IN 1982, a programmer accidentally deleted a computer file from a floppy disk.
Being an inquisitive sort, he rooted around in his computer. Sure enough, the file was still on the disk, almost intact - like a book shorn of its table of contents. By reconstructing that table of contents, the programmer, Peter Norton, invented an "unerase" program. It became so popular, Mr. Norton formed his own company.
Other tools appeared: a program for unformatting disks from Paul Mace; a method of formatting disks without destroying the data from Steve Gibson. In the mid-1980s, Mr. Norton's first hired programmer, Brad Kingsbury, wrote a group of disk-maintenance programs, known as the Norton Disk Doctor.
The field of computer utilities came into its own.
You know what utilities are: big companies delivering water and electricity and such. They're so reliable we don't think about them except to grumble at the monthly bill or, as sometimes happens, when something goes dramatically wrong.
There's nothing quite like a power failure to get me to call the electric company.
So it is with computer utilities - those dull programs that reconsolidate fragmented data, memorize the machine's inner workings, and do a dozen other routines. Maintenance? Who cares!
But suddenly the disk stops whirring or that read-write gizmo starts shrieking. It just so happens we're writing the epilogue to our novel or that rush report for the boss.
THEN we think about computer utilities.
A graphics designer here in western Pennsylvania named Al was completely unprepared when his Macintosh computer crashed a year ago. No backups. No utility programs. A specialist spent a day reconstructing the disk and managed to retrieve two-thirds of his data.
Now, Al backs up his data every other day. He has a utility program to reconstruct his directories. (I'm not pointing fingers. I learned the hard way too.)
So there's a Boy Scout's moral to this story. Be prepared.
It's surprising how few people are.
The Peter Norton Group of Symantec, the market leader in PC disk utilities, figures it has 5 percent - only 5 percent! - of the potential market. "We're an add-on, an after-thought," Mr. Kingsbury says. "You don't ever buy a computer to unerase a file."
No one knows how many people regularly back up their data, but everyone agrees the percentage is low.
Fuji Photo Film USA, which makes diskettes and computer tape, is researching the topic. "A lot of people ... didn't know about it, didn't understand it, or didn't understand why they needed to do it," Jeff Ash, Fuji's marketing director, said after the first two focus groups met last month.
Unless you can lose every file on your computer and not bat an eye, get a backup program and a utilities package.
Fuji is bundling 20 of its diskettes with a simple backup program called MyBackUp from MySoftware Company (the bundle retails for $80).
I prefer the program in Norton Desktop for Windows ($149 retail). It automatically prompts me to back up every day at 4 p.m. I have a large 80-megabyte hard drive, so I also back up every Friday to tape cartridges, using a unit from Colorado Memory Systems. Tape drives are speedier than diskettes but more expensive (roughly $500 installed).
The Norton Desktop also includes several utility programs. A version for DOS is due out soon. For more advanced users, there's the separate Norton Utilities package or PC Tools from Central Point Software ($179 apiece). Both companies make similar products for the Macintosh, as does Microcom and several other companies.
These programs pack in so many features they may overwhelm the novice. Don't get discouraged. Go slow. Call a knowledgeable friend or dealer. And by all means, be prepared before that funny computer light starts blinking strangely and the read-write gizmo goes bump in the night.