Peering into the murky future of the home computer

Home computers -- you've seen them, probably worked on one, maybe even considered buying one. But do you really need one?

At a time when the computer industry is undergoing a major shakeout, it would be fashionable to answer that question with a resounding NO!

No, home computers are superfluous. No, they are too costly. No, they don't really do anything you can't do with a pocket calculator, a three-ring binder, or even just a pencil and a yellow legal pad. If you want entertainment, try a book, a board game, or conversation.

The home computer may be the classic example of the solution arriving before the problem, says Derek Rowntree in his recent book ``Do you Really Need a Home Computer'' (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, $6.95).

``Home computers,'' complains Mr. Rowntree, a professor of educational instruction at the Open University in Britain, ``are a triumph of latter-day capitalism. The product could be mass-produced, but there was no mass-market demand; so a mass-market demand was created. Never before, with the possible exception of the underarm deodorant, have so many been persuaded to buy so much that they need so little in so short a time.''

Well, this sort of computer bashing promises to be the great sport of the late 1980s. Despite all the hype and all the units gathering dust on closet shelves in homes throughout the land, there do remain some redeeming virtues to home computers. And it is likely that over time they will become more and more useful, although this very much depends of your vocation, avocation, and needs.

Jack Hodgson, director of member services of the Boston Computer Society, the nation's largest nonprofit computer association, agrees with Rowntree's assessment. He thinks that while ``there are some valuable and interesting uses for home computers, there really isn't a need for them today.''

Hodgson spends many hours of the day in front of a computer, but after work, he says, he refuses to use one. Personal correspondence is by hand. His appointment book consists of paper and ink.

``I don't know anything short of education that is really better done on a home computer,'' he says -- and education via computer has not yet matured fully.

Still, if you are working at home or free-lancing, a home computer (actually a business computer that you take home) may be a blessing.

Most writers, for instance, love the way they can draft and edit on a home computer without filling a page with hen scratches and periodically wadding up typing paper.

A wife or husband staying at home to help raise children might well find a home computer (usually with a bit more power and sophistication than your basic Pac-Man unit) useful for free-lance bookkeeping, editing, copy-writing, programming, and the different reports and analyses that are the stock in trade of white-collar professions.

Then there are home finances. This is where you are bound to get a lot of controversy.

My wife and I own an Apple Macintosh (with printer and basic software: $2,500; bought in $84-a-month installments), and early this year we acquired the Monogram Company's ``Dollars & Sense'' home-budgeting software ($110). It's nice to be able to categorize different types of expenditures and to work out a budget, although it would be easy enough to do this in a notebook at a fraction of the cost.

On the other hand, the computer program has made it fun (at least for now) to do a budget and keep tabs on expenditures. It is also building a neatly stored data base that will make the program even more useful next year when we are able to compare year to year.

It's the same with writing. I own a reconditioned IBM Selectric that has taken much of the production pain out of the dreadful task for the past six years. It stood me in good stead during an assignment overseas. But the simple ``MacWrite'' program that came with our Macintosh is light-years better.

It's a tremendous incentive to writing -- whether letters to Mom, free-lance articles, or memos for the office -- to be able to turn on the machine, tap out some ideas, massage them, pad over to get a soda, diddle with the text, and then print out a neat copy of a Saturday morning's work.

Computer-user Hodgson says most of the foregoing are examples of business computer uses, not home computer uses. Keeping recipes, personal finances, and household minutiae are what by definition a home computer should be doing, and that, says Hogdson, can usually be done as efficiently some other way.

With on-line data bases such as The Source, CompuServe, or Dow Jones (none of which I have), one can participate in the burgeoning computer bulletin board phenomenon, although this appears to be more for computer hobbyists than serious home workers. One can also access news and encyclopedias electronically. But a radio and a library card can get you the same thing.

And with a computer link to a discount broker, you could become a more active investor; whether it is wise to be making rapid trading decisions with your personal finances is another question.

Whatever you do, the experts say, don't rush out to buy a computer. Think of the possible uses and determine whether you simply have hardware lust.

Author Rowntree sums it up this way: ``Whether the fun and usefulness [of a home computer] will be entertaining and worth paying for will be for each of us to decide -- in the light of how we might manage without a computer and what else we might prefer to spend hundreds of dollars on.''

I don't really need my Macintosh. I don't need my TV, either, for that matter. And, yes, if I'd waited a year, I might have gotten a better deal.

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