Coping with New Computers

The New York Times

December 20, 1983

Marlene Lassberg, an account executive for Merrill Lynch in Dallas, keeps two computers on her desk: her old Radio Shack machine and her new I.B.M. She still cannot make the new machine do everything the old one did.

Hod Caulkins, an investment officer in White Plains, has been translating computer programs since July so that they can run on his new computer, also an I.B.M. ''Its a royal pain in the neck,'' he complains.

Mrs. Lassberg and Mr. Caulkins are both struggling with perhaps the single most important change in personal computers this year: the rapid emergence of the International Business Machines Personal Computer as an industry standard.

While few doubt that over the long run ''I.B.M. compatibility'' will make it much easier to use personal computers, hundreds of companies and thousands of office workers are discovering that abandoning their first desktop computers - either voluntarily or because of a company mandate - can be a technical nightmare.

Different Languages Used

The chief problem is that nearly every brand of personal computer sold before 1982 used a different language. While the Apples, Commodores and Radio Shacks that seeped into offices across the country increased productivity, they also stored letters and notes, statistics and financial statements in their own unique code. That meant information stored on a memory disk in Apple code could not be used in a Commodore, which had a code of its own.

It is not that all companies are expected to buy I.B.M. computer equipment exclusively, but the basic operating sytem - the instructions that tell a computer how to read data - is being copied by scores of competitors. Most of the machines are based on the same microprocessor, made by the Intel Corporation, used by I.B.M.

Experts say that over the next year the problems will only worsen, as the I.B.M. standard takes a firmer hold on the industry. While I.B.M.-compatible machines accounted for only 18 percent of sales in 1982, they surged to about 40 percent this year. By 1988, according to most estimates, three-quarters of all desktop office computers will be based on the I.B.M. design.

The problem of compatibility made very little difference until I.B.M. swept into the office computer market with its instantly popular Personal Computer. The PC, of course, also had its own code. So any information stored on memory disks in the Apple or Commodore codes, for example, could not be used on the P.C. unless it was freshly typed in.

''It's a real shock to a lot of people,'' said Dan Burnett, a cost control specialist at the Martin Marietta Corporation's Ocala, Fla., plant, who recently changed from a Radio Shack to an I.B.M. computer. ''Lots of people think that because the diskettes for the Apple, Radio Shack, and I.B.M. machines are the same size, all they have to do is pop them in the new machine and they're up and running.''

''Boy, are they wrong,'' he said.

Various Amounts of Compatibility

Even those who bought supposedly ''I.B.M. compatible'' machines in the last year or so have stumbled into problems. Some I.B.M. knock-offs are more compatible than others. While some boast keyboards that are more comfortable or graphics that are more colorful than the I.B.M.'s, the innovations on these copycat machines can mean that they too use slightly different codes that cannot be easily translated into PC code.

Of course, people who are perfectly happy with their current computers, and do not yearn for something more powerful, are unaffected by these woes. ''If your computer does the job, the best advice is not to mess with it,'' said Egil Juliussen, the president of Future Computing Inc., a market research firm.

But some people have no choice. Increasingly, companies are growing concerned because the wide variety of computers in their buildings cannot communicate with each other. So they are beginning to replace older computers with a new standard - usually the I.B.M. And they quickly find to their consternation that the material stored in their old machine cannot be easily transferred to their shiny new I.B.M.

Mail-Order Programs

That is what happened to Mr. Burnett, who found that the financial records he stored in his Radio Shack could not be read on his new I.B.M. machine. But he was lucky. After two days of tinkering with a $100 program obtained by mail order, he was able to accomplish the task.

Many of his colleagues are still floundering. ''We have everything in this company: Radio Shacks, Apples, Commodores, I.B.M.s,'' he said. Some colleagues, he added, ''are dead in the water.''

To understand the magnitude of the problem, imagine that the type of signals used for television broadcasts was changed. To watch any new programs, a television set made only in the last two years by a small group of manufacturers would be needed. To watch reruns, or even old video recordings, another set would be required.

Black Box for Flexibility

In many ways, the older TV set is analogous to the Apple IIe, which until I.B.M. came along, was the hottest-selling personal computer. Now even Apple has arranged with another company to produce a ''black box'' that will enable Apple users to run I.B.M. programs. ''We want our computers to be as flexible as possible and if that means using someone else's operating system that is what we will do,'' said Barbara Crouse, a spokesman for Apple.

But even as Apple and its competitors scramble to adapt to I.B.M., companies that deferred decisions about buying office computers are now making up their minds. ''At one time, we provided specialized software to brokers who used Radio Shacks and Apples,'' noted Ritch Gaiti, manager of the advanced office systems group at Merrill Lynch. ''Then we dropped Radio Shack and added I.B.M. Now we are buying 95 percent I.B.M. machines.''

The move has been welcomed by most of Merrill's retail brokers, who use desktop computers to keep track of customer portfolios and project the performance of stocks. But it has caused frustrations. Mrs. Lassberg, the Dallas account executive who is also a Merrill vice president, had a customized program for retrieving stock prices but she cannot get it to work on her new I.B.M.

''The normal, everyday person does not have the technical knowledge to deal with these problems,'' she said. ''We just want it to work.''

Increasing Frustration Expected

Experts expect that things will grow increasingly uncomfortable for users of incompatible computers.

For example, many users of the Tandy Corporation's popular line of Radio Shack home computers are already worried that their machines could slowly become obsolete. Analysts had been concerned for some time that Tandy's old machines, with their unique operating systems, would become less and less attractive to buyers of office equipment.

Then, earlier this month, Tandy announced a new machine, the Model 2000, that it said could run many of the programs designed for I.B.M.'s Personal Computer.

What Tandy did not announce was that the machine runs none of the programs - and will read none of the data - used on the hundreds of thousands of Radio Shack computers already in use.

''I won't tell you it's not a problem,'' said Garland Asher, Tandy's vice president for finance. ''But while there will be some trauma, it is a one- time deal because people only have to switch once.''

Mr. Asher acknowledges that he is not sure what to tell customers who want to stay with Radio Shack equipment, but bridle at the thought of retyping their old files and abandoning their old programs. Some files can be transferred electronically, he said, but others pose more serious problems. ''Nobody said progress would be easy,'' he said.

GRAPHIC: Graphs of growth at I.B.M. (Page D5); photo of Marlene Lassberg

Copyright 1983 The New York Times Company