With plug-in programs, anybody can use these personal computers (Nov, 1979)

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With plug-in programs, anybody can use these personal computers

Newest home computers can do special work or use “canned” programs


“Have a seat,” said Ted Jernigan of Texas Instruments. I was about to get a demo of the newest computer designed for the home.

A simple gray box, resembling a portable typewriter, but smaller, sat on the corner of a desk. A single cable connected it to the TV set in front of me. Electronic music was coming from the TV speaker, and on the screen a color cartoon, also created by the computer, showed an animated hand pressing the space bar of a simulated typewriter console.

“You don’t need me,” said Jernigan.”Just watch the screen—the computer will show you what to do.”

It did. And for the next hour it taught me math, budgeted my pay check (now that would take a computer!), gave me a course in physical fitness, and challenged me to a game of chess.

It was hardly the type of demo I was used to. Just three years ago, I saw one of the first”home” computers —a table top filled with boxes, lights, circuit boards, and enough interconnecting wires to start my own phone company. And the demo I got, multiplying five times five, was as deep as it went. To do more, I was told, I’d have to program it myself.

The new home computers have changed drastically.”We don’t even want to call it a computer,” said Ken Boilen, chief engineer for APF and designer of the Imagination Machine.”That word—computer—could scare people off.”

Indeed, these units look more like video games than home computers. But don’t let appearances fool you. They are real computers, capable of accepting a wide variety of add-on gear. Inside, they use state-of-the-art microcircuitry. But what makes them really useful and different from other models is their software—program-ming. You can still write your own programs if you want to. But”canned” software is also available; plug it in and the work’s done for you. It’s this instant-run feature that sets these machines apart from anything we’ve seen before.

While a rash of entirely new programs is being made available (a lot are still under development), many older—but very useful—ones have been revised to give you information in hard numbers and in graph form on the screen. For example, you’ll find programs on loan amortization. They tell you how much the monthly payment will be for any capital amount with whatever interest rate you specify, and also how much of each payment is interest, how much principal repayment. Other programs balance your checkbook, and keep recipes, telephone numbers, appointments, and other information on file. Still other programs help you keep track of your investments and find out what kind of return you’re getting on your stocks and bonds.

Branching The new computers not only have a wide variety of programming, they have an advanced new type of programming different from any in the home-computing field before it.

“We call it ‘branch programming, ‘” said Pete Rosenthal, marketing manager for Atari personal computers,”as opposed to ‘linear programming. ‘” The idea: Make the machine keep pace with you, not vice-versa.

In a linear math-education program, for example, the computer asks a question and waits for a reply. If you get the answer right, you’re congratulated, points are added to your score, and you proceed to the next problem in the program. Get it wrong, and you may be asked to try again, points are deducted, and then you go on to the next problem.

In a program that uses branching, however, the computer can work on different levels. It asks you a question, but while it awaits your reply, it is measuring the time it takes for you to respond. How long it takes you to answer, and how accurately you answer, will determine the type of question you get next.”The program doesn’t just arbitrarily go to a next problem,” says Rosenthal.”You may start with simple math and go right into algebra. Or, if you get in over your head, the question level could drop back down.” A touch-typing program that Atari and APF will release shortly uses this technique in an imaginative way to measure your physical—rather than mental—dexterity. As the computer gives you sentences to type, it not only measures your speed and accuracy, but looks for specific keys that give you trouble and gears its sentences accordingly. If you make a lot of mistakes on the”S” key, for example, get ready for:”She sells sea shells…” Another branching program teaches speed reading. The faster you go, the faster the words are presented. But if you can’t keep up, the computer slows down to your reading rate. Atari has now announced a collection of 20 subjects in a special educational library. Branching techniques will help you learn anything from Spanish to algebra.

Different computer manufacturers have taken different approaches to programming. The EACA Video Genie, for example, has been designed to accept programs on cassette tape that were originally written to run on the popular Radio Shack TRS-80 [PS, March 79].

The RCA VIP II leans a bit toward the more serious programmer. It will work in basic, of course, but it will also let you program in machine language. This language—made up of numbers and letters—works directly in the codes used by the microprocessor. Programs written in machine language can be shorter (conserving memory) and will run faster (making an image on the TV screen move more realistically, for example), but using it is substantially more difficult than using basic.

Texas Instruments has a new gimmick: computer-generated, synthesized speech. Using technology from the Speak-and-Spell learning game, the Tl computer can be programmed to say any word in its 250-word vocabulary on command. The voice is electronically synthesized by a box that plugs into the side of the computer. Price when available: about $150.

Before you buy Computers alone can’t do much; you need add-ons. If you want your computer to type out material, you need a printer. For most jobs requiring highspeed data saving or retrieving, you’ll need a disc drive. You’ll need a modem for sending and receiving data over the phone (see box), and perhaps even a special pen for entering information into the computer simply by pointing to specific spots on the TV screen. Not only is the hardware necessary, but the programming to give it instructions must be in the computer, as well.

None of the new computers conforms to any standards. Add-ons for one system are not wired to work with any other, and, in most cases, software is not interchangeable from machine to machine. So choose a system from a maker who offers all the software and hardware you could possibly use now or in the future—it may be your only source of supply.

The remarkable change from a hobbyist’s dream of wires, lights, and scattered boxes that does virtually nothing to a simple-to-operate”appliance” capable of almost anything may be just a sign of things to come. The ultimate function is hard to see. But it’s clear that home computers are becoming easier to use at the same time they’re learning to take on an even larger variety of jobs. It now seems likely that they’ll soon be as common in our homes as telephones, radios, and TV sets.

Sidebar – Computer basics

A computer is extremely dumb. It must be told how to do everything. How it’s told is its programming—specific steps the computer laboriously takes to reach an end goal. Fortunately, the simplest instructions, such as how to read the keys you’re pressing on the keyboard and how to display info on the TV screen, have already been programmed into these machines. You turn them on, they know how to work with you immediately. (That simple procedure requires hundreds of steps in the computer’s memory.)Once on, the computer will wait to find out what you’d like to do: You can use preprogrammed software or write your own programs by talking to the computer in its particular language.

The ability of these systems to understand a language is what sets them apart from video games. You’re not locked into specific “canned” programs. A language is merely a special program—a translator—that interprets your English commands and converts them into computer codes (bits and bytes) the system can use.

On these computers, you work in a language called basic, which is simple enough to use the moment that you first turn on the machine. With the basic language available to you, the only limit to the type of programming—and the jobs the computer can do—is your imagination. —W. J. H.




Price ($)





Program device










Disc will be avail.









Disc avail.










Video Genie







Accepts TRS-80 programming










Texas Instruments








Tape avail.; disc will be avail.

Addresses: APF,444 Madison Ave., N.Y. NY 10022; Atari, 1205 Borregas Ave., SunnyvaleCA 94086; EACA, 1275 A St. Hayward CA 94541; RCA, New Holland Ave., Lancaster PA 17604; Texas Instr., Box 53, Lubbock TX 79408.

  1. nurbles says: June 25, 20088:35 am

    Just a few years after this article came out, I bought my TI 99/4A for $49.95 — and that is BEFORE the $50.00 rebate from TI!

  2. jayessell says: June 25, 200810:17 am

    They paid you a penny to take it?

  3. slim says: June 25, 20081:09 pm

    Today’s computers are wonders of engineering, but they just aren’t as much fun. I spent many pleasant hours playing with a TI99/4A and a Commodore 64. The machine I have now is just an appliance. There is software now to do just about anything you want, but the early computers were simple enough that the average person was challenged to create his or her own. It’s a great feeling when something that you have worked on for hours finally does what you want, even if it’s only to move a sprite across the screen.

  4. Torgo says: June 25, 20089:49 pm

    Very true, Slim. My iMac is sure snazzy, but it doesn’t have a lot of soul. Maybe I’m just getting old.

  5. Suzanne says: June 26, 20086:04 am

    I’m with you slim. My parents have kept my old C64 boxed up in the basement. They’re coming to visit and I had them pack it up to bring with them. I can’t wait to set it up in its own hallowed spot and play all the games I spent hours with as a kid. I wonder if they still have the dot matrix printer? I loved Print Shop and its boxy graphics. I even had LOGO on a cartridge so I could play with my favorite little turtle. Oh, the good ol’ days!

  6. Clint says: August 21, 20084:01 pm

    Suzanne I have to warn you! The memories of old tend to be better than the actual thing.
    About 10 years back I found and old retired C64 complete with 5,25″ disk drive and 200 disks with games … and it just wasn’t fun. I mean the initial joy of seeing the blue command screen and typing RUN again was amazing, but the games were just not as good as the memory I had of them… so my childhood memories were sort of shattered.

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