BY JAMES FALLOWS
I AM BEGINNING TO sympathize with the United States Air Force’s Tactical Air Command. For years TacAir has seemed to embody the military’s craving for big, beautiful machines that can’t quite do the job. Carping critics would point out that an aircraft like the F-15 cost too much and was always in the shop. But, oh! it was so lovely. How could anyone hate a machine that looked so wonderful and promised to do so much?
I used to feel pious about TacAir, because conditions were so different in the part of the high-tech world I knew best: personal computers. As computers have become more sophisticated, they have also become cheaper, more useful, and less disaster-prone—all the things that many complex modern weapons are not. The winds of the marketplace blew off the frills and geegaws.
Or so I used to think. Now I have seen the F-15 of the computer world. Its name is Macintosh.
Considered as a feat of engineering, the Macintosh is as dazzling as anything that might be found at the Paris Air Show. It is that rare product in which the innovations that were difficult to create are also impressive to see. There is a vivacity to the screen display that can be matched only on the Macintosh’s forebears, Apple’s Lisa computer and the Xerox Star system—or by the computergenerated graphics on network TV shows. When you specify a function (for example, word processing), the Macintosh’s “icon,” or its symbol for the function—in this case, a note pad and pen—zooms down from one corner of the screen and telescopes itself out into a “window” in which you do your work. Most computer programs create electronic facsimiles of material previously found on paper. The Macintosh display does not resemble anything that has ever been written down.
FOR ONE PART of the computer market the Macintosh is practically ideal. Any child who sees this machine wants one. In the pre-Macintosh era children could do two things with computers. First, they could use the computer as a teaching machine, running programs that entice or force them to master multiplication tables, hone logical skills, learn the capitals of the fifty states, and expand their vocabularies in French.
For educational programs the subtleties of computer hardware matter very little. Users of any of the popular lower-priced machines—notably the Commodore 64, but also the Atari 800, the Radio Shack Color Computer, the Texas Instruments 99/4A, and, of course, the Apple II and its descendants—can draw on an enormous library of educational programs. Most of these programs aspire to make rote activities seem interesting. A child may have more patience for touch-typing drills, for example, if each mistyped letter means that an alien craft descends from the skies, and if each word typed correctly directs a laser blast at the intruder. Some games challenge the child to work his way out of a maze ora twisting cavern, which requires clear thinking more than luck or quick reflexes.
The simplest learn-your-arithmetic educational programs come in versions that will run on unadorned home computers. Unfortunately, the more advanced programs, including nearly every word-processing system, come on floppy disks, so you must buy a disk drive if you hope to use them. With the addition of a disk drive, you are no longer talking about a modest investment for a possibly educational toy. Without a disk drive the Commodore 64 costs $220; with one it costs $500. A printer, which is the next logical step if you are using word-processing programs, adds several hundred dollars to the original price. And the programs themselves can be expensive.
The second thing children could use pre-Macintosh computers for was to become familiar with cursor keys, operating systems, default values, and the other subject headings in the canon of “computer literacy.” It probably is useful for children to know what a computer looks like; but many parents, fearful that their children will grow up to join the chronically unemployed, seem to have blurred the difference between learning about computers and learning to write programs for them in computer languages such as BASIC and Pascal. The resulting preoccupation with programming for tots is a terrible mistake.
If I had to choose one language for my children to learn, it would be Latin rather than Pascal—and I wouldn’t worry about either language while my children were in grade school. Joseph Weizenbaum, a professor of computer science at MIT, recently complained in Byte, the industry’s Bible, about the “illusion” that “computer-language learning is like other kinds of [language] learning” in being most successful when children start very young. “It is clear to me that computer languages are not like natural languages,” Weizenbaum said. “I think they are more like mathematical languages or physics. They require a certain intellectual maturity, and when you have that intellectual or mathematical maturity, you can learn them relatively quickly. It isn’t worth spending a lot of time on at an early age.”
Even before the Macintosh there were hints of a third purpose to which children could put computers: making available a kind of magical creative power that simply did not exist before. The hints were offered by Logo, a programming language that does not demand that children write elaborately structured statements but instead encourages them to create and manipulate geometric patterns on a screen. The child starts by “teaching” the Logo symbol on the screen to draw a triangle or a circle. (To teach the symbol, called the “turtle,” to draw a triangle, the child might tell it to move “FORWARD 100, RIGHT 120 [degrees], FORWARD 100, RIGHT 120, FORWARD 100.”) The child can then alter or combine the patterns to form intricate, shifting designs. For example, a child could use Logo to design a program that would slowly trace a cross-section of a nautilus shell across the screen. It was as if an Etch-A-Sketch suddenly came to life. (Logo runs on the Commodore 64, the Apple IIe and IIe, the TI 99/4A, and other home computers, but in most cases it requires a disk drive.) Seymour Papert, of the Laboratory for Computer Science at MIT, the creator of Logo, has written a book about the program, called Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas. In it he argues that children who spend time within Logo’s geometric environment instead of memorizing multiplication tables will naturally learn to “speak math,” as children living in France will learn to speak French.
If children love Logo, as most of them seem to, how can they resist the Macintosh? Ninety percent of the Macintosh’s appeal stems from the program called MacPaint, which does not teach them about mathematics, as Logo does, but allows them to create more-spectacular visual effects. With MacPaint you select one of the dozen icons—a paintbrush, a pencil, an eraser, and so forth—and use it to create a picture. The pencil draws outlines, the can of paint fills them with whatever pattern you select, the “grabber” reorients your drawing or moves it to another part of the screen. MacPaint is forgiving of error; you can undo any change that you don’t like. It permits both the broad, casual stroke and the minute perfecting touch: using a procedure called Fat Bits, you can change individual dots in the display. MacPaint combines mathematics with art in an astounding ellipse-generating system, which creates shimmering, constantly changing curves as you drag the cursor across the screen. This feature, and another that distorts or elongates any pattern you have drawn, made me feel like God.
The possibilities of MacPaint were instantly obvious to my sons, ages four and seven. During the two months in which we had a Macintosh on loan from Apple, they grumbled when forced to go to the playground or dig in the sand, tortured by the knowledge that the computer lay inside. Everything about the Macintosh makes it the perfect computer for children.
Everything, that is, except its price. At $2,495 the Macintosh is a wildly expensive toy, and at the moment it is unsuited for service as much beyond a toy.
TECHNICALLY SWEET AS it is, the Macintosh fails the basic test that the market has established for personal computers: it does not make enough of life’s chores simpler. The IBM Personal Computer is a resounding success not because of advanced engineering but because it can run thousands of useful programs. Apart from those who routinely need to make sketches or charts and include them in memos, not many people will find that their lives are easier because of Macintosh.
Most of the Macintosh’s problems may be temporary growing pains. Because its operating system is so different from anything else in the computer world, when the Macintosh was unveiled, last January, almost no “real” software was available for it. Early buyers had to make do with MacPaint, plus a clumsy, slow, primitive word-processing program called MacWrite. (The two together cost $195.) Anticipating huge Macintosh sales, many of the large software houses said they would begin developing Macintosh versions of their programs. A new magazine, Macworld, is already thick with ads for business and word-processing programs soon to be released. The first to be released, this past spring, was Microsoft’s Multiplan, a “spreadsheet” program, which is a staple for business. The programs to come should include a good w’ord processor, such as Microsoft’s Word program.
But even when the software shortage abates, several of the Macintosh’s builtin limitations will remain. From a technical point of view, the Macintosh’s greatest problem may be its inability to handle “batch files” or “macros,” w’hich speed the operation of complicated programs. For $2,495 you get a Macintosh equipped with only one disk drive. Just about every other manufacturer realizes that a personal computer should have two, and adding a second to the Macintosh brings its price to $2,990, or more than twice as much as a Kaypro and more, even, than the recently discounted IBM PC costs. (Both the Kaypro and the IBM have tw’o disk drives.) Next year Apple will probably release a soupedup version of the Macintosh, with four times as much random-access memory as the original has (512 kilobytes, or 512K, versus 128K) and a hard disk, which can store twenty to thirty times as much data as a floppy disk. Its price will probably be between $4,000 and $5,000, or as much as IBM’s hard-disk model, the PC XT, costs. Most keyboards have a “number pad,” which makes business and accounting projects go more quickly. The Macintosh does not. (You can buy an add-on number pad for $99.) Even more irritating, its designers, in an act of inexplicable hubris, decided that the Macintosh should be the only computer ever built without cursor keys.
On most computers these keys enable you to move the cursor left, right, up, or down on the screen; each key is marked with an arrow pointing in the appropriate direction. Reportedly, the Apple designers considered cursor keys to be part of the austere, intimidating mystique of computerdom that the Macintosh was designed to smash. Off went the cursor keys, even though most people can figure out what they do at first glance.
In place of cursor keys the Macintosh offers a “mouse,” a small plastic box attached to the computer by a cord. When you drag the mouse across the desk it moves the cursor across the screen. For certain purposes—such as using MacPaint—a mouse is fabulous. It even has its place in word processing or recordkeeping, when you have finished writing or entering figures and want to cruise effortlessly through the document making occasional stops for changes. But the lack of cursor keys is a crippling handicap when you are trying to write. If you’re typing along and you want to move to the previous line, you have to take your hand off the keyboard, fumble for the mouse, move it precisely one space up the screen (no easy task), and then look again for the right place to put your Fingers on the keyboard. With a “complicated” program like WordStar you can accomplish the same end by pressing one or two keys. Making a mouse available is like offering your guests chopsticks in addition to silverware. Making it mandatory is like forcing them to use chopsticks even when you’re serving soup.
Nonetheless, Macintosh has established a big sales beachhead, in part because it has put together a consortium of twenty-four colleges and universities that have contracted to buy in bulk. I can understand this from the colleges’ point of view: they will be able to offer Macintoshes to their students for roughly $1,000 apiece, which beats even the price of the Kaypro and which is a great deal. But what could have been in the mind of Steven Jobs, the chairman of Apple, when he envisioned the Macintosh as the ideal accessory for college students? Here we have a machine that is clumsy for wuiting and record-keeping, and is best suited to an elegant form of doodling. Jobs dropped out of college during the dreamy seventies. His memories of those days and his glimpses of California campuses may have convinced him that this is what the tanned young coeds and their dates do all day. The models in the Macintosh ads certainly look as if they’re toting their machines to a GQ photo session rather than to the library.
DESPITE THE MACINTOSH story, the momentum in the computer world is still toward technology whose sophistication makes life simpler and whose achievements show up in lower prices and higher reliability. Consider two recent developments—the Model 100 from Radio Shack and MCI Mail.
Nothing about the Model 100’s appearance suggests the romance of high technology. Apart from the familiarly clunky Radio Shack styling, the computer has a small “liquid-crystal display” screen in which letters are composed of the indistinct gray lines featured on early digital watches. Yet underneath this meek disguise lies a collection of significant engineering advances, even,’one of them useful and reliable.
The most important fact about the Model 100 is its size: viewed from the top, it has roughly the dimensions of the magazine you are holding. It stands less than two inches high and weighs four pounds. It is the first truly portable computer. But this small package contains a full-sized keyboard that is more solidfeeling and better designed than those of most other computers; up to thirtytwo kilobytes of random-access memory (32K of RAM), enough to store about 5,000 wrords; a word-processing program and BASIC, among other programs; and a built-in modem, so that information stored in the machine may be sent elsew’here over telephone lines. For anyone w’ho must record information while on the road, the Model 100 is a gift from heaven. Its size makes it easy to carry; its keyboard makes it pleasant to use; and its batteries keep information stored in memory even when it is turned off.
A new generation of “lap-sized” computers is coming onto the market, wuth more-impressive screens and more-advanced software than the Model 100’s. At some point these newcomers are sure to make the Model 100 obsolete, but the initial entries are expensive. The Hewlett-Packard HP 110, for example, has 272K of RAM and can run Lotus 1-2-3, the businessman’s favorite program. It costs $2,995; the Model 100 sells for somewhere between $599 and $834, depending on how much memory you buy and whether you hit one of Radio Shack’s periodic $200-off sales. Another portable computer, the NEC model 8201, was designed by the same Japanese firm that designed the Model 100, costs what the Model 100 does, and is practically identical to it. The model 820l’s advantage is that its memory can be expanded to 96K; its drawback is that it lacks the built-in modem.
The ideal companion to the Model 100 is MCI Mail. Last fall MCI Mail introduced itself as the “nation’s new postal system.” It would be more accurate to call it the new Federal Express, because it poses direct competition to the booming overnight-parcel business.
Using MCI Mail, you can send information from your computer to any place in the country and to most parts of the world. First you transmit your information, through a modem, to MCIs mam computer; for this step you can use a local telephone number in most big cities or an 800 number anywhere else, so there is no telephone charge. You then direct MCI to pass on the message in one of several ways. If the recipient has a computer and is signed up with MCI, he can retrieve the message from MCI a few seconds after you send it. You pay one dollar for such an instant transmission. When I am traveling, I type up my notes on the Model 100 and send them to myself each evening. When I get home, I can retrieve all the messages on my main computer. MCI can also send the message to a computer near the destination, print it there, put it in a stamped envelope, and drop it in a mailbox. This costs two dollars, and in my experience it is not any faster than mailing the letter yourself for twrentv cents.
The real advantage to MCI Mail is its overnight service: if you send your information before eight at night, a printed version, resembling good typed copy, will be delivered by noon the next day. This service goes virtually anywhere in the United States, and it costs six dollars, or less than half as much as Federal Express. A four-hour delivery service that covers most major cities is also available, for $25.
The company has an enthusiastic, swashbuckling capitalist spirit. Every time you log on to the system to send or receive mail, you see newrs of the latest giveaway or special offer designed to encourage extra use. I am tolerant of MCI’s boosterish excesses, because the company offers so much for so little. It has constantly improved the system and ironed out imperfections, and it charges you for nothing except the services you actually use. In this it is almost alone. Its Western Union counterpart, called Easylink, charges a monthly minimum of $25. ‘T he U.S. Postal Service’s recently discontinued E-COM system allowed you to send electronic mail whenever you wanted—provided that you were willing to send 200 letters at a time.
Innovations like the Model 100 and MCI Mail make me wonder whether the Macintosh has a future. They are tailored to the needs of the marketplace; it hopes that the market will be swept off its feet by the rapture of technical brilliance. I take my hat off’ to the people who designed the Macintosh, and I wish them luck. But I know they missed a natural market when they neglected to put wings on it and sell it to TacAir.