Written by David Tebbutt, MicroScope 06/84 item 01 - scanned

BOMBING OUT OF EDUCATION? (column)

For the last two or three Christmasses I have been pestered by friends asking which computer they should buy for their children. They felt that in some mysterious way the possession of a home computer would somehow transform their children's lives, that their children would gain a significant advantage over their peers. The parents couldn't articulate their reasons for this conviction because they knew that, at their age, they were too old to try to understand computers themselves. Blind faith was the name of the game and the computer a talisman of that faith. In many ways their hopes were not unlike many buyers of books with titles like How to get rich quick or How to win friends and influence people. Anyone who pauses to think about it will realise that mere possession of such a book does not guarantee success, yet I'm sure that a high percentage of sales go to 'wishers' as opposed to 'doers'. So it seems with home computers.

I recently visited a couple of these friends and, upon enquiring about their computers, one confessed that he had sold theirs and the other admitted it was in the back of a cupboard somewhere. In many ways these friends are the winners, they've not had any further spending beyond the cost of the machine. Others (including me) have been sucked into buying peripherals and programs to keep the machines, and our offspring, occupied. Programs which are remotely useful are soon consigned to the top shelf or the back of the desk drawer. Assemblers, novel languages, databases and word processors are swiftly forgotten as the next mindless game hits the streets. Two or three weeks' pocket money are spent in the local computer shop on a single game. And what great strides are our children taking with these computers, what massive advantages are they clocking up?

Well, certainly nothing the parents had in mind. The kids are becoming wizards at shooting and bombing. There is, it seems, much more fun in gaining a short term reward out of seeing how many aliens you can zap, than out of deriving a longer term actual benefit from computing. Now and again the children key in a program from a magazine. On a good day they will even adapt the keyed program. But even learning to write programs is a questionable justification for the millions of home computers being bought. Sure, the children are not fearful of using computers, but then they never would have been. It's only adults who have the hang ups.

As parents, my wife and I are lucky in that I know a bit about computers and I don't have terribly high expectations of the home variety. Imagine though, all those parents who scrimped and saved to put little Johnny ahead of his classmates. How disappointed they must be feeling right now. About all the computer has prepared their children for is killing, surely not quite what they had in mind when they bought the thing. They've been fooled into creating a lucrative leisure industry when all the time they thought they were buying education. Now they've got problems. Little Johnny is very happy with his regular fix of games. They're fun and, as far as Johnny's concerned, cheaper and more comfortable than the amusement arcades which they replace. Parents are going to react against what's happening. "Why should you buy another computer if you're only going to buy more silly games?" This poses a bit of a problem for those in the business of supplying and nurturing home computers.

In case you think I'm kidding, let's look at two industry leaders: Sinclair and WH Smith. One has come out with a useful machine (when it works properly) and the other has announced that its days of piling the (computer) boxes high and selling them cheap is over. Sinclair's QL comes with word processor, database spreadsheet and business graphics. WH Smith is moving into selling professional systems through its thirty-odd specialist computer shops. It is also desperately looking for decent, easy-to-learn applications software for home computers. Both Sinclair and WH Smith have made a number of good moves in the personal computer market. My guess is that they are once again making the right moves at the right time. The games business isn't going to die, it will always be there, but I think it has had its heyday. Now it's the turn of people who can churn out applications which are both serious and fun to use.