A couple of years ago, when the Computer Bloom was still on the rose, people went out and did silly things. Like buying $3,000 systems that, because of the hassles of family life, an inability to become computer literate or just plain lack of energy, now sit partially disassembled in the study.
Part of the problem was an excess of features. Those who bought top-of-the-line home computers to do simple word-processing functions -- writing letters, taking a plunge at that novel, organizing recipes, doing term papers -- found themselves hunting cockroaches with a howitzer.
No longer. One of the hottest segments of the computer industry is in the area of dedicated word processors or, as they're also called, "personal writers." These are computers for the noncomputer-minded -- those whose minds go foggy at the mere mention of such high-tech buzzwords as "multi-tasking," "spreadsheet," "database" or "on/off switch," and who would rather wash the kitchen floor than curl up with such articles as "New Developments in Multi-Line Data Entry Forms."
With a personal writer, the software is built-in and the instructions are simple. Unpack the machine from the box, slip in a disk and, within two minutes, a beginner can be plugging away. Personal writers also are relatively cheap -- under $1,000, and descending from there.
The bad news: You can't use these machines to play games, communicate with other computers or run complicated charts that will determine just who in your organization deserves a prize for selling the most widgets.
About 3.5 million home computers will be sold this year. Personal writers, by contrast, are small-scale stuff -- about 200,000 units in '87. Projections for 1990, however, run as high as 1 million. Drawn by the sweet scent of profits, many more companies are expected to join the half-dozen who already are making these machines.
To sell 1 million personal writers, a lot of people are going to have to be convinced they need one. "You have to evaluate the amount of typing you do in the course of a day, a week, a month, or a year," says Fred Feuerhake, a Smith Corona marketing vice president. "From that, determine if the capabilities of a word processor are going to lend themselves to your needs. If you only write an occasional note, I'd say no. But for any type of text creation that requires storage, manipulation, or review for corrections, word processors are something to consider."
Experiments with several leading models -- the Smith Corona 6 and 14 and the Magnavox Videowriter 350 -- revealed that, for someone who is impatient with computers but craves the ability to easily rewrite and store copy, a personal writer can be very handy. Letter-writing, especially, is a pleasure. These machines could bring back the nearly lost art of epistolary communication. Screen resolution is the only immediate problem: Staring at these terminals for hours at a time can cause eyestrain.
"Personal writers are a low-cost solution to a particular problem," says Charlotte Legates, director of communications for the Computer and Business Equipment Manufacturers Assn. (CBEMA), a Washington trade group. "If I want to go from the Capitol to Georgetown, my low-cost solution is to take the Metro. That doesn't mean I don't want a car, or that a car wouldn't offer me a lot more flexibility -- but I might not be able to afford it, or the cost-benefit for this trip might not pay off."
These new products are designed to do only one thing, and they usually do it well. "Their level of word processing is much better than a PC's word-processing software program," says Andy Bose, a vice president of consumer technologies at Link Resources, a New York market research firm. Printing is usually letter quality, and user-friendliness is much higher than with a regular computer. The Magnavox Videowriter 350, for instance, devotes a portion of its screen to explicitly telling the user what his next option is. A bright 8-year-old could use it.
Since you could buy an inexpensive home computer and a personal writer for roughly the same money, most experts believe the word processors will have to get even cheaper. "The price will come down to be competitive, or the product will cease to exist," says Legates of CBEMA, noting that "historically, prices of all computers have come down about 10 percent a year. Sometimes, though, it's hard to judge -- the product that will be available in two years won't be the same product that's available today. It will be better."
The buying strategy advised by Legates includes having a very clear idea of what you're going to be doing with your machine, and then telling the salesman all about it. "If you're going to be doing business correspondence, for instance, you don't want dot-matrix printing ... And you should ask yourself if you ever intend to do more than word processing. Some people want the flexibility to do more, even if they don't want to do it now."
Electric or electronic typewriters can be found in about a third of U.S. households; personal computers have carved a niche in about half that many homes. Manufacturers of personal writers see their product as taking the best functions of each of these competitors, and in the process slicing out a chunk of each market.
In fact, Smith Corona got into the field because of dire warnings that the home computer was going to make the ordinary typewriter obsolete. Not a good omen for a company that makes half of the country's $500-and-cheaper typewriters.
Smith Corona's response was to begin development of its two current models, the PWP 6 and 14. The 6 (listing for $599) is a self-contained word processor that is designed to be portable, although it's still fairly heavy; it also can be easily stored in a closet. The 14 (also $599) has a larger screen and more memory capacity, but needs to be hooked up to an SCM electronic typewriter, which will add another couple of hundred dollars. The company says the internal capabilities of both basically are the same.
Other leading personal writers are Magnavox's 350 (listing for $799), which is aimed more at individual consumers, and its 450 ($899), which is designed for home offices and small businesses. And then there's the Amstrad PCW 9512, which is a sign of how confusing this field may soon become.
Amstrad is little-known in the United States, but it's the largest computer manufacturer in Britain. The PCW 9512 ($799) is something of a hybrid. On the one hand, it has the data-processing capabilities, letter-quality printing, ease of use and relatively low price that the best personal writers offer. But Amstrad claims its machine is special because of a full-size screen, greater memory and, above all, the fact that it can be upgraded to full communication with other computers or with such electronic communication and mail services as CompuServe and The Source.
Analyst Bose expresses confidence in the ultimate value of the best personal writers. "In a sense, these are the new-generation typewriters," he says, "and there's always a place for typewriters in the home -- especially if the prices can be brought down to levels where consumers don't have to wonder if it's a worthwhile investment."
A further promising note is provided by the Electronic Industries Association, a Washington trade group. A spokeswoman there says they haven't received any consumer complaints concerning a personal writer -- although she adds that this may only be because it's such a new product.