The electronic cottage: It's beginning to show up around town.

On the outside, it looks like a regular house. Inside, though, something is different.

The inhabitants don't go off to work in the morning fighting traffic to join their colleagues at work. They stay home and join their computers instead.

The prediction is that one day many of us will do the same.

It's the result of development of the personal or microcomputer -- small enough to fit into the home, inexpensive enough to afford and versatile enough to do complex operations.

Futurist Alvin Toffler coined the term "electronic cottage" in his book "The Third Wave" to describe what happens when the conventional office gives way to the home as a major place of employment.

With a home computer hooked up with easily attachable telephone equipment to huge data banks, you will be able to contact anyone, about almost anything, anywhere.

Already, a fair number of people are braving this new world.

Six months ago, Glen Hollis quit his job with a major corporation to join wife Carol in a computer-based advertising business run out of their home. There are His and Hers computers in the basement office. The couple, both 32, say it's the best move they could have made.

When Judy Fisher and Nancy Venard realized home computers would make it possible to raise children and work in their homes, they formed their own company, Dataproof. In a year it has grown from simple computer programming to more complex data publications.

Now that most of Jane Myers' eight children have grown up and moved out, she's taken the family room and converted it into an office. With two rented word processors and other computer components, she combines programming, technical editing and writing.

When Sam Cottrell retired from the Air Force six years ago, he took his engineering experience and redirected it with the purchase of a home computer. He formed Applied Analytics and provided himself with an interesting and promising second career. He's in the vanguard of an increasing number of retirees who will be doing the same.

No one knows the size of the cottage computer industry. In addition to full-time professionals working at home, there are estimated to be thousands of people in the Washington area who moonlight as computer programmers on their off-hours to earn extra money.

What's life like in an electronic cottage?

Is it easier, for instance, to face a computer at 9 a.m. instead of a colleague?

"I love my machines," says Myers. "They are extensions of me, a wonderful creative outlet much as my sewing machine was when my kids were young. My machines and I have a love affair."

Myers finds it comforting to work with computers. "They are non-emotional, very dependable, reliable. It's almost tranquilizing in a way, because of the total absorption of the experience."

Carol Hollis often spends 6 to 8 hours at a time on her machine. She admits to an occasional urge for more personal contact, even with her machine. A technician at Radio Shack programmed her computer to print "Hello Carol" every so often. "That makes me laugh."

She is dabbling with the idea of buying a voice synthesizer "so that I can program the machine to tell me what I want to hear."

Some people talk to their machines, and at least one has named his Ziggy. But Fisher and Vennard claim they have no such experience. "For me, it's gotten to be about as neutral as using a Xerox" says Fisher. "After all, it's only a dumb machine."

Do you get angry at that dumb machine?

"You get angry all right," says Myers, "but only at yourself. Because the only one who can make mistakes is you. The machine does only what you say, which at times can bring you to the boiling point about yourself."

Home-based computer consultant Nancy Coloday, who advises others on what sorts of machines they need to do their work, says that in computer lingo there is an expression that is well-known: "g-i-g-o."

"This stands for 'garbage in, garbage out,'" she says, "which means if you haven't put in the right material, you don't get out the right material. You have only yourself to blame."

Vennard claims that when this happens, "I tend to want to haul off and smack the thing, but you can't because it might break. You have got to be gentle with these machines."

And when they do break? (And they do break.)

Technicians for certain types of machines will make emergency house calls, often within hours of malfunction. For other machines, you have to take them into the shop, where they may be fixed within 24 hours if possible.

People take precautions with various back-up systems. For Myers, this means storing vital information on tapes which are put into filing cabinets. A machine breakdown could erase huge amounts of stored information in less than a second.

Is it alienating to stay home and work with computers?

Not at all, say computer users.In fact, the opposite seems to be true. Being able to work at home freed them for more personal life. No one missed the office coffee break, claiming it is one of many ways people waste time in conventional offices.

"The effect on our family is terrific," say the Hollises. Says Carol Hollis: "If something is going on at school, Glen will go as often as I will. He went to teacher conferences this year, not me."

Adds her husband: "The kids know I am home and as available as their mother."

"You can throw in a load of wash, change the baby's diaper, and then become immersed in work while the kids nap," says Vennard, who feels the computer is made for the home. "The two seem a perfect fit."

Both Vennard and Fisher predict that large numbers of young mothers will turn to this new cottage industry in the '80s.

Other advantages: You don't have to get dressed to see your computer. In fact, the morning bathrobe seems a not uncommon uniform for the first hour or two of work, with jeans appearing later.

There's no traffic. "I commute four steps to work," says Cottrell. "I sit there and gloat about those fools who are cursing the Beltway."

There's no gasoline to buy, no parking space to pray or pay for.

The electrical cost of running a home computer is little more than that for lighting a standard lightbulb.

In addition, the Internal Revenue Service offers tax benefits for the home-based business: deductions for work space, utilities, supplies.

Finally, except for computer purchase or rental, there is little or no overhead.

Employes? If they are needed as business grows, you can simply add them on. Not at your home, which would have been the traditional office solution, but at theirs.

"We envision a day when we have a computer network of women throughout the area with terminals in their home working for us," says Fisher. "It used to be a chicken in every pot; soon it will be a terminal in every home."

The drawbacks to this new way of life?

"You can't drive away and forget about the work until Monday," says Vennard, who says she feels her computer beckoning her to work, even when it is off. "You have to resist the magnetic pull."

Cottrell says: "Whenever I'm awake, I'm working."

The Hollises have found the same. "We have never worked this hard before. We've had 14- and 16-hour days. You don't punch a time clock; you just keep going till the job is done. It's far more energizing than traditional office life, but it's also more demanding."

Myers says she often traipses downstairs at 5 in the morning and puts in three hours of work at the processor before breakfast. "I typically put in a 13-hour day."

Then there's the problem of work overflowing the home office. "This is bound to happen," says Glen Hollis, who has had weeks when 10,000 pieces of paper were stacked in his living room at once.

Myers says that the sheer rapidity with which computers turn out work makes people produce more paper than ever. You quickly become overrun with materials.

Finally there is the need to take special care to appear professional while at home. Coloday says she has a machine to answer her calls so that children don't do it first and make her business sound amateurish.

Myers has bought office furniture for her family room to give a sense of serious purpose to the room.

Will we be seeing electronic cottages in every neighborhood and suburb before long?

"Absolutely," says Hollis Vail, systems analyst for the Department of Interior who has written extensively about computers for the World Futurist Society. "We will never get rid of the conventional office," he feels, "but technology will make the home a point of work that will be widespread.

"You will be able to set in your cottage office and link up electronically with people and information anywhere.

"We've only just nibbled at the edge of what's possible."