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The dumb PC, before plug-and-play was invented

technofile  by al fasoldt

Columns and commentaries in a life-long dance with technology

Simple gray rule

The dumb PC, before plug-and-play was invented

By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 1993, The Syracuse Newspapers

How come I can't get stereo sound out of my PC? I mean, right out of the box. Don't tell me I can add this gizmo or that one. I've seen the little speaker inside my PC, and it's sitting there all alone. My PC needs two speakers for stereo.

And how come my PC can't show television pictures on its screen? It comes with a gorgeous color display that's a lot sharper than any of my high-tech TVs. But I know it can't show a TV picture, right out of the box.

These are just two examples of how personal computers haven't grown up yet. There are many others. The basic problem is that PCs are still just PCs. A PC ought to be some kind of do-it-all appliance.

A PC, the way it usually comes today, is like a toaster that only accepts rye bread, or a radio that only picks up talk stations. Nobody would buy a toaster or a radio like that, but most consumers haven't gotten around yet to sizing up the deficiencies of PCs. As a result, 1979 technology is selling like crazy in 1993.

Power users and the folks who make money selling PCs may tell you I'm wrong. But note how they explain it.

Sure, they'll say, you can get stereo sound out of your PC; you just buy a circuit board that fits into the computer and add two little speakers on each side of the screen. You'll need some extra software, too, they'll say, but that's easy to find.

Of course, they'll say, you can show TV pictures on your screen. All you need is a circuit board that fits into the computer, along with that extra software (see above).

My reaction to this is no different from the reaction I'd have if somebody at the appliance store told me my Sunbeam toaster could handle pumpernickel bread if I'd just buy an extra circuit board. (Whole wheat? Sure—if you add a switch on the side.) See what I mean? The technology to do this kind of thing is here now—and, in fact, was here a few years ago. Putting stereo and video capabilities into standard PCs would cost very little.


This would make a lot of sense, and manufacturers would sell even more PCs. But that won't happen soon. The PC market works in a different way. The design of so-called IBM-compatible computers is stuck in what I call "hacker mode," and has been for years. Companies that make PCs are racing against each other to make them faster—a fine idea, by itself—but they are not competing to make PCs more useful.

Meanwhile, the companies that make accessories for personal computers—the circuit boards and other items that you add to a computer to make it do something different—are making life even more difficult for you and me. Company X makes a gadget that won't work with Company Y's software, and Company Z makes a gizmo that won't work at all unless you plug in something else.

The whole thing is ridiculous.

Even in the non-IBM-compatible area, the situation isn't much better. Apple, the inventor of the modern personal computer, is ahead of the PC manufacturers in audio and video capabilities, but not enough to matter. Apple's Macintosh line is a magnificent example of a good idea that hasn't gone far enough.

And Commodore, maker of the Amiga, has shown some excellent sense in adding stereo sound and easy-to-hook-up video features to its Amiga computers. But the Amiga has practically dropped out of sight, and Commodore has given it only token support.

Finally, Atari, the company that launched the home video-game craze more than a decade ago, is showing some spunk in the launch of its new model, the Falcon computer. It has stunning digital audio built in, but is no better than a PC when it comes to showing TV pictures on its screen.

That leaves us back where we started. If you want these features on your PC, you can buy this extra doodad and that extra thingamabob. And you can spend a weekend trying to get everything to work together.

Or you can wait it out.

Pop some bagels in the toaster while you're at it.

Did I say bagels? Silly me. Stick to rye. Bagels require the Bagel-Blaster add-on circuit board.

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