Slipping Into the Computer Age


After years of planting. Harvard's large-scale computerization is finally beginning to take form. A series of events over the past year suggests that Harvard is systematically confronting the dilemma of exactly how to computerize a sprawling campus.

The most significant student-oriented moves have been several recent deals with major firms to bring computers to students and staff at cut-rate prices. The most publicized was the deal Harvard and 23 other universities signed with the Apple Computer Company last January under which students can now obtain the much touted Macintosh, list priced at $2400, for just $1400.

In April, Harvard seamed up with Digital Electronics Corporation (DEC) to provide students with three of their best selling models at up to 35 percent off And this past summer they signed with IBM again to provide students and staff with three of their top models, including the popular PC, at about the same reduction.

While students benefit from drastically reduced costs, the computer companies gain access to test markets where students will likely develop new software for the various systems.

Harvard hopes to take advantage of market forces. Administrators believe that the cheapest and most economical way to handle the computer boom is to let students decide for themselves how much computer use they want and are willing to play for.

While the seven cut-rate models available are all selling well, officials say not all models are geared toward student use.

Sales at the Equipment Management Store, located at 65 Mt. Auburn st., have jumped from about 20 machines a month last year to about 50 a month, says Constance F. Towler, manager of information services in the University's Office for Information Technology. A sharp increase in sales is also expected this fall, she added.

Thus far, IBM has outsold both DEC and Apple by about four to one, says Otha T. Sonnie, Equipment Store manager in the Office for Information Technology, and the Macintosh is selling second.

"The name is selling the product," he says. "IBM is IBM, and the Macintosh is selling because you can't beat the price," Sonnie says. DEC's machines are not selling as well because of "low visibility," he adds.

"IBM has a good machine, but its by no means the best. Their strength is that they don't forget their users," he says.

The IBM models--the PC ($1600), the PC Portable ($2114) and the PC/XT ($2905)-are available on a first come, first serve basis. Delays of up to six weeks are expected on the PC, while the other two are already in stock, Towler says.

Also now available are the Macintosh ($1200), the DEC Rainbow ($1827), the DEC Professional 350 ($3050) and the DECmate II world processor ($1800).

Despite the wide and often confusing array, each machine is geared toward a specific market, Sonnie says. The Macintosh, the cheapest model available through the University, boasts excellent graphics capabilities and is very easy to use. Its memory, however, is limited as is the available software. The computer, which features the "mouse" pointer, is appeared especially for users who do a lot of writing, but it falls short in science and engineering related capabilities, Sonnie says. Humanities and social science students and faculty would benefit most from the Macintosh, he adds.

The best-selling IBM PC, equipped with two standard disk drives and a 256-K memory, is also suited for users who do a lot of writing, Sonnie says, and is very popular both among students and administrators. It also has an enormous selection of software.

The PC/XT, which boasts a hard disk drive, is similar to but faster than the PC and better suited for data gathering and number computations. It is geared more toward science and engineering applications and is also a popular choice among administrators.

The 30 pound PC portable is similar in function and capability to the PC, but is a one piece unit that folds into an oversized briefcase.

Both a business and student oriented computer, the DEC Rainbow can run approximately 2000 programs, and is highly comparable to the IBM PC. Again humanities and social studies users would find it particularly useful, while science oriented users might be better of with the IBM PC/XT, Sonnie says.

In sum, the IBM PC, Portable, and the DEC Rainbow are geared most towards the users who do a lot of writing, such as humanities majors. The Macintosh is a less expensive student oriented machine, with the drawback of limited software. Science oriented users would benefit most from the IBM PC/XT, and the DEC Professional 350 is a high powered all purpose computer. Finally, the DECmate II word processor is geared toward secretarial and administrative uses and is not often selected by students.


Harvard's computerization, however, is not focusing solely on sales, as administrators are exploring tying the personal computers together. This past summer, the University installed a cable network linking computers and terminals in several major administrative buildings on campus. Networking is crucial to any "computerized campus," as students and professors will want to communicate with one another, as well as retrieve data and other information from a central computer.

But networking is a complex business. The question of computability--that is, how to make different brands of computers talk to each other--remains a problem. Until this is worked out, networking here, and elsewhere, is likely to remain primitive.

"We're waiting to see how this first networking system works out before we extend it to other buildings and the dorms," says Paul C. Martin '52, dean of the Division of Applied Sciences.

When and if the University does establish such a system, officials say it is likely that the IBM, DEC and Apple machines would be compatible, but they are unwilling to speculate on the possibilities that lower priced brands would fit into the system.

"You're never 100 percent sure, but by going with IBM, DEC and Apple, you can expect to be pretty safe," Sonnie says.


On another front, the University will continue to experiment with personal computers in a number of courses. In Computer Sciences, the Macintosh will be used in Computer Science 11, "computers, Algorithms, and Programs." As in the past, an experimental section of Expository Writing will utilize IBM computers, and for the first time an experimental section of Social Analysis 10, "Principles of Economics," will utilize personal computers.

In foreign languages, programs have been developed to allow use of the Macintosh in courses ranging from German to Greek, says Scott Bradner, director of the foreign language software development program. He pointed specifically to computer directed vocabulary drills and translation testing as two examples of potential uses.

Further applications and designs of computer systems and programs at Harvard are currently under consideration by a set of five faculty task forces established last year by former Dean of the Faculty Henry Rosovsky. The committees are now closing out their discussions and are expected to submit reports this fall.