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  Chapter Fifteen:

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Personal Computers

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The number of personal computers in American homes escalated when the World Wide Web was developed.
Apple marketed the first fully assembled personal computers in 1977, but a mass market did not develop immediately. The operating systems, peripheral devices, and providers that made them useful were introduced piecemeal in the years that followed—MS-DOS in 1982, the Lotus spreadsheet in 1983, graphical user interfaces in 1984, laser printers in 1985, high-resolution monitors in 1986, and the first on-line services in 1988. Portable computers were introduced in 1981; laptops with high-quality displays came later. Because their speed and memory double in about eighteen months, personal computers become obsolete faster than almost any other appliance, their value plummeting to near zero in about four years. 

When a Defense Department computer network unexpectedly evolved into the Internet in 1991 and the Internet spawned the World Wide Web in 1992, computer usage accelerated. By 1999, the Web contained an estimated 800 million pages, and about a third of the nation’s households were connected to it for information, audio and video entertainment (including pornography), e-mail connections with the entire world, and on-line commerce of every kind. 

The Web was qualitatively different from earlier computer applications such as the spreadsheet and word processing. The Web was first a communications medium, allowing ordinary persons to publish or discover vast quantities of material. It created entire social networks, such as the tens of thousands who play bridge interactively and the millions who buy from on-line auction sites. 

A broad range of human activities migrated to the Web. Some were exotic, such as purchasing an asteroid of one’s own or viewing spy satellite images of old Soviet air force bases. Mundane activities were also moving increasingly onto the Web: finding a mate, monitoring the behavior of children with a “Web cam,” making airline reservations, getting a college education, deciding which movie theater to visit, reading the news, gambling, creating and investing in a 401(k) pension plan, selecting a physician, consulting the Encyclopedia Britannica or the card catalog of the Library of Congress, buying groceries, doing one’s tax return and submitting it to the IRS, and voting. Many of these activities were either free or much cheaper than alternative methods. And by the end of the century, cellular phones provided access to the Web, making all of these activities portable.

Chapter 15 chart 6

Source Notes
Source Abbreviations

Robert Kominsky, Computer Use in the United States: 1984 (Washington, D.C.: Bureau of the Census, 1988). See also Eric Newburger, Computer Use in the United States, at the CB web site, (accessed September 20, 2000). For a chronology of the computer revolution, see NYT 1999, pages 787–789.


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