“The great personal computer con” (1984)

Photograph of Olivetti M24 personal computer from 1984

I just stumbled across a great article from the November 1984 edition of Creative Computing magazine where Tim Hartnell claims “those who market personal computers have been conning us for years.”

There are two main approaches they use. The first one runs like this: “Buy a computer or your child will be hopelessly left behind at school and will be handicapped for life.” I reject these claims absolutely because (a) they attempt to arouse parental guilt and feelings of inadequacy; and (b) because they are just plain lies. This direction can hardly, to my mind, be one in which the answer to “what do you need a personal computer for?” can be found.

The second main way to sell personal computers seems to be the “use the computer as a Gee Whiz Aid around the house.” Balance your checkbook on it, store recipes on it, catalog your books.

It’s a hoot.

But I particularly like his final point, ‘cos it follows on from my comment about appropriate tools.

We are still at the horse and buggy stage of computing. At present, computers are pretty dumb and in need of constant direction… I believe that fairly soon (within six years) computers will be much like present day telephones.

You don’t need an instruction book or a four-week course to use the telephone. You see someone do it or you have 12 seconds of instruction and you can use a phone for life.

This will happen with computers. And when it does, when you can just get one, talk to it and get it to talk back to you and do what you want it to do without hassle or misunderstanding, the personal computer will really have arrived.

6 years, eh? [smirks] What’s actually happened, of course, is that the telephone has become like the computer. My Nokia N80 has a 128-page user’s guide and needs software updates!

[Photo: Olivetti M24 personal computer, 1994. Hat-tip to Frontier Electronics.]

6 Replies to ““The great personal computer con” (1984)”

  1. So either you disagree with Tim Hartnell and think that maybe, just maybe, the PC is an important invention and useful to most people. And maybe the internetz is too ?

    Or you agree with him and think that we aren’t sophisticated enough, and the technology advanced enough, for people to get use out of it?

    Please don’t tell me that you disagree with him about the usefulness of PCs and agree with him about the lack of usefulness of the internet. We learn from history, honeybunny. 🙂

    Btw you are confusing the mobile phone (convergent device) with a telephone. Lots of people don’t even use the address book, let alone the sms function. Totally analogue, they wouldn’t bother with the manual. Are you one of ’em, btw? 😛

    Ok I need a new blog to troll … anyone? heh.

  2. So THATS why I’m handicapped, of course!

    Is a laptop a convergent device then, using that logic? I’d say a telephone is a telephone irrespective of its mobilty. You use it to make calls by pushing little numbered buttons

  3. Nowadays we have telcos using the same “…or your kids will be left behind…” line to sell us broadband connections.

  4. @Laurel Papworth: I’m amused that Tim Hartnell got it so wrong about the timeline for appliance-like computers. Instead of the computer becoming like a phone, the phone in fact became a computer.

    Yes, combining all sorts of gadgetry — indeed, a Turing-complete general-purpose digital computer! — into a pocket-sized device with global network connectivity does create a synthesis that goes well beyond anything that has come before. But another wank-word like “convergent device” is yet another tag to separate the digerati from the plebs. All the advertising still calls them “mobile phones”, and that’s how the vast majority of people still perceive them — phones with added gadgetry.

    We will never hear someone tell a friend, “I just bought a new convergent device”. They’ll still say “phone”. Or, more likely, “iPod”. [Pace, Snarky Platypus! Yes, you’re a lapsed Catholic, so I know you’ll respond to Latin.]

    Hartnell’s right that the technology was (and continues to be!) marketed using parental guilt-trips and iies — though now the lies are about “freedom”, i.e. the freedom to have your employer harass you while you’re meant to be relaxing by the pool, and freedom for advertisers to track your every activity and insert their messages into normal communications.

    I’ve never said that computers or the Internet or your lovely social media are not useful. I’ve only ever talked about the relative ease of use (for those hypothetical builders in their utes), and how we shouldn’t be shouting at them to “Keep up!” but providing useful, comprehensible tools without the gee-whiz hype.

    As I said, Web 2.0 only makes it relatively easier to generate that web presence. There’s still a lof of assumed knowledge which our blokes in the ute don’t have. We should be making it easier for them to understand, not baffling them with more hype.

    it’s glass half-full versus glass half-empty, yes. We’re both looking at the same phenomenon, but you have the rosy end of the telescope up ya! 😉

    @Rhys: Yes, if you’d bought that Olivetti in 1984 you’ve have full mobility today. Ah, and here I was thinking that wheelchair was just some kooky goth fashion statement…!

    @Zern: Yeah, guilt about your children’s success will always be a good motivator.

  5. Hartnell may have been wrong about the timeline, but he is still dead on the money with this:

    “People don’t ask, when they see your car in the driveway or notice an electronic organ in your home, “What do you do with it?.” You feel you are entitled to have a musical instrument to muck about on, with no intention of giving a concert at the Lincoln Center, and you can drive for pleasure without feeling you must one day be a racing driver or drive a cab around town. Why should a computer be different?

    It is the quintessential toy. It is an infinite passageway that can lead you and your mind just about anywhere you choose.”

  6. @Bernard: The very last sentence is exactly it:

    It is an infinite passageway that can lead you and your mind just about anywhere you choose.

    I just didn’t want to quote anything saying “infinite passageway” while Laurel was in her “mood”. 😉

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