Home Computer - The Home Computer "Revolution"

The Home Computer "Revolution"

See also: Microcomputer revolution

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, from about 1977 to 1983, it was widely predicted that computers would soon revolutionize many aspects of home and family life as they had business practices in the previous decades. Mothers would keep their recipe catalog in "kitchen computer" databases and turn to a medical database for help with child care, fathers would use the family's computer to manage family finances and track automobile maintenance. Children would use disk-based encyclopedias for school work and would be avid video gamers. Home automation would bring about the intelligent home of the '80s. Using Videotex, NAPLPS or some sort of as-yet unrealized computer technology, television would gain interactivity. The "personalized newspaper" (to be displayed on the television screen) was a commonly-predicted application. Morning coffee would be brewed automatically under computer control. The same computer would control the house lighting and temperature. Robots would take the garbage out, and be programmed to perform new tasks via the home computer. Electronics were expensive, so it was generally assumed that each home would have only one multitasking computer for the entire family to use in a timesharing arrangement, with interfaces to the various devices it was expected to control.

family:'Times New Roman',serif; font-weight:bold; padding:4px 2px 2px; width:0.5em;">“ The single most important item in 2008 households is the computer. These electronic brains govern everything from meal preparation and waking up the household to assembling shopping lists and keeping track of the bank balance. Sensors in kitchen appliances, climatizing units, communicators, power supply and other household utilities warn the computer when the item is likely to fail. A repairman will show up even before any obvious breakdown occurs.

Computers also handle travel reservations, relay telephone messages, keep track of birthdays and anniversaries, compute taxes and even figure the monthly bills for electricity, water, telephone and other utilities. Not every family has its private computer. Many families reserve time on a city or regional computer to serve their needs. The machine tallies up its own services and submits a bill, just as it does with other utilities.

—Mechanix Illustrated, November 1968 edition

All this was predicted to be commonplace sometime before the end of the decade, but virtually every aspect of the predicted revolution would be delayed to later years or be entirely surpassed by later technological developments. The home computers of the early 1980s could not multitask. Even if they could, memory capacities were too small to hold entire encyclopedias or databases of financial records, floppy disk-based storage was inadequate in both capacity and speed for multimedia work, and the graphics of the systems could only display blocky, unrealistic images and blurry, jagged text that would be difficult to read a newspaper from. Before long, a backlash set in—computer users were "geeks", "nerds" or worse, "hackers". The North American video game crash of 1983 soured many on home computer technology as users saw large investments in 'the technology of the future' turn into dead-ends when manufacturers pulled out of the market or went out of business. The computers that were bought for use in the family room were either forgotten in closets or relegated to basements and children's bedrooms to be used exclusively for games and the occasional book report. In 1977, referring to computers used in home automation at the dawn of the home computer era, Digital Equipment Corporation CEO Ken Olsen is quoted as saying "There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in his home."

It took another 10 years for technology to mature, for the graphical user interface to make the computer approachable for non-technical users, and for the internet to provide a compelling reason for most people to want a computer in their homes. Predicted aspects of the revolution were left by the wayside or modified in the face of an emerging reality. The cost of electronics dropped precipitously and today many families have a computer for each family member, or a laptop for mom's active lifestyle, a desktop for dad with the kids sharing a computer. Encyclopedias, recipe catalogs and medical databases are kept online and accessed over the world wide web — not stored locally on floppy disks or CD-ROM. TV has yet to gain substantial interactivity; instead, the web has evolved alongside television, giving rise to the second screen concept. The HTPC and services like Netflix, Google TV or Apple TV along with internet video sites such as YouTube and Hulu may one day replace traditional broadcast and cable television. Our coffee may be brewed automatically every morning, but the computer is a simple one embedded in the coffee maker, not under external control. As of 2008, robots are just beginning to make an impact in the home, with Roomba and Aibo leading the charge.

This delay wasn't out of keeping with other technologies newly introduced to an unprepared public. Early motorists were widely derided with the cry of "Get a horse!" until the automobile was accepted. Television languished in research labs for decades before regular public broadcasts began. In an example of changing applications for technology, before the invention of radio, the telephone was used to distribute opera and news reports, whose subscribers were denounced as "illiterate, blind, bedridden and incurably lazy people". Likewise, the acceptance of computers into daily life today is a product of continuing refinement of both technology and perception.

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