Author(s):    Richard Saltus, Globe Staff Date: August 8, 1993 Page: 1 Section: NATIONAL/FOREIGN

Although he presides over the country's largest computer society, when Bob Grenoble is at work he scribbles notes on a yellow legal pad, jots down times for meetings in an ordinary appointment book, and generally ignores the small Macintosh at his elbow. There are two personal computers at home, but the Grenoble family has found little household use for them except writing letters and doing occasional accounting. Their young daughter also enjoys some educational games. "Eighty percent of the time, I use it like a typewriter, for word processing, and so does my wife," says Grenoble, president of the 25,000- member Boston Computer Society. "I tried balancing my checkbook with it for a while, but it turned out I could do it more easily with a pen and a calculator."

In the late 1970s and early '80s, when manufacturers shrank the computer to desktop size and made it affordable, home computers were expected to become indispensable appliances. They were going to take over mundane tasks, speed up household budgeting and shopping, control appliances and security systems, and create more free time. Some people said they might even make us smarter.

But in 1993, it's clear that the home computer revolution has fallen far short of predictions.

Barely one-third of US households own PCs, even in the wake of vicious price wars and mass marketing in the past two years that have made personal computers as easy to buy as a stereo.

When Grenoble says his PC is underemployed at home, it sounds like heresy, given his position as head of an organization that is dedicated to promoting computer use. Yet he believes that except for a hard core of hobbyists and fanatics whose lives revolve around computers, the promise of the personal computer "revolution" has passed most people by, more than a decade after it was first proclaimed.

In 1982, Time magazine put the PC on its cover as "Machine of the Year," and in an accompanying poll, nearly 80 percent of Americans surveyed said that PCs would become as commonplace as TVs, dishwashers and stereos.

There are 33 million personal computers in homes today, but the great majority are being used by "students and people overworking at home," says Paul Saffo, an analyst with the Institute for the Future, a consulting firm in Palo Alto, Calif. Counting computers used strictly for nonbusiness home purposes, the penetration in US households drops to about 17 percent, according to figures from Link Resources, a New York company that follows industry trends.

"On the whole, the use of computers in the home has been an utter failure," says Donald A. Norman, a technology specialist at Apple Computers in Cupertino, Calif. "And it's the fault of the computer companies. These things will never succeed until they are based on an understanding of people, not of technology," says Norman, author of "Things That Make Us Smart," a study of the relationship between human beings and machines.

Norman overstates the case a bit: Plenty of computer owners say they have put their machines to good use in the home, creating documents and letters, tracking their expenses and doing their taxes, playing games, making use of "on-line services" that enable them to chat electronically with other users. Children using PCs at home are taking advantage of educational programs (though the once-popular idea of "computer literacy" is heard much less today). And whether or not using personal computers for home tasks actually saves time or yields other measureable benefits, some people simply get a kick out of making computers do their bidding.

"We have members who, if they can't do it on a computer, won't do it at all," says Grenoble of the computer society.

To people in and out of the industry, the biggest underlying reason for the lagging PC revolution is that the machines and their software remain too complex for many people -- certainly much harder to use than answering machines or even the notoriously user-unfriendly VCR.

In business, PC users can better exploit today's high-powered machines and programs with zillions of features. But in the home, lacking the training sessions that companies provide, many people still find themselves overwhelmed by a complicated spreadsheet or a desktop publishing program that takes weeks to learn. Even the Macintosh computer, with its visual "desktop" of colorful icons -- and its IBM-compatible counterpart, called Windows -- haven't made the machines simple to use.

Last month, Dell Computer Corp. released a survey showing that 32 percent of adults are intimidated by computers, and 25 percent wouldn't use one unless forced to.

A woman who signed up for an introductory course at the computer society, Shirley Borella of Marlborough, says she recently bought a new computer but was afraid to plug it in after reading a warning that without proper precautions, she might inadvertently erase vital instructions loaded on the hard disk. "It's a little scary," she says. "You have to make sure you know what you're doing before you start."

That many people have experiences like this seems to be dawning on manufacturers, as a chorus of self-criticism is beginning to be heard.

"What will it take to get us to realize that customers are asking not for the latest technology but to make machines that make their lives easier?" says a spokesman for Dell Computer Corp., quoting president Michael Dell.

His statement begs the question that many critics ask: What exactly can a machine that's essentially an information organizer and number-cruncher find to do around the house?

Computerphiles may delight in using their machines for finances or storing family records or printing out calendars, but many people who do things the old way don't see compelling reasons to change.

Lee Eiseman, who lives with his wife and 3-year-old child in Charlestown, argues that a computer would be of no particular use to him, except for occasional word processing -- and he can get his computer-addicted friends to do that for him.

"I think computers are an excuse for compulsive people who end up wasting great amounts of time balancing their checkbooks and studying their expenses in great detail," says Eiseman, who is 44. "Whereas someone like myself can spend two nights at the end of the year getting my financial information together and doing my taxes -- and I haven't spent all that time during the year putting the information into the computer."

Ultimately, Eiseman says, "I think the computer is an adult toy, and once people buy it, they have to justify it by finding other things to do with it." Most of the home uses for which PCs are advertised are "trivial uses of an extravagant technology," Eiseman says.

Theodore Roszak, the author and historian who wrote "The Making of the Counterculture" and "The Cult of Information," would agree with Eiseman. Paradoxically, he says, it's the computer's versatility that is its weakness.

"Everyone knows what a fax machine and a VCR and a refrigerator are for," says Roszak, a professor of history at California State University in Hayward. "So they take it home and use it for that. The industry merchandises computers in a thousand different ways, but it may not have any single use for people in their lives."

Do these home budgeting and other programs really make people more efficient or save time? Rarely, if the so-called "productivity paradox" discovered by economists in the mid '80s holds true. That's the term for the finding that after investing billions of dollars in computer technology, the white-collar business sector in America had not improved its productivity in any measureable way.

This astonishing conclusion emerged from a study carried out in 1986 by economist Gary Loveman, then at MIT's Sloan School of Management and now at Harvard Business School.

One explanation may be that computers lure people into thinking they are improving productivity by performing ever-more detailed analyses of data or giving a polished look to mundane reports and presentations -- but not making the information any better.

"The problem is that people submit proposals and reports that are longer and printed in fancy fonts and filled with graphics and other superficial things, but the product itself is no more valuable than what preceded [it]," Loveman says.

In fact, what emerges through all the advertising and proliferation of home computer software for making calendars, creating shopping lists, building a deck or tracing a family tree, is that most people use their machines for word processing, period.

Cambridge architect Anne Tate is glad to have her notebook computer, even though it's far from the most up to date. It enables her to write anywhere, and she uses it while commuting by train to Providence, where she teaches at the Rhode Island School of Design. For her, it's a single-purpose tool: It holds no attraction as a digital companion or a way to play games, create fancy graphics or organize her life.

"If I have a half-hour of spare time in the evening, the last thing I want to do is type records into a machine," she says. "When it was new, it might have been fun, but I just wouldn't find it that interesting now."

In an airy, modern town house not far from Harvard Square, Dr. Harry Goldman and his family have computerized their daily lives to such a degree that even the techno-prophets of the early '80s might be astonished.

Not one, but three Macintosh computers live here along with Goldman, who is a neurologist, his fiancee, Mary Canning, his two sons and her daughter. The house, liberally equipped with computers that store family records, provide entertainment and create links to Goldman's medical office, exemplifies the "electronic cottage" foreseen by Alvin Toffler and other futurist writers.

Only a few years ago, Goldman says, he knew nothing about computers. But after purchasing his first one, he underwent a sort of religious conversion common to owners of the Macintosh machines, known for the colorful graphic symbols used in their operation. (IBM-compatible computers' Windows system, which arrived later, is similar.)

"It's become a vital interface between me and the kids," says Goldman, who is 37. He and the children -- ages 6, 8 and 11 -- began with computer games and moved on to sophisticated graphics programs that allow all sorts of experiments with electronic paint, watercolor and other media (and no cleaning up). When the kids come up with something particularly creative, Dad stores it on a computer disk and takes it to a nearby service bureau to be converted into a color laser print, and then has it signed by the young artist and framed.

But there's much more.

Goldman, who uses the computers to check patient records and schedule appointments when he's away from the office, began organizing family records in the computer -- insurance policies, upcoming events, addresses and phone numbers. He has entered every birthday and anniversary onto calendars for the next 10 years, so unless the machine crashes, he'll never forget an important occasion again.

"Harry and Mary's Favorite Recipes" is the title of another database. Goldman and his fiancee clip recipes from magazines and type them into the computer, which at the proper command will spew out all the Italian ones, all those with curry in them or all those for vegetarian meals.

Sons Josh and Sam Goldman spend the school year in Minnesota with their mother, but computers help cut down the distance. In addition to allowing electronic communication, the Macintoshes enable Goldman to write and lay out "Daddy News" and other publications that help keep the two households in touch. With new accessories he's about to obtain, Goldman will be able to add digitized photos for illustration.

Canning, 32, says that before she and Goldman got together, she used computers only at her job at WGBH, where she's an administrator. Now she's as enthusiastic as anyone and uses her portable Macintosh PowerBook for writing when the family is on the road.

Only people with plenty of disposable income could invite such sophisticated computer companions into their home. Next year the family plans to add another Macintosh, for a total of four. Canning, for one, acknowledges that their habit eats up large amounts of time. Goldman, however, says he thinks "managing information" is the most important skill for the future, and he's unapologetic for what some might consider an odd lifestyle.

"Are we nerds, honey?" he asks his fiancee, squeezing her shoulder. "I guess we're nerds!"