People can list countless reasons for the importance of computers. For someone with a disability, for example, a computer may offer freedom to communicate, learn, or work without leaving home. For a sales professional, a PC may mean the ability to communicate whenever necessary, to track leads, and to manage an ever-changing schedule. For a researcher, a computer may be the workhorse that docs painstaking and time-consuming calculations. But if you took all the benefits that people derive from computers, mixed them together, and distilled them down into a single element, what would you have? The answer is simple: information. Computers are important because information is so essential to our lives. And information is more than the stuff you see and hear on television. Facts in a textbook or an encyclopedia are information, bur only one kind. Mathematical formulas and their results arc information, too, as arc the plans for a building or the recipe for a cake. Pictures, songs, addresses, games, menus, shopping lists, resumes— the list goes on and on. All these things and many others can be thought of as information, and they can all be stored and processed by computers. (Actually, if you work in one place and need to perform various tasks, a desktop computer is the best choice. Choose a desktop computer if you want to
» Work with Graphics-Intensive or Desktop Publishing Applications. Complex graphics and page-layout programs require a great deal of system resources, and a desktop system’s large monitor reduces eye fatigue.
» Design or Use Multimedia Products. Even though many portable computers have multimedia features, you can get the most for your money with a desktop system. Large screens make multimedia programs easier to see, and stereo-style speakers optimize sound quality.
» Set Up Complex Hardware Configurations. A desktop computer can support multiple peripherals—including printers, sound and video sources, and various external devices—at the same time. If you want to swap components, or perform other configuration tasks, a desktop system will provide many options.
Computers store these things as data, not as information, but you’ll learn the difference between the two later in the book.) So, when you consider the importance of computers in our society, think instead about the importance of information. As tools for working with information, and for creating new information, computers may be one of humanity's most important creations.
In many American homes, the family computer is nearly as important as the refrigerator or the washing machine. People cannot imagine living without it. In fact, a growing number of families have multiple PCs in their homes; in most cases, at least one of those computers has an Internet connection. Why do home users need their computers?
» Communications. Electronic mail (e-mail) continues to be the most popular use for home computers, because it allows family members to communicate with one another and to stay in contact with friends and coworkers.
» Business Work Done at Home. Thanks to computers and Internet connections, more people are working from home than ever before. It is possible for many users to connect to their employer’s network from home and do work that could not be done during regular business hours. Computers also are making it easier for people to start their own home-based businesses.
» Schoolwork. Today’s students are increasingly reliant on computers, and not just as a replacement for typewriters. The Internet is replacing printed books as a reference tool, and easy-to-use software makes it possible for even young users to create polished documents.
» Entertainment. If you had ever played a computer game, you know how enjoyable they can be. For this reason, the computer has replaced the television as the entertainment medium of choice for many people. As computer; audio, video, and broadcast technologies converge, the computer will someday be an essential component of any home entertainment center.
» Finances 'Computer’s and personal finance software can make balancing your checkbook an enjoyable experience. Well, almost. At any rate, they certainly make it easier, and home users rely on their PCs for bill paying, shopping, investing, and other financial chores.
More and more schools are adding computer technology to their curricula, not only teaching pure computer skills, but incorporating those skills into other classes. Students may be required to use a drawing program, for example, to draw a plan of the Alamo for a history class, or use spreadsheet software to analyze voter turnouts during the last century’s presidential elections. Educators see computer technology as an essential learning requirement for all students, starting as early as preschool. Even now, basic computing skills such as keyboarding are being taught in elementary school classes. In the near future, high school graduates will enter college not only with a general diploma, but with a certification that proves their skills in some area of computing, such as networking or programming.
Many of today’s successful small companies simply could not exist without computer technology. Each year, hundreds of thousands of individuals launch businesses based from their homes or in small-office locations. They rely on inexpensive computers and software not only to perform basic work functions, but to manage and grow their companies. These tools enable business owners to handle tasks—such as daily accounting chores, inventory management, marketing, payroll, and many others—that once required the hiring of outside specialists. As a result, small businesses become more self-sufficient and reduce their operating expenses.
Today, enterprises use different kinds of computers in many combinations. A corporate headquarters may have a standard PC-based network, for example, but its production facilities may use computer controlled robotics to manufacture products. Here are just a few ways computers are applied to industry:
» Design. Nearly any company that designs and makes products can use a computer-aided design or computer-aided manufacturing system in their creation.
» Shipping. Freight companies need computers to manage the thousands of ships, planes, trains, and trucks that are moving goods at any given moment. In addition to tracking vehicle locations and contents, computers can manage maintenance, driver schedules, invoices and billing, and many other activities.
» Process Control. Modem assembly lines can be massive, complex systems, and a breakdown at one point can cause chaos throughout a company. Sophisticated process-control systems can oversee output, check the speed at which a machine runs, manage conveyance systems, and look at parts inventories, with very little human interaction.
Not only are government’s big consumers of technology, but they help to develop it as well. “Presenting the Internet," the U.S. government played a key role in developing the Internet. Similarly, NASA has been involved in the development of computer technologies of all sorts. Today, computers play a crucial part in nearly every government agency:
» Population. The U.S. Census Bureau was one of the first organizations to use computer technology, recruiting mechanical computers known as “difference engines" to assist in tallying the American population in the early 20th century.
»Taxes. Can you imagine trying to calculate Americans’ tax bills without the help of computers? Neither could the Internal Revenue Service. In fact, the IRS now encourages taxpayers to file their tax returns online, via the Internet.
Military. Some of the world's most sophisticated computer technology has been developed primarily for use by the military. In fact, some of the earliest digital computers were created for such purposes as calculating the trajectory of missiles. Today, from payroll management to weapons control, the armed forces use the widest array of computer hardware and software imaginable.
Police. When it comes to stocking their crime-fighting arsenals, many police forces consider computers to be just as important as guns and ammunition. Today’s police cruisers are equipped with laptop computers and wireless Internet connections that enable officers to search for information on criminals, crime scenes, procedures, and other kinds of information.