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.
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."
While the office computer industry and its customers stand to benefit from the versatility of being able to interchange different brands in one system, the greatest beneficiary -- for a while, at least -- will be Xerox.
"Xerox has taken a totally different approach to the problem" of compatibility, said Melody Johnson, a securities analyst with Kidder, Peabody & Co. "It definitely makes them more interesting."
Until recently, Miss Johnson and other observers noted, Xerox was a study in unrealized potential.It had long had the research-and-development force, the sales network, manufacturing capability, and reputation to take a leadership role in the office automation sweepstakes. But except for its copiers and other reproduction equipment, it appeared to be doing little to venture beyond -- or keep up with -- its competitors in the office equipment field.
The appearance of inactivity turned out to be nothing more than that, however , because about a year ago the company introduced its local network system, Ethernet. And last month it rolled out a system of data processing and storage equipment designed to hook up to Ethernet. Called System 8000, the equipment permits documents and data to be created, filed, printed, copied, and distributed throughout the Ethernet system.
The Ungermann-Bass local network, said Jan Hinshaw, manager of technical support, is basically a "turn key" system which provides just the cables and the translator. The company was founded about a year ago specifically to manufacture and sell its local network and does not make any data or word processing equipment, Mr. Hinshaw said.
According to Amy Newmark, director of telecommunications analysis for the Gartner Group, a Greenwich, Conn., office equipment research firm, in some ways the Ethernet system is not so very new."Local networks have existed for a long time to connect companies' own products. They were proprietary networks," she said. "What's new is that Ethernet is nonproprietary. It can connect to and company's system."
"The thing that's new is not the technical aspect of Ethernet," Mr. Ruebel of Xerox agrees, "but the willingness of vendors to step uo and join such a system."
Two companies that joined Xerox did so in a big way. The Digital Equipment Corporation and the Intel corporation are listed as joint developers of Ethernet , and the trio's office equipment is easily compatible with Ethernet.
Local networks not only permit various brands of computer systems to talk to one another in the same office, they can also be connected to long-distance telephone (or even longer-distance sattelite) communication systems to connect a company's offices in Chicago, for instance.
To help gain acceptance for its system. Xerox is trying to convince the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers to accept Ethernet as the industry standard. To help this happen, Mr. Ruebel says, the company is making Ethernet specifications available to other office computer companies, for "a nominal fee." This fee is said to range from $1,000 to $4,000.