The next stage was when computers started making the leap from corporate offices to individuals’ living rooms. At that point, Blell decided to move back to his hometown and open a business — Computer Electronics Service — that caters to computer users with equipment problems. C.E.S. is celebrating its 20th anniversary, and even though the business has had its ups and downs, Blell says he’s glad he rolled the digital dice: “It was a slow go, for a couple of years,” he says, with a laugh. “But it finally picked up. And I think we owe it to being diverse in the things that we do. We do some sales, but sales was never our focus. Our primary focus is on service, and that’s what’s kept us alive all these years.”
One reason for the slow rollout, Blell thinks, is that most home computer users back then didn’t realize there was a place to go, other than tech support phone lines, for help with their computer woes. “I’m by no means a business student. My father, I think, was a genius in that regard. He ran several businesses. Some did well, some didn’t. You learn from both. But he taught me a lot. Over the years, most of our business has come from word of mouth.” The small sign in the front lawn of C.E.S. gives an idea of how relentless computer progress can be: “iPad and iPhone Repair.” Neither device even existed when Blell’s shop opened its doors.
“The most mobile device you would have seen back then,” Blell says, “and you didn’t see many of them because they were very expensive, was the 1993 equivalent of a Netbook. It wasn’t called that; it was made by Gateway, and it was called the Handbook. It was small, about the size of a book, and it had a DOS operating system.
“It was archaic, but still kind of neat. I’ve got one of those that’s still functional. I’ve also got one of what they used to call ‘portable computers.’ It’s the size of a Samsonite suitcase. And actually, it still works. We brought it in here the other day and turned it on, and the display came up.
“The computers back then had diskette storage and very, very small hard drives. Some of the first computers I used, and worked on, were diskette or even cassette storage. But I’ve saved them for that reason. I think they’re really cool. And they’re a reminder of how far we’ve come.”
Nowadays, Blell says, most customers who come through their door don’t have a hardware problem with their computer: “I’d say that at least 60 percent of the computers we see are infected by some kind of a virus or malware — something that comes in the form of pop-ups, or hijacks your browser, or whatever, and you can’t get online. The other 40 percent lean toward little hardware or software glitches, lightning damage, things like that.”
While the newest generations of anti-virus software have gotten very effective in blocking viruses, he says, and update the software regularly against new viruses, the “next level down” of unwelcome computer guests is still a concern for users: so-called “adware” and “malware.”
”There’s no anti-virus for the programs you invite onto your computer. If you get a message asking, ‘Do you want to try so-and-so?’ and you click ‘OK,” it comes in the form of a download and then it executes. There are prevention programs out there, that help scan to remove them and scan to prevent them, but in the long run it’s more a matter of discretion.
“Even then, sometimes things are going to happen regardless. We tell our customers, if you see something like that happening, something that you didn’t initiate, the best thing to do is to reach over and unplug your computer immediately. That stops everything. You’ve got a better chance of saving your computer that way, instead of waiting until the thing’s downloaded and trying to figure it out.”
Besides the business and consumer aspect of digital products, the Computer Revolution has created a tidal wave of books and articles by scientists and physicians examining what effects the machines have had on our brain cells and our social lives. For his two cents, Blell says, the high-tech explosion has been an even tradeoff:
“We’ve become so dependent on computers that there’s almost no facet of your life where you don’t encounter one or have to interact with one. And for several years now, most corporations, if their computer is down, there’s no way they can pull a piece of stock or a layaway from their shelves. There’s no paperwork, no file folder, to look it up. If they’re down, they’re down. Which makes me realize that ‘paperless’ is great, BUT it’s not a bad idea to have a backup plan.”
On the plus side of computer omnipresence, says Blell, a whole new generation is gaining computer expertise almost from the cradle — and apparently with much less time, trouble and headaches than our generation did. His three young daughters, for instance:
“The first iPad I brought home, they jumped on it like it was nothing. They were watching movies from Netflix. There was just no fear of it, whatsoever. And I think that’s our biggest barrier in learning, is fear.”
One aspect of working in the computer field that’s both intriguing and maddening, according to Blell, is that no matter how well prepared a technician is, there are no hundred percent guarantees with the way a computer is going to react, and there’s always an element of mystery hovering far in the background. There’s an example that’s fresh in his memory, even though it happened not long after he returned to Jasper to open his business: “I got a call from Walker College’s computer lab. They had about six computers that were down, for various reasons.
“When I got there, I took the dust covers off all those machines. And before I could even get my screwdriver out, one by one they all started working. The guy who had called me said, ‘I’ve never seen anything quite like that. What did you do?’
“And I told him, ‘I just had to let the ghosts out of them.’ I mean, it made as much sense as anything else.”
Dale Short’s e-mail is email@example.com. His webpage is carrolldaleshort.com.