Though I fervently believe that it is better to be silent and thought the fool than to speak and remove all doubt, a new year beckons. It's time for columnists, in the finest tradition of editorial giraffery, to stick their necks out and fearlessly forecast the future.
Forecast: In 1985, computer hardware and software will continue to grow better, faster and cheaper. (This is fearless?)
No. . . . New years merit more than stating the obvious. The following forecasts (some with tongue epoxied securely to cheek, others uttered with Cassandra-like assurance) may well offer a useful peek at what 1985 may bring to those who frolic and/or toil among the disc drives. (So this is what Jeanne Dixon feels like. . . .)
* Forecast: Real cheap and real free software will throw the industry into a tizzy. Decent-quality and attractively packaged word processors, electronic spreadsheets and games will begin showing up in bookstores and record shops priced at under $10. The software isn't going to be too powerful, of course, but it will do more than 75 percent of what the purchaser wants.
The low price will spur impulse buying and eventually rekindle interest in higher-end software -- the kind that's been ignored for the last few months.
How will this software sell so cheaply? At least one reason is that a couple of entrepreneurs (or sharp publishing companies) will repackage existing public-domain software.
* Forecast: Banks and companies such as American Express will give away software as a premium. Join ABC National Bank and they'll give you a check-balancing and tax-preparation program free. Or a financial services company will give you a stock portfolio program as an inducement to use its brokerage firm.
* Forecast: In large companies, executives using personal computers will have their companies buy their software for them as their firms seek to standardize along a set of specific software packages.
* Forecast: Home computer telecommunications will begin to explode. Companies actually will give away hundred-dollar modems to get people to hook up to their PC networks. Enlightened local phone companies will advertise on television and in local newspapers to encourage people to use PC networks. (Why? Because phone companies make money when their lines are used. Anything that kicks up phone usage is something the phone companies are for.)
* Forecast: The FBI will bust a PC bulletin board that serves as an electronic bookie. PC net runners are arrested for violating interstate gambling laws.
* Forecast: A clever company will launch a "scavenger hunt," in which enterprising PC users tap into different bulletin boards and computer systems around the country to collect clues to figure out where a special prize is hidden. The contest will spur incredible word-of-mouth excitement and inspire a Newsweek/Time cover story: "The Network Nation: America's Phones Are Hooked on Computers."
* Forecast: A gang of septuagenarian PC users will break into a bank computer system, take the money and move to Brazil, prompting a surge of PC sales to the elderly.
* Forecast: Apple Computer will drop the price of its 128K Macintosh to under $1,000 in response to Commodore's Amiga high-end machine with Mac-like operating system. Commodore stock plummets.
* Forecast: IBM will introduce a lap-sized computer that everybody actually likes.
* Forecast: A Japanese company will sell a $250 machine in the United States with a database manager, word processor, spreadsheet programs and dot matrix printer already built in. It will use Macintosh-like display and mouse: Just plug it in and it will go. The problem will be absence of disc drive.
* Forecast: Airlines will rent personal computers for transatlantic and transcontinental flights. Folks in first class will get to use them free.
* Forecast: A major company will attempt to acquire Apple Computer.
* Forecast: Somebody will record a Top 40 hit song that has lyrics referring to personal computers.
* Forecast: In California, patients walking into a doctor's office will be seated at a PC and asked to answer a series of "patient profile questions," including symptoms and history. The doctor and nurse will get the printout of the computer analysis of the profile. Doctors will charge $50 for the service.
* Forecast: Several Fortune 1000 companies will launch in-house newsletters and magazines focusing on how personal computers can make you more productive.
* Forecast: Somebody will market a new interface called the "digital glove." The user will slip his hand into a special glove that links into the computer. By moving the hand and fingers, the user will be able to manipulate objects on the screen. Michael Jackson will wear one.
* Forecast: The luster of computer-aided education will dim again. Several leading school districts around the country will remove PCs from the classroom, saying that it is more important for children to be able to read and write than to program simple games in BASIC and Logo. Companies making educational and games software will continue to byte the dust.