At the end of last month, I was finally convinced that the personal computer has become dull and respectable. It wasn?t just Compaq?s acquisition of enterprise system maker Tandem. This would once have seemed remarkable (though not as remarkable as one wag?s suggestion that, if Compaq had not been so stingy, it should have bought Digital instead). But we know that erstwhile PC makers and software houses now have ambitions far beyond humble personal productivity, and seeing a company betting its business on a beige box bearing a big ?C? is no longer a rarity.
No, what really convinced me was a new TV series about gadgets, Hot Gadgets, fronted by the inevitable Carol Vorderman, who BBC executives obviously believe is the only person on the box who can both read an autocue and understand how it works. Gadgets, the Beeb has decided, are fun. To prove it, it wheeled out a road testing team composed entirely of gadget freaks ? the man with the low-maintenance magnetic fish, the woman whose door chimes can play Onward Christian Soldiers in 24 different keys, and so on. These were shown having fun (or not) with a scooter which folds up when you aren?t expecting it, and three grand?s-worth of electronic massage chair.
High-tech gadgets were also represented. There was the handheld global positioning system, which keeps users fit by making them walk five miles round in circles instead of one mile in a straight line; isn?t it amazing what 24 satellites can achieve? And there was the computerised cook book with a small LCD display, which was described by one contestant as state of the art circa 1950, and which told another to buy 90 cabbages to prepare a candlelit dinner for three ? obviously under the misapprehension that he was entertaining a brace of elephants.
But personal computers, in the proper sense, there were none, presumably because the BBC thinks they are too boring. Instead, PCs were given their own half-hour show a few weeks ago (no prizes for guessing who presented it). It was a pretty good effort, overall, with more emphasis on what you can do with the beast than on bytes and baud rates. But there wasn?t much fun. Instead of the self-confessed nerds who appeared on Hot Gadgets, the road testers were Mr and Mrs Ordinary, with their humdrum children and sensible, suburban lives, whose highest ambition was to do their French homework or rearrange their living room furniture.
What a come-down from the days when computer aficionados were wild of eye, bald of pate, bushy of beard and craggy of countenance ? not to mention a bit soft of head. Where are the small boys who frittered away their youth playing Space Invaders in murky black and green? What happened to the grown men who spent hours crouched over a Sinclair Spectrum, peeking and poking until it had calculated all the prime numbers between one and 10, or playing adventure games in which high-born dwarfs slouched around and sang about gold?
In desperation I turned to Innovations, the mail-order firm whose catalogues lurk in the folds of Sunday newspapers, and now, naturally enough, on its own Web page. Here I found the bathroom scales which analyse your body fat; the vibrating alarm watch (which presumably either prevents embarrassment or causes it, depending on how soon you switch it off); the video which teaches you to belly dance into shape (or the divorce courts); and the umbrella with a built-in light (presumably to enable mosquitoes to find you more easily in the dark).
But even here I was disappointed. The only products in the new technology section were a maths CD-Rom, a better battery charger, and a kind of electronic whoopee cushion, which enables music lovers and computer game players to feel the beat via their posteriors. The most way-out PC products I could find were earnest training videos on Lotus 1-2-3, some sensible voice recognition software and a monitor stand (yawn).
Once upon a time, when I told people I wrote about computers for a living, they looked impressed and slightly nervous, as though the combination of intellect and otherworldliness obviously required for the task must have made me a dangerous person to know. Now they baffle me with questions on the finer points of Office 97, or bore me with the news that their three-year-old has progressed so fast at the keyboard that it has already learned to touch-type and compose quartets.
Was the personal computer?s fate decided when the ?suits? replaced the nerds at Apple, or when IBM muscled in and muscled out the niche players? Did PCs cease to be exciting when business users overtook the hobbyists, or when department stores began to rival specialist resellers? No, I think it hung in the balance until the archetypical nerd ? the bespectacled college drop-out with the whining voice who started business in his dad?s garage ? became the richest man in the world. Sorry, Bill, but it?s all your fault.
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