Remember the story about the mean-spirited child psychologist who put a kid in a room filled with manure to see how he would react?
Supposedly, the kid paused, looked around for a moment and then began to dig furiously through the dung.
The astonished psychologist returned quickly to the room and asked the kid what the heck he was doing.
Still digging, the kid replied, "With all the manure here, I figure there's just gotta be a pony somewhere."
Now you know how I felt covering the National Computer Conference in Chicago -- there just had to be something good amidst all the junk.
Most of the technical sessions on the future of computing were dullsville; attendance by the industry's leading lights was sparse; and the poor folks manning the booths and peddling their machines had a look of desperation that was terrible to behold.
The computer industry shakeout isn't brewing -- it's here.
It's not that the industry is on its last legs or anything remotely like that -- it's simply that computer companies are too busy getting their acts together to do anything that's particularly exciting.
However, even in Chicago's pit of despair, there were a few sparkles of innovation. Two prompt considerable interest.
The first is a little long-range, but very significant. A lot of companies are seriously exploring multiprocessor computer designs. Simply put, multiprocessors are computers that use more than one processor to crunch numbers -- on the theory that two heads are better than one.
Already in the IBM PC world, users can plug in boards that can co-process information with the main microprocessor on the mother board. But this is done pretty much on an ad hoc basis.
Imagine how much faster and crisper your PC could run if two or three microprocessors were handling your data: say, one processor dedicated to graphics, another dedicated to number crunching and a third coordinating everything else.
Remember, chips are cheap; it's the software that's difficult to write. But efforts are under way to put multi- and parallel processing into minicomputers, and I think a lot of it will find its way into PCs. Maybe not next year, but soon.
The second bit of sparkle already is here. At least half a dozen companies -- Japanese, French and American -- were showing off their optical disc memory systems in Chicago.
As you may recall, the single 4.72-inch-diameter compact optical disc can store roughly a thousand times more data than you can cram onto a 5 1/2-inch floppy. As high-density data storage goes, the optical disc and disc drive could have a glowing future. But what can you put on an optical disc?
Why not an encyclopedia? Indeed, that's what Grolier Inc. claims to be the first to have done. It's put its 21-volume, 9 million-word "Academic American Encyclopedia" on a compact disc.
Oh yes, that only takes up 20 percent of the disc's capacity.
Come October, you will be able to buy this encyclodisc for $200. Unfortunately, it's virtually all text -- no pictures, which makes it pretty dull reading. On the other hand, you can do high-speed keyword searches -- simply type in the subject you want information on and the disc will conjure up all references.
Tom Rolander, vice president of engineering for Activenture Corp., the company that produced the disc for Grolier, says his firm is working on picture storage and other large databases for lots of companies and that the era of optical disc publishing is at hand.
Alas, optical disc drives are not yet being manufactured in quantity. But Hitachi, Sony and N. V. Philips have developed optical disc drives for PCs -- so has Digital Equipment Corp. for its new Microvax computer. And, Jack Tramiel has promised optical drives from Atari.
While neither the optical disc hardware nor software is widely available, this is technology to be aware of. Chances are good that discs will be a major PC option by this time next year.