Talking Drums

The West African News Magazine

Exploding the myth about microcomputers

What potential users in Africa must know

By Kofi Tetteh

Kofi Tetteh, London-based micro-systems analyst continues his discussion on computer use in Africa and the numerous myths about the usages and applications of the fast growing informatics technology
There have been many misconceptions and erroneous impressions carried by many in Africa about using Informatics in general and the microcomputer in particular. For many years the mere mention of the word computers has sent shivers down the spine of potential users. To some it connotes magic and mystique. They feel so uncomfortable about computers that they refrain and shy away from engaging in conversations about them. The reasons for this are varied. Some have been attributed to the attitudes and behaviours of earlier computer specialists. These specialists created a cult and a mystique. Other reasons given by potential users when asked why they feel as such about computers are: "I have not done enough mathematics," "I have not the flair for machines" "I am too old and gadgets confuse me," and "they are expensive".

This article aims to put the potential user at ease and encourage him to take the first steps towards the use of micros.

As a result of these misconceptions computer-phobia has a predominant hold in Africa. But computer-phobia is a figment of people's imagination.

In the last decade the movement towards the use of micros is nowhere near exhausted and it is expected to continue while the cost-performance UK which has accompanied microsystems continues with even greater benefits expected. We also find the cult dying. The mystique of using computers is being rapidly eroded. More and more people are insisting that they are allowed to understand computers in their own rights and the computer professionals are using language which the layman and the end user can understand. Much of the literature now contain less jargons. A lot of manuals are becoming user- friendly. Most manufacturers have put thousands of micros on the market that the sight and use of micros should no longer put potential managers, executives, teachers and ordinary people in Africa out of their use. Rather they should use them, micros are now commonplace.

Turnkey systems and system houses have gone further by transcending the language barriers. A typical example is the TOPAS International package to the African division of ESSO. The first sight to use Transaction Order Processing and Scheduling Package in Africa is in the Senegal to be followed by Ivory Coast and eventually 13 other countries. Due to the variety of languages in Africa taking the package, the package will be available in English, French and Spanish.

Governments, industries and computer specialists are all mounting campaigns and activities in the process to eradicate this fear of computers.

In France, for instance, the government has taken IT to the masses by the launching of a new drive to popularise information technology. ‘Informatique pour tous' informatics for all. The project is designed to boost the presence of micros or computer terminals in schools, colleges, industries and the universities. By the end of 1986 it is envisaged 150,000 teachers should be familiar with using and teaching micro based techniques.

In the UK, the Information Technology Year campaign of 1982 had a runaway success. By the end of the year, 62% of the population were aware of IT compared to 17% at the end of 1981.

India is also said to appear to be taking to massive computerisation like a duck to water. The pace is being set from the top by the Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, who has already earned the title "computerjiv".

It is also claimed that the Government in Zimbabwe has shown its commitment to using computers by using a machine to coordinate the electoral register. An international organisation, the UK Council for Computing Development provides direct support by the UK for developing countries in the development of their own computing capability".

Thus the attempts to encourage people to use computers and efforts to dispel fears about micros are endless. The writing on the wall is that there is nothing to fear about using the machine.

Manufacturers, dealers, and OEMS have not been left far behind in the process of taking the mystique out of the use of computers. In the process they have started production of user friendly hardware and software together with manuals which the layman can easily understand and use. Besides the increase in production of micros as opposed to mainframes, minis and midis, the increase has led to many offices, factories and shops to have microsystems installed.

Home computers, and recently in the last couple of years the advent of portable computers especially the knee- top or lap-top models seemed to have knocked the phobia out of the industry. The portable computer industry is predicted to account for 62% of all personal computers in 1986.

Thus while a few years ago only the computer high priest could go near a computer (mainframe or mini) locked away in a sanctorum - a holy, clean and spotless room, the transition through mainframes, midi, minis, micros and now lap-tops means that now you can own a computer and use it when you are on the move, in a train, in a car, in the office, in the house, on the farm and even in the cake shop. You can even use it to diagnose cancer in the comfort of your own home and possibly help you cure it - The Kelly Program from the USA.

The sizes and weights have also had a tremendous impact on friendliness and usage.

Suppliers, manufacturers and dealers have gone further by holding frequent exhibitions, fairs, lectures and training all in the attempt to help the end user cure the phobia syndrome. In the event, micros have become tools to be used and not to be phobic about. Thus to say that one needs to study micro-electronics, or mathematics or physics in order to use a micro is just a poppycock; millions and millions of people can drive cars but they are not motor mechanics.

Lots and lots of people use hi-fi systems, video equipment but they are not electronic engineers. Anybody of average intelligence can use a microcomputer. Children as young as 3 years old have been known to use micros successfully. Again, age should never be a handicap. Using micros knows no barriers. However it must be stressed that one critical factor to take into account is one must be clear what one wants to use a micro for.

Another notion we must dispel is the one created by the mainframe. For many, the mention of a computer connotes mainframe, costing a anything between £100K-£500K, a large air-conditioned room, spotless and clear with "no unauthorised persons allowed" notice at the entrance.

India is also said to appear to be taking to massive computerisation like a duck to water. The pace is being set from the top by the Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, who has already earned the title "computerjiv"

Programmers and system analysts are looked upon as some kind of gurus who are the only high priests to use computers. But the industry today is a far cry, to a degree, from the industry in the fifties and the early sixties. There is no need for large air-conditioned rooms for micros. For an outlay as little as £2k, one can get a business system. Once again cost which used to be a prohibitive factor is no longer true.

To use a micro, it does not necessarily mean you must become a programmer or an analyst. There is no need to understand the dynamics and the mechanics of the microprocessors. Computer literacy does not mean a 3 year course in computer science at the university. You do not have to be an expert on the keyboard. Neither should you be a skilful typist.

Another excuse sometimes given for shying away from the use of computers and, for that matter, micros is that they work in areas where there is no software for computer application. But the truth of the matter is with about 6000 softwares on the market there is hardly an area lacking a software. One can even find a software for undertakers. Alpha Micro systems, a US system house in conjunction with Superior International in the UK will be marketing systems in the funeral home and cemetry industry.

In Africa where most of the economies are agriculture and farming based, farmers should not have any fears in using micros. Microsystems have made in-roads into farming and agriculture. "By providing a current stock and crop database, computers contribute to rational decision-making on the farm," explains Dr Roger Atkins, Scientific liaison officer at Bristol University's Long Ashton Agricultural Research station. "They are also essential tools in agriculture research. Computers are also used to predict situations which could lead to outbreaks of plant diseases".

Apple microcomputers are also being used in the crop protection divisions spray application research. In brief it must be said that any activity function which requires data to be processed into information to aid decision-making, especially accurate, quality and cost-effective, computer applications are the best solutions.

The proliferation of micros and softwares have helped and increased the familiarisation process. It is estimated that there are about 1 million micros in the UK. In the US it is being said that by 1990 the ratio of computers to population of white- collar workers will be one to one. Numerous courses, books, magazines and journals are available to help people cross the jargon barrier. In Western and many European countries schools have become aware of the need to teach young and old about computers. In fact it will be the education system which will finally put 'computer-phobia' to rest. Looked at it from another angle, computer-phobia has been the result of ignorance. Fortunately computer literacy can now be acquired with little or no pain at all. The implications for users in Africa are absolutely clear. Within the next few years almost every office, workshop, factory and school will need to make use of computers in order to increase productivity and the personal effectiveness of their workers.

Informatics in this decade and the coming years will be the predominant industry. And in these days of intense national and international competition, rapid technological changes, business managers are realising that effective production, marketing distribution and Cost- control depend upon the availability of timely and reliable information.

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