Presidents Corner

By Ken Williams


I am constantly asked and I constantly wonder, what the potential home penetration is for personal computers. By the turn of the century, will every home have a personal computer? Will computers be a forgotten fad replaced by intelligent telephones and supersophisticated TV's?

The answer to the computer acceptance question has a very real impact on those of us who own computers now. If the microcomputing community continues to grow, and eventually we become the majority of the general public, the potential of the home computer to change our lives is staggering. If, on the other hand, the number of computers in homes doesn't increase, the ultimate potential of the home computer will be severely lessened.

As one of the pioneers of the home computing business, I know that the development of the home market depends on software and hardware marketers coming up with suitable applications for the home. Home productivity and enrichment products like Homeword, Smart Money, and Print Shop are part of the answer, and games like King's Quest and Police Quest have helped to pull junior away from the TV set, but to reach total penetration, the home computer industry must reach out and really show how computers can be useful as vehicles of communication and storehouses of useful information.

Over the last decade, I've searched long and hard for the ideas that will fullfil the home computer's promise. Recently, I've been encouraged by a few products that seems to point in the right direction.

Other than television, which I don't know if we'll ever be able to get rid of, magazines and newspapers are probably the most popular form of mass communication, and the most expendable. Because anything that is printed takes time to print, the communication offered by these vehicles is always old news by the time you get it.

Recently, through a joint venture, Sears and IBM introduced PRODIGY into select markets. Prodigy is a combination "on-line newspaper" and "interactive magazine" that really points out the potential of the computer to replace the written word. For those of you that don't know about Prodigy, I'll explain. Prodigy combines the information services of a Compuserve or PClink, the fresh, useful information of the morning newspaper, and the well presented special interest information of a shelf full of current magazines into one service. The service is offered at only $10 a month.

I look at Prodigy and say to myself, "This is a preview of the future." I boot it up in the morning, and I'm greeted with a "front page" that gives headlines on the major news stories of the day. Beside each headline is a number to punch to bring up the text of the feature, which is written in a professional journalistic style. After the front page, I can check the stock price of my company's stock (it's listed as SIER in the NASDAQ exchange, by the way) through Prodigy's DOW JONES service. Because I'm a West Coaster and Wall Street opens before I get out of bed each morning, the stock price I see represents the price of my stock as it was within the last 15 minutes (not what it was after closing last night).

I can also catch the up-to-date price of other publicly traded home software companies or I can check to see if any of the top computer makers has finally made a big announcement. I also check the local weather, and occasionally the weather of the city I'm to travel to that day (Prodigy will give me a report for almost anywhere), and I always, always, read the PC Industry Column by Steward Alsop III.

If I have time during the morning (but usually at night), I'll access one of the "interactive magazine" sections of Prodigy. Among the writers for Prodigy are Gene Siskel (of Siskel and Ebert's "At the Movies"), Sylvia Porter (finances), Jane Fonda (fitness), Jolian Block (taxes) and a host of others. Each of these people contributes a column worth reading, and the columns are written when news happens, not just once a week or once a month.

It's great to have this on-line magazine rack constantly available, but the best part of Prodigy is that you can write the writers. Recently, I saw a Gene Siskel review of the movie PARENTS on Prodigy. As I enjoy such offbeat movies, and Gene appears to have similar taste, I wrote him a quick note asking if he could recommend similar films. The next day when I booted up the service, I had a short note waiting for me from Gene that contained the names of two other films I would like. Once, I didn't like a Steward Alsop column, and I got my aggressions out immediately by sending him a note of disagreement (no response from Steward was given or expected). I consider this interactivity to be the major plus of this interactive magazine format.

As much as I like Prodigy, I would be the first to say it isn't perfect and it won't replace magazines yet. The graphics of Prodigy are clunky and the service, being new, promises more than it seems to deliver at times. But Prodigy represents a good effort in the direction of quality home information delivery, and will progress with time. When a reasonable number of computers have 9600 baud modems and computers that can handle digitized pictures, I believe Prodigy will service those people with information in digital picture format. When that happens, I think magazines will have serious competition. As it stands, Prodigy already offers a great deal of user value for a very low cost (about the same as a monthly newspaper delivery). It's the kind of product that will further establish computers in homes.

A second product, or rather genre of products, that has cropped up lately is what I call the "interactive reference book". I came across one of these packages recently that I think is a great example of what future text reference books will be like. It's called PC Globe. In its simplist form, PC Globe is like an atlas. The main screen for the product opens up with a map of the world, and when you select any country, the computer will provide the information on it. The neat part about PC Globe (and other products like it) is that not only do you get the basic information that a reference book would give, but also it puts the information in a format where it can be easily worked and played with.


For instance, if you are leaving for a foreign country, you can acces PC Globe, pull up a screen and type in the current exchange rate for the country you're going to, and the computer will then automatically convert your money into the countries equivalent. If you tell the computer where you are right now, it will tell you how many miles away the place you're going is.

The real value of PC Globe comes out when you watch a kid use it. I had some interesting discussions with my teenage son when he started using the "compare" function of the product. He chose the United States, and chose to compare it with the top ten countries in areas such as infant mortality, relative age per capita, and other demographics.

Why does the United States have a higher infant mortaility rate than some "backware" countries?

Why don't our people live very long when compared to Europeans?

Why are the Japanese kicking the stuffing out of us in the production of not just card, but televisions and steel?

On top of it all, why are we paying 6.5% of our Gross National Product to defend the world, when countries like Italy spend less than 2.1% and seem to be in much more volatile places?

That my son was asking these questions told me that PC Globe had helped put a whole world of information into a format that my child could understand. Here he was comparing intricate statistics that make up our GNP's and our jobs, and yet I had trouble getting him interested in just about anything. It was information well well organized and well represented that captured his interest and inspired his curiosity.

PC Globe represents another genre of product that show how computers can replace other media. It gives perfect examples of how computers can easily access data in ways that make it far superior to a book.

Again of course, PC Globe isn't perfect. I don't mind that PC Globe can tell you that Japan (a relatively tiny country) produces more cars than the U.S. but can't tell you why (I don't think a computerized version of the book "Iacocca" could either).

What I do want is a program that can give me access to information from a major level (the world map) down to a fairly microscopic one. For instance, PC Globe will tell you that Beijing is the capital of the People's Republic of China, but can't tell you the name of the hotels there, what you can see if you visit, or even what the climate is like during a certain time of the year. These are things that I want to know that a book may be able to tell me (if I look through numerous tables or lists) but I should be able to obtain with little work. To PC Globe's defense, this kind of detail would take too much disk space for conventional media. When CD technology becomes an industry standard, I believe PC Globe might be able to provide what I want.

Like Prodigy, it only takes a few minutes with PC Globe to understand how it represents the future of reference media. The product can make a standard atlas virtually obsolete. It's a great example of how computers can improve the delivery of information, and package the information so that it can be more understandable, logical, and thought provoking.

About this time in my writing, I showed Roberta my article. True to the family style of not pulling any punches, her comment was "This is great stuff. So, with all these hot ideas you've got, how come we don't go out and chase those markets?"

I consider this answer to be easy. Entertainment, be it television, music, or a good book, is in my mind the #1 reason to own a home computer. If you take a look at how much Americans spent on stereo's, televisions, and VCR's last year, it easily outpaces how much they spend on more "productive" home goods like refridgerators, washing machines and microwave ovens. If people will pay $400 for a TV to watch "Laverne and Shirley" reruns, I can easily see them paying for a computer to play computer games and do their home finances.

Just as PC Globe represents a genre that will eventually usurp reference books, and Prodigy shows the future of computerized magazine/newspaper, I believe that Sierra games represent the next generation of home entertainment. Just as those two products add an interactive dimension to their respective fields, Sierra games add interactivity to what has always been a "passive" media.

If you're reading this letter, chances are extremely good that you know how a Sierra game currently works, so I won't bother to explain our games any further. Like these other products though, I can name a thousand ways that are games can be better, and I know that as computers get more powerful and allow us to do more, I will try to implement all thousand of those ways (and think up a thousand more). The exciting thing for me is that I can see all the things I need (and Prodigy and PC Globe needs) to make my products better coming. Computer graphics capabilities are getting better all the time, and are fast reaching a spot where they will rival television. Music capabilities to rival stereo are a reality in computers today, and voice output and recognition capabilities will be trivial once we have storage media large enough to hold the data for it. As memory and procesors get faster and more powerful, and storage media gets more sophisticated, the degree of interactivity we can have with movie quality images will also increase.

The technology needed to make home computers the ultimate source of home entertainment is already available, it's just much too expensive. As this technology is packaged for delivery to homes, and as it gains acceptance, you can expect Sierra to support it.

At Sierra, our goal is to try to be a driving force in this new multimedia interactive entertainment industry. I work hard to make sure that we deliver on that goal. I'm glad to see that other companies (like Sears and IBM) are working to bring other forms of home information and communication to the home as well. We've got some great ideas, but we need more powerful hardware to implement them. I see this hardware coming, so I'm excited about the future.

I just wish it would hurry up and get here.


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