T.R. REID and BRIT HUME

Fairly early in the life of this column, we told readers about a precocious little girl named Willa Reid who came home from preschool one day with a broad smile of satisfaction. After weeks of work, Willa declared proudly, she had learned all the letters, from A to Z. Now all she had to learn was how to tie her shoelaces, and she'd been done with school forever.

Somehow, we tied that comment to a computer-related issue as an excuse to print it in the column. Looking back at that old column now, the striking thing is how long ago it was written. That precocious little girl is now in high school. It's been nearly 15 years since Willa made her famous remark (famous in the Reid household, anyway), and we're still writing this column.

We've decided that 15 years is long enough. Next month we're going to stop writing this weekly Computer Report. In this week's column we'll explain why. Then, for the next couple of weeks, we'll review some of the greatest hits of the personal computer era, as related in this space.

Jimmy Carter was still president when a Washington Post reporter, T. R. Reid, became intrigued with the amazing reports coming out of California that people were actually buying computers for personal use. Most personal computers then came in kit form, so Reid bought a kit and spent weeks soldering it together.

It was a huge, clunky appliance with everything screen, keyboard, disk drive, and computer built into a single box. It had 4,000 bytes of RAM and a single floppy disk drive that held 45,000 bytes. The screen displayed text only, but it was fairly advanced for the time in that it could display both upper- and lower-case letters. There was no mouse, no modem, no hard disk, no sound, no color.

This machine, which came as a pile of unassembled parts, cost $2,200. Reid eventually saved up and bought his first peripheral, a printer that could turn out black letters in a single font. That cost more than the computer.

The Washington Post's business editor asked Reid to write a regular column about the strange notion of using a personal computer. Initially, hardly any of those reading this column actually owned PCs; they were just thinking about taking the plunge. One of the earliest readers to do so was an ABC News correspondent, Brit Hume. He sent so many letters that he and Reid soon made it a team effort.

It was fairly easy in those early days to be an expert on personal computers. There were few computers, few peripherals, and few decent software programs. Longtime readers may recall that we used to print programs in this column (in the BASIC programming language) for readers to type in and use. If we wrote about, say, checkbook-balancing programs, we could try every one on the market and choose the best. When a new printer hit the market, we tested it. (We clearly remember a breathless column predicting that there would soon be a color printer available for less than $2,000. Now you can get a vastly better printer for $200.)

Today, more than 40 percent of Americans have computers at home, and perhaps twice as many have easy access to a PC at work or school. Almost all readers of this column are computer users now, and many of them we might as well be frank here know more than we do about particular models, peripherals and programs.

In a recent column, for example, we predicted that Americans would eventually get completely free access to the Internet. Hundreds of readers wrote in to tell us about Internet Service Providers that already give free access. There's a national service called Netzero (www.netzero.com). And if you happen to live in the Puget Sound area, there's another, FreeInet (www.freei.net).

Most newspapers nowadays have staff reporters who are skillful techies, and several papers have replaced our column with staff-written reports. Even our home newspaper did that, which tells you something about the concept of corporate loyalty at the Washington Post Co.

We are enormously grateful to the readers who have followed our column over the years, and to the thousands who regularly write us. Some call us brilliant (thanks, Mom); others are less flattering. Some share our opinions; others stubbornly refuse to. For some strange reason, most readers still don't agree when we depict Microsoft as a hard-working little company harassed by overzealous government lawyers.

Very soon now, our weekly get-togethers here will come to an end. Nowadays, it's you readers who are the real experts on personal computers. You'll do fine without us.

T.R. Reid is London bureau chief of the Washington Post. Brit Hume is managing editor of Fox News in Washington. You can reach them in care of the Washington Post Writers Group, 1150 15th St., Washington D.C. 20071-9200, or you can e-mail T.R. Reid at trreid@twp.com and Brit Hume at 72737.357@compuserve.com.

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