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Computing the Defiant Future

April 11, 1985

Not long ago personal computers were all the rage. Those clever machines carry price tags in the thousands, but customers were snapping them up, and manufacturers saw only rising curves on their sales projections. Computers were named Time magazine's Man of the Year. It was said that anyone who didn't know about computers would be severely handicapped, which prompted CBS' Andy Rooney to remark that his ignorance of computers meant that he could park in the reserved spaces closest to the supermarket.

Now, suddenly, to judge by press accounts, home computers are in danger of going the way of videogames--a passing fad. There have been rumbles of trouble in the industry for months, but recently IBM, Big Blue, made it official by killing its PCjr model--a stunning failure from a company whose name is synonymous with computers.

IBM got into the personal-computer business four years ago, a late entry to an already booming market. But in a short time the company rode its name, reputation and marketing skills to dominance, forcing almost all other manufacturers to produce "IBM compatible" machines.

But even mighty IBM couldn't overcome the softness in the home-computer market. The company is said to have more than 100,000 unsold PCjrs in stock. Not that it is alone. Apple Computer Inc., one of IBM's main competitors in small computers, has had to close factories periodically because it had more machines on hand than it could sell.

The problem appears to be that most people don't need a computer at home. Indeed, without a specific task to perform--like word processing or financial analysis--it's hard to justify having a computer. Many people apparently discovered that too late, after having bought one, and their computers now sit unused on desk tops or in closets. People who put off buying computers say that their skepticism has not been overcome.

It is unlikely, though, that the current sag in sales will be the final word on home computers. After all, they are nifty gadgets. These words were written on one. But the initial rosy projections failed to foresee that the market would not be unlimited. Once again events have outwitted the experts, which is always a welcome occurrence and a reminder that even in the computer age the future defies prediction.

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