Home Computers: Moving in on the middle class

A great hobby once language mastered

By Ellen Roseman
The Globe and Mail

October 9, 1978

Gordon Drukier uses it to do his homework.

Jim Butterfield makes it play music and work out the value of his stock market holdings.

Laurie Sokoloff pits his backgammon skills against it and tries to beat it at chess.

Each of the three has recently bought a home computer - a small, programmable electronic machine ranging from $900 to about $2,000. Ten years ago if you had wanted to own a personal computer, you'd have had to spend a million dollars and keep it in a room the size of a garage. But the development of the microprocessor in 1971 has brought computers within the range of many middle-class families.

The microprocessor is an information-processing device half the size of a postage stamp that can do the work of the best giant computer produced a decade ago.

Many householders already own products using microprocessors: pocket calculators, digital watches, electronic TV games and some models of microwave ovens, sewing machines and stereo turntables.

However, these devices are programmed by the manufacturer to do certain jobs. They're not true home computers because they cannot be programmed by the user.

The two most popular low-priced home computers - also called microcomputers or personal computers - are the Radio Shack TRS-80, which costs $899.95, and the PET 2001 manufactured by Commodore Business Machines and selling for $1,195. (PET is short for Personal Electronic Transactor). Both have been on the market about six months.

Gordon Drukier, a 15-year-old high school student, became interested in computers after taking a Grade 9 programming course at Thornlea Secondary School. An advertisement for the Radio Shack TRS-80 was posted on the class bulletin board and he became obsessed with the idea of buying one.

His parents finally gave in and bought him the computer as a birthday present. They paid half the cost and he came up with the other $450 himself.

I guess you could say I'm the first on the block to have one, he joked as he demonstrated how it works. He keeps it on a desk in his bedroom and works on it about five hours a week - depending on how much homework I have.

Gordon does his accounting homework on the computer, and is thinking of putting his geography surveys on it.

He and his family use the computer to play backgammon and blackjack (a pre-programmed tape for the games comes with each TRS-80). And to satisfy his curiosity about the weather, he is entering daily high and low temperatures into the computer to see whether he can find a pattern in them.

Though he hasn't decided yet on a career, certainly computer work is one of the things I've been thinking about it. After owning a computer for six months, he isn't bored with it: Sometimes I get tired of it for a few weeks, but then I come up with a fabulous new idea for how to use it, like my weather project.

PET perched on windowsill

Jim Butterfield, 42, keeps his PET 2001 microcomputer perched on the windowsill in his east-end Toronto living room. During the day he works as manager of information systems planning for CN-CP Telecommunications; in the evening he's a busy computer hobbyist, exchanging programs with other enthusiasts all over North America.

Mr. Butterfield is also a member of a computer club called TRACE (Toronto Regional Association of Computer Enthusiasts), which meets twice a month at the Ontario Science Centre and at Humber College.

I used to be a computer programmer years ago, he said, but people who work as programmers don't usually get involved with home computers - they get enough of it during the day. Most hobbyists tend to be from other fields.

His latest project is charting the progress of a portfolio of 11 blue-chip securities. By entering daily stock market quotations, Mr. Butterfield determines how much his holdings are worth and whether he should buy, sell or evaluate his stocks.

He has a library of dozens of computer games including Star Wars, Star Trek, Breakout and Deflection. He can also make his computer play music about 10 numbers, ranging from 76 Trombones to the Beatles' hit When I'm 64 to a selection from Handel's Water Music.

(To program the computer to play music he had to build a small resistor board to connect the microprocessor to his cassette recorder's amplifier. He also had to transcribe sheet music into machine language a fairly demanding job.

Typically, I use the PET about four evenings a week, though I'm not always actively programming it, Mr. Butterfield said. When I'm on a hot streak, I may go to 2 or 3 a.m. to get a program finished. I can't go to sleep until it's done.

You can have a lot of fun with a home computer, but the best part is the sense of achievement when you make something work and overcome all the obstacles.

Laurie Sokoloff, 33, bought his PET computer strictly for fun. I knew absolutely nothing about computers when I got it last June. It was here and I liked it.

Mr. Sokoloff said he had never used a computer at his television production company, but now that he has one at home he's discovering several commercial applications.

I think it's the greatest toy around, he said while browsing in a Bay Street electronics store on a Saturday afternoon. I come home and start working on a program and six hours go by without my even noticing it.

Mr. Sokoloff has a library of about 100 preprogrammed cassettes (mostly games), and he buys five or six magazines a month with names like Byte, Interface Age, Personal Computing and Creative Computing.

I spend 10 to 20 hours a week on the computer, he said. I sit down and play mind games with it. I'm still trying to beat it at chess.

Rick Denda, who owns the store (Marketron) where Mr. Sokoloff bought his PET, said he has sold nearly 100 units in the past two months.

The big problem is after you entice an average householder to buy one - then what? He doesn't really know how to use it and the manuals provided with these units are not very good.

Workshop for buyers

It's not like a TV set which you buy for a preconceived purpose and you know what you're getting. This grows on you.

Mr. Denda plans to set up a workshop with about a dozen home computers where buyers can learn programming skills. He will provide four hours of free lessons with every purchase.

There is a PET in his kitchen which Mrs. Denda uses for meal planning. She can enter recipes and find out how to adjust the ingredients for any number of people she wants to feed.

Like most women who come into the store, my wife had no interest at all in computers. She couldn't care less, Mr. Denda. But once I took it home and we played blackjack on it, she got more and more involved. She wanted to know how it worked and what made it tick.

We're both busy, so we use the computer mainly for game playing. We have about two dozen games including chess, bridge and backgammon. Watching TV can be very boring - that's a comment I get from a lot of people - but after buying a PET you look forward to going home and playing with it.

To operate either the PET or the Radio Shack TRS-80 the owner must learn a computer language called BASIC (Beginners Algebraic-Symbol Interpreter Compiler) which resembles English but is more logical.

Radio Shack provides an excellent 232-page manual to help beginners learn BASIC, but Commodore Business Machines' instructional material is scanty.

Most of the people who bought the first PETS didn't need instruction booklets. They were professionals anyway, explained Robert Webb, head of Commodore's electronics division in Canada. Our new expanded materials are now available.

Mr. Webb believes the market for computers under $2,000 is growing quickly. He estimates that fewer than 15,000 units of all makes will be sold in Canada this year; next year the number could increase to 40,000 units.

20 per cent are hobbyists

He breaks down the microcomputer market as follows: 30 per cent are buying it for educational use, 25 per cent for professional use (salesmen working at home, for example), 20 per cent are getting it for their office, 20 per cent are hobbyists and 5 per cent are buying it strictly for entertainment.

To cater to this growing market, he says, there are about 35 computer stores across Canada - most of which have been in business less than a year.

The Radio Shack microcomputer is available through a network of 760 stores and licenced sales outlets across Canada. Sales so far are excellent, says Jeffrey Martin, manager of computer sales for the Barrie-based company.

About 75 per cent of the TRS-80s are bought for business applications, he said. The rest are sold to hobbyists for home use.

You can use the computer for recipes, for weight control programs, for personal finance. You can add interfacing equipment and use it to turn on your lights if you're out of the house, or to lower your heat at night. It's an excellent monitoring and control device.

But it may be a while before every home in Canada is equipped with a programmable computer.

A recent market-survey report by Creative Strategies, a California-based consulting firm, concluded: The personal computer will not change society or dramatically affect people's lives as some have predicted, though it will be integrated into the lives of a specialized group of consumers.

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