(4 of 15)
Beyond the computer hardware lies the virtually limitless market for software, all those prerecorded programs that tell the willing but mindless computer what to do. These discs and cassettes range from John Wiley & Sons' investment analysis program for $59.95 (some run as high as $5,000) to Control Data's PLATO programs that teach Spanish or physics ($45 for the first lesson, $35 for succeeding ones) to a profusion of space wars, treasure hunts and other electronic games.
This most visible aspect of the computer revolution, the video game, is its least significant. But even if the buzz and clang of the arcades is largely a teen-age fad, doomed to go the way of Rubik's Cube and the Hula Hoop, it is nonetheless a remarkable phenomenon. About 20 corporations are selling some 250 different game cassettes for roughly $2 billion this year. According to some estimates, more than half of all the personal computers bought for home use are devoted mainly to games.
Computer enthusiasts argue that these games have educational value, by teaching logic, or vocabulary, or something. Some are even used for medical therapy. Probably the most important effect of these games, however, is that they have brought a form of the computer into millions of homes and convinced millions of people that it is both pleasant and easy to operate, what computer buffs call "user friendly." Games, says Philip D. Estridge, head of IBM's personal computer operations, "aid in the discovery process."
Apart from games, the two things that the computer does best have wide implications but are quite basic. One is simply computation, manipulating thousands of numbers per second. The other is the ability to store, sort through and rapidly retrieve immense amounts of information. More than half of all employed Americans now earn their living not by producing things but as "knowledge workers," exchanging various kinds of information, and the personal computer stands ready to change how all of them do their jobs.
Frank Herringer, a group vice president of Transamerica Corp., installed an Apple in his suburban home in Lafayette, Calif, and spent a weekend analyzing various proposals for Transamerica's $300 million takeover of the New York insurance brokerage firm of Fred S. James Co. Inc. "It allowed me to get a good feel for the critical numbers," says Herringer. "I could work through alternative options, and there were no leaks." — Terry Howard, 44, used to have a long commute to his job at a San Francisco stock brokerage, where all his work involved computer data and telephoning. With a personal computer, he set up his own firm at home in San Rafael. Instead of rising at 6 a.m. to drive to the city, he runs five miles before settling down to work. Says he: "It didn't make sense to spend two hours of every day burning up gas, when my customers on the telephone don't care whether I'm sitting at home or in a high rise in San Francisco." — John Watkins, safety director at Harriet & Henderson Yarns, in Henderson, N.C., is one of 20 key employees whom the company helped to buy home computers and paid to get trained this year. Watkins is trying to design a program that will record and