Making home computers useful

JUST what do you do with a home computer? This is the refrain of many would-be microcomputer buyers. The initial home computers were very limited in capability. They had problems handling much beyond video games and some simple education programs.

But full-featured home computer systems have begun to appear. And software publishers have begun to exploit their capabilities with a wide range of ''serious'' software. At Softcon, a recent software trade show, a good deal of excellent new software of this sort was on display.

No one knows for sure how people will use computers in their homes. So software houses are adapting programs which have proved successful in the business market. Or they are taking their cue from the shelves of the local bookstore. So if a nonfiction topic has garnered a few best sellers, don't be surprised to see a software treatment soon.

Here is a brief description of the major types of software currently being developed for home consumption and what they can do:

* Home productivity tools. This is the latest industry buzzword for programs to help people manage their money. Many of the early programs of this type were extremely limited. But software now in the planning integrates a broad range of functions such as checkbook balancing and bank statement reconciliation, budgeting, stock portfolio management, and tax planning and preparation. While it de-mands considerable dedication to key in all one's financial transactions, the best packages require that data be entered only once. That done, they give users a precise picture of their finances at any given moment. This appears to be the key to the success of Continental Software's Home Accountant Plus, which has surged to the top of the software sales charts.

Increasingly sophisticated electronic spread sheets, such as Multiplan, are also becoming available. Spread sheets are financial planning tools that integrate the power of a calculator with the structure of a financial ledger. They divide the computer screen into rows and columns and allow the computer user to perform a variety of calculations on numbers entered on this electronic sheet. Such a program has hundreds of financial applications, but to realize its potential a detailed knowledge of financial calculations is needed.

* Word processing. Writing is a major home use for computers. The ability to correct mistakes on the screen and to move words or sentences without retyping has proved as valuable at home as it is in the office.

A number of publishing firms see word processing as something that will appeal to 12- to 14-year-olds who use home computers to play video games. They could also use the machines for homework. Bank Street Writer from Broderbund Software - a best-selling title in this category - is a simple program which takes a few hours to learn. More powerful word-processing software with most of the features of packages written for commercial applications (including the ability to check spelling) is also becoming available for home machines.

* Electronic filing. In computer-eze these are called ''data base'' programs. They organize, file, sort, and retrieve information in a number of ways. They are designed to create and maintain lists of all sorts.

Filing programs range broadly in power, flexibility, and cost. The simplest are electronic versions of an index card file. Each such ''card'' has a limited amount of space to enter information. The advantages are you can change entries easily, and search and sort files rapidly.

More sophisticated programs can be tailored to specific purposes. Thus, the same program might be customized to maintain a telephone and address book and to keep a record of personal finances.

In the past, this type of data base has been limited to the more expensive personal computers. But such capabilities are beginning to filter down to the home level. An example for the Commodore 64 is Superbase 64 from Precision Software.

* Education for children. This remains a major motivation for the people who buy home computers. Companies have mounted ad campaigns implying that children who grow up without computer skills will have a hard time getting a job. These scare tactics recently drew fire from California's PTA board. And the SAI survey suggests that, while people's intentions run high in this area, actual educational use of home computers remains low. Still, a number of companies are producing software for use in kindergarten through Grade 12.

Here the primary thrust is to sugar-coat learning with video-gaming techniques. And the latest method is use of animation. An example is CBS Software's Adventures in Science Series. One of the first of these programs set for spring release takes students into the world of the honeybee.

Players become scout bees searching for pollen and nectar while fending off predators. Success is measured by the amount of honey a hive produces. In this way, children are introduced to a basic ecological concept.

* Adult education and self-improvement. Software publishers are just beginning to develop this field and are finding it fertile. It spans a broad range of activities from jogging dos and don'ts and bridge- playing instruction to programs to improve one's management ability or reading speed.

Some software companies are taking their cue from the shelves of the local bookstore. If a nonfiction topic has garnered a few best sellers, you are likely to see a software version soon.

One of CBS Software's programs, Managing for Success, illustrates the general approach to instruction. It begins by asking for a response to 30 statements on management.

After the user agrees or disagrees with each statement, the answers are rated against those of professional managers. Then one's managerial strengths and weaknesses are critiqued using methods developed by management training professionals. Finally, an evaluation is presented which is intended to help the user set career goals.

One product illustrating the diversity of programs in this area is Relax, from Synapse, which uses biofeedback to help people relax. Sensors in a headband monitor muscle tension. The program converts this into colors and patterns on the computer screen which change as the subject relaxes. The program also allows a person to use the computer screen to bombard his subconscious with subliminal messages of his own choosing.

* Information services. With a modem, a device that codes computer data for transmission over a telephone line, a user can dial into services that provide information - from newspaper articles to encyclopedias. Costs per hour for the services range from $5 to $120.

Subscribers can also send and receive electronic messages. Using this capability, electronic retail stores have been started as a modern variation on mail order. Airline reservations also can be made by home computer.

Ultimately, these services may evolve into the information-age analog of the Interstate highway system, speeding messages rather than automobiles back and forth across the country. Today, however, they are closer to electronic bridle trails. The requisite communications software is difficult to master. The ''menu-driven'' structure of all but the premium-priced information services is cumbersome and time-consuming, particularly at today's slow transmission speeds. Finally, the amount of truly useful information available, while increasing, remains limited.

Nonetheless, simpler and more powerful communications software is being introduced. Texas Instruments has developed a program which enables its computers to communicate with the Dow Jones News/Retrieval Service using English-language commands. And Software Publishing has released a package which can store the steps a person uses for accessing such services and then repeats them with a single command.

But much more development will be needed before these services achieve full potential and provide a powerful reason for the purchase of a home computer.

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