The Family Benefits of the PC Revolution

Article excerpt

One night a couple of years ago, Madeline SheaAEs infant son woke up crying. Congested and cranky, he gave Shea a scare, and left her in a quandary. It was 3 a.m. Should she take him to the emergency room? Should she wake up her family doctor? Should she just do nothing?

Fortunately, she had another alternative. Shea sat down in front of her Macintosh computer, typed an e-mail to her doctor, and then went to bed. Within a few hours, she received an e-mail in reply reassuring her that her sonAEs sniffles were perfectly normal. "I feel like I have a direct line to my doctor at any time of the day or night, but without annoying him or interrupting him," Shea told USA Today.

Furthermore, by conducting some of her conversations with her doctor by e-mail, she can easily print a copy of important information for her husband, baby-sitter, or pharmacist to read. University of Kentucky researcher Richard Neill conducted a survey of 117 patients like Shea who use e-mail to talk to their doctors. He found patients most valued how e-mail made it easy to get prescriptions filled, obtain lab results, and make appointments. Nine of 10 had discussed medical problems with their doctors via the Internet.

When considering the relationship between entrepreneurial capitalism and the quality of our everyday lives, the most obvious place to start is the computer industry. It presents some of the most inspiring and enlightening stories of entrepreneurship in modern times. Personal computers, for example, have become so ubiquitous as to fade into the background of our daily lives. And if Bill Gates and other techno-futurists are to be believed, this trend will only continue as computers physically merge with clothing, furniture, and houses.

The Bountiful PC

Stories like SheaAEs are useful because they help make the abstract concrete and put a human face on issues that all too often seem technical and esoteric. Consider these underappreciated benefits of the spread of personal computers:

* PCs have given families more power over their own finances. Quicken, which has given software designer Intuit 75 percent of the market for personal finance, now helps millions of people balance their checkbooks, track investment earnings, compute their taxes, and plan for the future. In many cases, these are services that families used to have to purchase from financial institutions, accountants, or other providers.

* PCs are one likely cause of the growth in home-schooling in recent years. During the 1996-97 school year, more than 1 million children were taught at home rather than at elementary and secondary schools, according to the National Home Education Research Institute. ThatAEs more than triple the number of home-schooled kids in 1990. While other factors are no doubt helping to drive this trend, the growth in usage of PCs, educational software, and the Internet during the same period must be more than a coincidence. As one home-schooling friend of mine put it, PCs donAEt create the desire for parents to home-school their kids, "but they reduce the costs for doing so significantly." The World Book Encyclopedia, for example, costs hundreds of dollars in bound volumes but only $50 on a CD-ROM.

* PCs have fueled a boom in small-business start-ups, particularly those based in the home, which account for a third of all new firms. From an estimated 6 million home-based businesses in 1980, the ranks of the home-based self-employed grew to more than 30 million by 1994. They use PCs to keep their books, contact new customers, and correspond with contractors. Henry Davis of Natick, Massachusetts, started a strategic marketing and consulting firm for high-tech clients out of his home after his employer laid him off. "I asked myself why I should beat half my brains out and make money for someone else," Davis says, "when I could beat half my brains out and make money for myself, plus have more time with my family. …