All of a sudden it's possible for the rest of us (the technically unwashed, who aren't thrilled about computers for computing's sake) to use computers for important stuff without having to become technically washed. It's a fact: I've done it myself (and I failed calculus and barely squeaked through chemistry in high school).

The real kicker is that it's not only possible to use computes, it's profitable. The computers we're talking about are what we call personal business computers: desk-top machines for less than $5,000 that you can plug in and start using within a couple of hours without knowing computerese. Various business people we've talked to recently have said that the small investment of time and money it takes to start using one of these personal business computers productively gets paid back in as little as a week or a month. That's why we've devoted the next nine pages of this issue to telling you about these little devils and seven pages next month to tell you about the programs that operate them.

A number of things have happened in the last year or so to allow us to join the computer age, even if somewhat tentatively. First, some of the main elements of personal business computers have been standardized for the first time since they were developed about five years ago. For instance, the guts of most models of microcomputers are becoming very similar. The microprocessor is the heart and soul of little computers; it's the part that actually does all the work you ask it to do. Most brands of personal business computers now use or can be adapted to use a Z-80 microprocessor (developed by Zilog Inc., in Cupertino, Calif.)

To keep the thing running in an orderly way, there's a piece of software called the operating system, which tells the machine in its own language just where to put all its bits and bytes. One operating system, CP/M (developed by Digital Research Inc. of Pacific Grove, Calif.), works with Z-80 microprocessors. Because many personal business computers now use the combination of Z-80 and CP/M, there are hundreds of applications programs (the ones that talk to you in a friendly way) available for the machines.

Of course, just to be complicated, there are different setups. Apple Computer, for instance, uses a 6502 microprocessor with its very own operating system, called Apple DOS.

The second thing that's happened to make these computers accessible to you and me is that a couple of guys in Cambridge, Mass., came up with an application program called VisiCalc, which helps you construct and analyze revenue and expense forecasts without paper, pencil, or calculator. Technically, what Dan Bricklin and Bob Frankston, co-founders of Software Arts Inc., did wasn't all that significant. For you and me, though, it was significant: They were the first people to stop asking what the computer could do and started asking what we could do with the computer.

Since VisiCalc has become the hottest piece of software in history, everybody else in what's a relatively new industry was forced to start writing programs that the rest of us can use. And now people are actually saying that entrepreneurs can't create or manage competitive businesses unless they learn to use some kind of computer. "Right now, no one goes into business until they've purchased a desk and a typewriter," says George J. George, president of Global Mortgage Corp. in Pittsburgh. "In the near future, a business will need a desk, a typewriter, and a computer. It's as simple as that."

It's not quite that simple just now. But INC. has decided it's important for you to know how simple it is. First of all, we've devised one piece of jargon ourselves: We're calling the machines we talk about personal business computers to indicate a category of computer that can be bought off the shelf for less than $5,000, that can be plugged in and used without any specialized knowledge, and that performs business tasks.

On the next page, you'll find an article that tells you how to lay your hands on one of these machines and lists 14 commonly available models with their retail price. Alongside, you'll find two short cases. The first is about how Apple Computer Inc. has eliminated its typewriters and made their own machine mandatory in their offices. The second is about how Jim Umbaugh, a veteran entrepreneur and former computer skeptic, learned to use a computer in his business.

Next month, we will publish part two of our introductory look at personal business computers. In that report, we'll describe the state of the art in software for personal business computers, detailing some of the more useful programs and listing many of the vendors. We'll also show you how VisiCalc works when you sit down at a computer to use it, and we'll describe the analytical procedure you need to go through if you do want to automate your whole company.

Just to put a finer point on it, we don't think you should try to put all of your accounting on a personal business computer just yet. We think it's important for you to spend a few thousand dollars and a few hours of your time just getting your feet wet. Once you use a microcomputer for a specific, noncritical task, you'll be in a better position to decide whether it really is time for you to join the computer age.