feasible for a large customer base of small offices—rural tax offices, county farm agents, fisheries, local government agencies, and large real estate dealers—to use space-derived information in a timely and cost effective way, in conjunction with ancillary data stored in their local data bases.
        Many of these offices will be interested in a smaller area of coverage than a full Landsat frame, from the standpoints of need, cost, and online memory capacity of their microcomputers. For this reason, there should be a sizable market for an 18 mile by 12-18 mile partial frame of a Landsat or Seasat scene stored on a mini-diskette (which, by that time, will probably store 262,000 bytes of data). A gray-scale 512 by 512 TV image requires 262,000 byt3es of data—the contents of one cassette or mini-diskette.
        Accordingly, NASA would be wise to investigate:

  • (1) Selling satellite data for small areas for $5 to $10, using floppy disks as the storage medium;

    (2) Identifying really cheap digital recording media (e.g., using video tape or laser holographic storage techniques;

    (3) Monitoring the cost of TV color graphic displays (currently costing about $2,000 for 100 by 160-pixel, 8-hue (3-bit) resolution or %30,000 to $50,000 for full 512-by-512 full color graphics capability (with most of the money going for memory); and

    (4) Monitoring home microcomputer progress.