Plugging in everyman
Cheap computers that balance checkbooks and water lawns
Michael Mastrangelo, 40, a Manhattan audiovisual consultant, has a servant who keeps the temperature and humidity in his home at just the levels he demands, puts his favorite music on the stereo as he pulls into the driveway, and phones him at the office in case of fire or burglary. If Mastrangelo wanted, his major-domo could also wake him in the morning, make him a cup of tea, brief him on the day’s business appointments as he has breakfast, remind him that the car needs an oil change and, after he drives off, water the lawn, and roast a turkey dinner for twelve.
Where did Mastrangelo get help like that these days? The answer: from a custom-built, household computer and some auxiliary gadgets. The computer cost him $11,000 six years ago, but with advances in technology, the same hardware today would be only $4,000, and some new models are as compact and inexpensive as a good color TV set. The age of the home computer (or microcomputer, as it is often called) is at hand.
Since Micro Instrumentation & Telemetry Systems Inc of Albuquerque 2-1/2 years ago introduced its Altair 8800, a 250,000-calculations-per-second computer that retails for $1,070, some 30 other manufacturers have begun producing similar equipment. Tandy Corp next week will begin delivering a $600 microcomputer (only $399 if hooked up to one’s own viewing screen) to the firm’s 6,756 Radio Shack stores. Heath Co, the nation’s largest producer of build-it-yourself electronic gadgets, is selling a $1,240 Heathkit, and will introduce a souped-up $2,500 model in November.
Such industry giants as Timex and Texas Instruments are also said to be pondering a move into home computers, and Sears, Montgomery Ward and a number of other large chains are considering selling them. “Some day soon every home will have a computer,” says Byron Kirkwood, a Dallas microcomputer retailer. “It will be as standard as a toilet.”
A slight exaggeration, perhaps. But already some 50,000 microcomputers have been sold, largely for home use, and industry analysts predict sales of three times that many in the next year alone. Some 500 retail outlets have opened in the past couple of years to sell and service microcomputers — and serve as hangouts for the growing legions of home-computer nuts, or “hackers,” as they call themselves.
For further companionship, hackers have formed at least 150 computer clubs across the country and launched a dozen home-computer magazines. Says Theodor Nelson, author of a book called Computer Lib: “The lid is off. There’s going to be an avalanche as there was with hi-fi, calculators and CB radio.”
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Publication date: September 5, 1977