In the race to automate the office, personal computers and word processors are the obvious favorites. But in that pack of silicon thoroughbreds, the offspring of an old workhorse is running strong.
The electronic typewriter is a slimmer, hi-tech hybrid of chip technology and the Clydesdale sitting on almost every secretary's desk in the country. This new animal can memorize phrases, letter formats, and in some cases, complete reports. It can display anywhere from 15 to 30 characters on an ''electronic window'' to enable proofreading before printing. The clatter of keys and electric hum are gone. Silent circuit boards and daisy wheel printing elements do the job now.
Of the 1 million typewriters sold last year, some 300,000 of them were electronic. By 1987, that number will rise to an estimated 840,000, according to Christine Hughes, a researcher at the Quantum Science Corporation in New York. Today, more than 19 companies sell a product that only two sold in 1978.
IBM was one of the original two making electronic typewriters, but since then its share of the market has slipped.
''IBM used to react violently to a 1 percent market share loss. Now they're down to about 30 percent'' (from about 80 percent), says Gilbert Barner of Systel Computer Corporation, a manufacturer of electronic typewriter accessories. Although IBM still has the largest share of the market, because of its installed base, its product is not among the best, according to industry analysts.
Speculation is that IBM will introduce a new electronic typewriter by the end of this year, says Cliff Lindsey of Dataquest Inc. If it doesn't, ''Xerox will at least tie IBM by the end of the year,'' Mr. Lindsey says. ''If they had come out with partial-line display (a fluorescent display showing a portion of the typed line) in September of 1982, they probably wouldn't be running this close a race,'' he adds.
Despite its apparent lagging interest, no one expects IBM to pull out of the market. The electronic typewriter is recognized as ''an excellent low-end product to get your foot in the door (for selling other products to a company), '' says John Murphy, vice-president of Advanced Office Concepts, a consulting firm in Bala-Cynwyd, Pa. In fact, IBM has taken interim steps to maintain its position. In the last year, the company upgraded its existing typewriters by adding a few new features and, in February, broadened its distribution network. For the first time, IBM is selling its twpewriters through office equipment dealers.
Still, Xerox has grabbed some 20 percent of the market in the last 18 months with its Memorywriters. Why? ''Because they have over 4,000 salesmen that can say 'Xerox,' '' says Mr. Lindsey. Actually, Xerox is using its copier machine base as a beachhead for typewriter sales.
IBM and Xerox, however, are not alone. The European office typewriter manufacturers, Adler-Royal, Olympia, and Docutel-Olivetti, are all within striking distance of the leaders. The front-runners can also hear the approaching hoofbeats of Canon, which, like Xerox, is working from its copier base.
''The Japanese manufacturers (including Brother Industries, Silver-Reed, and Sharp, which have a large slice of the consumer market), are going to try what they did with the electronic calculator business,'' says Mr. Lindsey. ''But most of the US typewriter companies say they'll stay in the business even if they have to make their typewriters in Japan.''
With the Japanese moving in, prices are expected to come down. An office electronic typewriter can already be bought for less than an IBM Selectric III, which lists for $1,035. Most, however, are priced in the $1,000-to-$2,000 range.
Still, why buy ''new and improved'' when a computer or word processor will handle typing, collating, editing, and crunching numbers with greater ease and efficiency?
''Sure, the word processor is far superior for major editing and compiling of reports - anything of length with revisions. But the electronic typewriter is more suited to filling out one-page letters, invoices, memos, and forms - one-time jobs that don't need a major printing,'' says Leone Pease, a research analyst at Venture Development Corporation in Wellesley, Mass.
Fortune 500 companies surveyed two years ago said they would be buying word processors. Today, the same companies are buying electronic typewriters instead, according to Ms. Hughes at Quantum Science. Many companies are trading in the old electromechanical machine for an electronic. ''A lot has to do with price,'' she says.
The jump in cost from a $2,000 electronic typewriter to a $4,000 to $10,000 word processor or microcomputer looks like too great a leap, especially for smaller companies.
If the budget permits, the electronic typewriter can grow to computer proportions. Systel Computer, of San Jose, Calif., sells a plug-in cathode ray tube screen and floppy disk-drive memory for $2,900. The system comes with Wordstar (word processing) and can use Multiplan (an electronic financial spreadsheet) software.
''You can use the typewriter as a keyboard to access the memory and do your word processing completely on the screen. Then you can print it out back through the typewriter,'' explains Dave Waible, manager of Peter Paul Office Equipment Company Inc. in Waltham, Mass.
But some analysts say the upgrade path is the penny-wise and dollar-poor approach. It may be cheaper in the long run, especially for a small business, they argue, to buy a microcomputer with better word processing and business software.
Yet, for all the newfangled features, it is still a typewriter. And its nonexecutive image limits its market.
Over the next five to 10 years, the burgeoning white-collar work force is seen as the ''big, untouched wealthy market,'' according to Mr. Murphy of Advanced Office Systems. The marketing strategy for electronic typewriters is being adjusted to this office systems approach. ''Electronic typewriters were first bought as stand-alone machines. Now they're being sold as part of something bigger. That is where Xerox and IBM are becoming more attractive,'' says Melody Johnson, an analyst at Cable, Howse & Ragen, in Seattle.