Polyglot computers coming up with 'compatibility'
When a delegate to the United Nations gives a speech, his words are carried to soundproof booths where interpretors simultaneously translate them into the six "official" languages of the UN.Skip to next paragraph
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A variation of that idea -- but translating the even more complex languages of computers -- may soon provide the key to achieving the so-called "office of the future."
Until now, development of such a computerized, automated office has been slowed in part by the need for a company to buy the same brand of computer for the whole staff if it wanted "compatibility." Today, if the boss wants an IBM, everybody has to have an IBM -- even if accounting wants a Wang, sales wants a Digital, and marketing prefers something from Burroughs.
Without some way for various computer brands to "talk" to one another, many companies have put off the heavy investment in automated office equipment, or limited it to a few departments.
Now, at least two companies -- tiny Ungermann-Bass of Santa Clara, Calif., and the giant Xerox Office Products Division in Dallas -- have made new advances in the development of "local networks." These are systems of cables strung throughout an office, much like the wires that carry cable television into millions of homes. They connect word processors, high-speed printers, electronic "file cabinets," data processors, and all the other pieces of the automated office.
The local networks move the information through these places at a rate of some 10 million bits of information, equal to about 500 typewritten pages, per second. A message is sent from one machine to another -- or to several machines -- in "electronic envelopes," called packets. In addition to the information it is carrying, each packet contains codes that identify the sending and receiving stations. Where competing brands are involved, a communications controller "translates" their languages and sends messages on to the proper destination.
So far there are no local network systems on the market that also do intercompany translating, although Xerox experts to have its system, called Ethernet, generally available sometime next year, said Robert Ruebel, the Xerox office division's vice-president for marketing.
"The concept is really quite important," said George Colony, senior analyst at the Yankee Group, a Boston research and consulting firm specializing in telecommunications and computers. "This will free the computer systems manager to make a decision based on the merits of each system and the needs of each department." Other companies, including Wang Laboratories, IBM, Exxon Enterprises, American Telephone & Telegraph, and M/A Com of Burlington, Mass., are expected to announce their own versions of local networks soon.
Ted Leonsis, a spokesman at Wang, said, "The company is actively pursuing its own local network system that will be compatible with its equipment and the rest of the world. Don't ask me to tell you any more."