Written by David Tebbutt, MicroScope 05/86 - scanned

THE IBM PC IS DEAD - LONG LIVE THE AT (column)

We're almost at the end of the IBM PC and XT era. The clone makers are in with a vengeance and some think that the official PC price will plummet to the low hundreds of pounds. So what's going on? Software publishers continue to crank out PC and XT programs. Business people are buying PCs and clones by the barrow-load. And I'm saying it's all over?

Yep. I'm convinced that we're into an AT world because that's the only way we can get off our present plateau. To date we've emulated, then exceeded, the capabilities of the traditional mainframe and minicomputer terminals. But we're running out of horsepower. The things we want to do on our present range of machines - natural-language recognition (like Q&A), high-resolution graphics (IBM's EGA and clones) and a more natural interface to the machine (Gem, Taxi and Windows) all demand higher processing speeds and more memory, neither of which we have on our PCs and XTs.

Sure, we can fiddle and fudge with V20 chips and add-on boards but, eventually, we'll give up and replace our machines. This movement has already started and within a few months, anything without a graphics environment will be regarded as quaint. The Luddites will claim that businesses have run for thousands of years without graphics and colour - so why start now?

The fact is that businesses have always had to make the best of the tools available. Remember those early calculators which insisted on using Reverse Polish (RP) notation? It wasn't that anyone actually wanted RP, we simply had to adapt ourselves to the requirements of the machine. Now, for the first time, we may be in a position to bend the machine to our human needs and preferences.

All the present graphics environments owe their existence to the work done at Xerox Palo Alto Research Centre (PARC) under the leadership of Alan Kay. Now, either Kay and his team were so brilliant that they cooked up the ultimate solution or there is yet more to come. While the mouse is undeniably handy (no pun intended) surely there are better ways of drawing and doodling into a computer? But whatever is in the offing, WIMP has set our current course and every manufacturer of note is rushing to embrace this approach.

The benefits which will accrue to users are that all programs will operate in the same way, data may be easily moved between applications and, when we have tons of memory, several programs will live in the machine at the same time.

The first benefit means that we won't have to go through those expensive learning curves any more just to be able to use a different program. The second means that we can integrate whatever programs we like. The third means that we'll be able to switch in and out of applications as quickly as we can turn from calculator to phone book to diary in real life.

Now, if we're going to have these wonderful graphics on the screen and we're going to be able to use a mouse to draw with, we really need some sort of matching output device. Enter the laser printer, of which the price is going to tumble as the sales volume rises. It won't be very long before people with daisy wheels and dot-matrix printers will become objects of scorn and pity.

But what if I told you that laser printers are old technology already? No, of course you don't believe me, even though they are rather smudgy affairs thanks to the toner having to be pressed onto the paper. They also happen to be black and white which doesn't marry too well with the whizzo colour screen.

I hear that colour laser printers are in the offing but I'm tempted to put my money on a printing technique which isn't madly popular yet. I refer to the ink jet and it's pure conjecture but suppose those clever boffins can charge the different coloured ink particles and direct them using the same sort of technique as that used to guide beams of electrons to our computer screens. I dunno. It just seems like a good idea to me and I'm sure I can't be the first to have thought of it.

Finally I'd like to mention a couple of comments I've heard in the last few weeks. Gordon Eubanks, a director at Symantec, and previously the man behind CBasic, reckons that the best software is created by an individual. Bill Gates said that we need a highly successful new application to validate this new environment. Add the fact that huge, team-written integrated suites are going out of fashion and you'll find a monster opportunity for a British programmer.