After 10 years, it's tough to break computer habit


December 27, 1993|By MICHAEL J. HIMOWITZ

About this time of year, columnists the world over like to pontificate on the happenings of the last 12 months in whatever industry or endeavor they cover, just in case their readers happened to miss the 51 previous columns.

I admit that I'm prone to this affliction. But this January is a bit special because it marks an anniversary of sorts. About this time, 10 years ago, I bought my first computer.

I had no idea what I was getting into at the time. I didn't know anything about computers. My one and only experience had occurred back in 1968, when I dropped out of a noncredit college Fortran course. It seems that after two weeks of sweat and a couple of hundred mangled punch cards, I couldn't write a program to make that old mainframe calculate the length of the hypotenuse of a right triangle. Come to think of it, I couldn't figure out why anyone would want to make a computer do that in the first place.

Years later, when the microcomputer revolution was getting under way, I tried again.

This time I had reason for using a computer. I wanted to be able to write stories at home late at night and send them to the newspaper -- avoiding a long commute to the office.

So I walked into a Radio Shack in the Glen Burnie Mall, chatted with a salesman who seemed only slightly less befuddled than I was and eventually exchanged $800 for a TRS-80 Color Computer and a 300-baud modem.

By today's standards, it wasn't much. The Color Computer had 16K of memory and no monitor (I hooked it up to an old TV set). No disk drive, either. It stored my deathless prose on a cassette recorder. The word processor came in a game cartridge that plugged into the side of the machine. It only displayed 32 characters across the screen -- all capital letters. I had to enlist a local computer genius to tweak the program and fool it into "printing" my story over the modem.

As crude as that computer was, it was magic to me. It freed me from the artificial constraints of the office and, for a fairly small outlay, gave me pretty much the same word processing capability that my company had spent a couple of million dollars to buy. Working long hours, particularly at night, wasn't so bad any more. I saw a lot more of my family.

Over the years, things have changed a lot. And they haven't.

I admit that I developed a nasty computer habit -- they're as addictive as cocaine and possibly more insidious, because the only symptoms of the disease are bleary eyes, a strange vocabulary and a depleted bank account. I started writing programs because it was fun and eventually got proficient enough to write commercial-quality software. Which was good, because I needed some way to support an insatiable appetite for new processors, disk drives, printers, monitors, modems, scanners and other paraphernalia.

The Color Computers (eventually I bought three) were packed away in their boxes long ago. They're in a corner of the basement now. I'm not sure why I keep them around, other than sentimentality. I'm writing this column on an 80486DX/33 computer with eight megabytes of memory, 800 megabytes of hard disk capacity, a CD-ROM drive, a 14,400-baud modem and a high-resolution color monitor. It was the state of the art when I bought it two years ago. It still has plenty of muscle.

Unlike my original word processor, the software I use now will display both capital and lower case letters. In fact, it will display them in 100 different fonts, in a zillion different sizes, in boldface, italics, superscript and subscript -- right side up, upside down or slanted at improbable angles. It will create charts, graphs, tables, drawings and footnotes. It will find a synonym in a thesaurus if I get stuck, check my spelling, and even give my style and grammar a once-over. With the little notebook computer on the table across the room, it will let me do the same thing on an airplane, if I can ever learn to concentrate on using it instead of worrying about crashing.

But with all this technology at my fingertips, I'm still here, pounding a keyboard late at night, trying to meet a morning deadline. If I were still flogging away at that old Color Computer, the result wouldn't be much different. The quantum improvement in my lifestyle that the computer made possible -- the ability to work at home -- occurred 10 years ago.

This is one of the reasons so many computer users are still happily pecking away at old, "obsolete" machines. They bought their computers for a specific purpose and know how to make those computers work. They're comfortable with the software.

It's something that people in my line of business often forget in our frenzy to write about the newest and flashiest technology.

Computers are useful because they make your life easier or make your business more productive.

If you hired a computer to do something, and it still does what you hired it to do, it isn't obsolete. As long as you can get it fixed when it breaks, and the software that it's capable of running will help you with your chores, it's a good machine.

Likewise, if you're considering a new computer, or you've just bought one, don't worry that it will be obsolete next year. There will always be something newer, faster and more powerful on the market. But your computer will continue to do what it does now. No matter what you read here or anyplace else, if you're happy with your machine, it's a great computer.

(Michael J. Himowitz is a columnist for The Baltimore Sun.)

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