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The information age office.

THE OFFICE OF THE FUTURE WILL BE A "LANDING SITE" SURROUNDED BY INTELLIGENT INFORMATION APPLIANCES. he business office is changing so fast that, by the end of the 1990s, your office may seem more like an information control room than a place to rest your feet or write memos.

A new attitude - that people and applications, not hardware, fuel the economy - is leading computer manufacturers to design "information appliances," or intelligent machines that have all the power of a minicomputer but are as easy to use as a toaster.

In the near future, your telephone, fax machine, photocopier, color printer, and computer won't be separate items but rather integrated components in an information appliance. According to scientists at AT&T Bell Labs, that appliance will display pictures of the caller on a high-definition television screen with a likeness as sharp as any 35 mm color slide. It will take dictation, handle messages, receive and review electronic mail, and dispatch letters or broadcast memos at designated times. It will allow you to handwrite notes over the images on the screen and annotate your memos with voice messages or even full-motion video. If you want to send someone a copy of a television news report or a newspaper article along with your comments, you can combine them electronically, edit them, and route them - all on your information appliance.

The appliance, in effect, will be an information "jukebox" that shuffles 10-billion- or 100-billion-byte capacity optical laser discs - the same laser discs or CDs you now use to listen to music. These will be capable of storing entire reference shelves on a single CD or laser disc. Increasingly, computerized megastorage of information will invade the average office, as it already has the university library and the corporation.

Computer software, too, will be more intelligent. Computer wizard Alan Kay, who developed the Apple Macintosh computer, says, "In the next computer era, programs will let people create their own applications." In essence, these programs will write themselves. They will automatically collect data vital to a company's business interests and analyze them. Mitch Kapor, the inventor of the first personal-computer spreadsheet, predicts that, by 1993, "we'll see computers that gather information the way a good research assistant does." The Driving Forces Behind Technological Change

What is driving the dramatic changes forecast for the coming decade is not so much technology - although there is plenty of that on the drawing boards now as a new emphasis on the application of technology to people's needs.

For instance, even though fax technology exited the lab more than 20 years ago, it wasn't until recently that fax sales took off, soaring to 785,000 in 1988 from 64,000 in 1982. One reason was the accelerating pace of the workplace: the demand for immediate results and the pressure to do more in less time.

Technology establishes the length of our reach. It forms the foundation upon which applications can be constructed. For example, today's advanced information-storage technologies and microprocessors allow computers to act intelligently, thus permitting machines to break with a 250-year-old Industrial Age mentality. In the Industrial Age, people aided machines; machines were the source of economic productivity. Today, with their new powers, intelligent machines aid people; they can conform to people's needs not the other way around.

Traditional computers - where the user works with systems such as MS.DOS and other keyboard-command systems - constantly remind you that it's the machine who's boss. You're asked to memorize arcane commands such as "dir/w" or "del a:'.'." But increasingly, computers and software programs are being developed so that the machine conforms to you. To command the machine, you point and click the "mouse." To delete an article, you deposit it in the trash can graphically displayed on the computer screen. That's the difference between Industrial Age thinking and Information Age processing.

What made it possible to rethink the man-machine relationship was the breakneck pace of advances in microprocessor technology. Intel's first microprocessor contained 2,300 transistors and performed 60,000 operations per second, or 0.06 MIPS (millions of instructions per second).

Today, Intel's 386 chip contains 750,000 transistors, the 486 chip contains 1.2 million transistors, and the 586 chip contains 4 million transistors. By the end of the decade, Intel expects to manufacture microprocessor chips with 100 million transistors. The fastest of these will perform literally billions of instructions per second at nearly eight times the speed of today's 486 chip. Linking Workers to Other

Workers

The information appliances in tomorrow's offices will be linked, in many cases, not only to a massive mainframe repository of corporate data, but also to other information appliances within the user's department.

Today, you work mostly alone. You and your computer converse; that's all. But in the future, you will be connected not only to global information sources, but to other computers nearby. According to Dataquest, only 18% of today's approximately 20 million office computers are linked. But "networked" computing is a tidal wave in the making. In essence, the United States is becoming a computer-connected society.

Sanford Berstein, a Wall Street analyst covering the computer industry, reports that networked computer sales approached $14 billion in 1987. By the end of 1990, sales of networked computers are expected to top $90 billion, or close to 30% of the computer industry's total revenues. Berstein also estimates that the networked computing business is growing at a rate of 40%-50% annually, compared with 12%-13% annually for the computer industry overall.

In fact, many analysts expect that by 1992 some 70% of the computer industry's growth will be fueled by networked computing applications. These electronic connections will be our communication highways, and they reflect a deepseated desire for people to share information resources - resources that aren't depleted but rather are increased by use.

Conference-Room Technologies

Robert Becheim, a director at Haworth, national manufacturers of office furniture, states, "The future holds a lot of teamwork. Teams will need a lot of conference rooms and products that help them communicate. "

The trend is clear: People increasingly work to support group activities, and they require pooled technology resources. In the near future, office workers will render their proposals and plans into elaborate on-line products, for consumption by team members and managers.

Once, chips that could store 128,000 bits of information cost as much as a building - around $1 million. Today, comparable chips cost less than a doorknob. Soon, says Arno Penzias, AT&T Bell Labs' vice president of research and development, "memory will be so cheap it won't be valuable enough to justify the cost of its own packaging. "

The cost of processing one MIPS (a million instructions per second) has dropped steadily since 1981. According to the Gartner Group, it cost $419,000 to process one MIPS in a mainframe computer in 1981. By 1993, the costs of processing one MIPS are expected to have plunged to $54,000 for mainframes, $6,000 for minicomputers, and only $140 for personal computers.

This dramatic cost reduction makes it reasonable to anticipate conference rooms equipped with pop-up computer terminals, embedded keyboards, laser CDs, and touch-sensitive screens for pointing and video imaging. People would arrive at meetings carrying a single CD that would contain the information contents of their entire filing cabinet.

No longer would people have to fumble to find a fact in a report or memo, or say that they're sorry they don't have a copy of the article they wanted to show everyone. The report, memo, or article would be available instantly on a CD that could be dropped into the information appliance built into the conference table. A report's numbers could be changed right at the table, with the changes instantly visible on everyone's monitor and ready for discussion. And with powerful graphics tools available, computer-generated art could be inserted into a report, or layouts and pictures could be redesigned - all in the middle of a meeting.

The miniaturization of office technology, along with the increased need for teamwork, will force workers to be more mobile. And, as real-estate costs rise, companies will try to find ways to reduce the amount of office space they need. One way to do this will be to create "landing sites" - nonassigned spaces equipped with intelligent information appliances. The Mobile Executive

From the employer's perspective, it doesn't make economic sense to maintain 100 offices for 100 executives who spend much of their time on the road meeting clients or in conference rooms. (And keep in mind that some executives have more than one office if the company has multiple headquarters locations.) In such cases, 50 or 75 offices might do where 100 were thought necessary before. In addition, several million Americans do some or all job-related work at home. There's no reason to have dedicated space for these employees.

So instead of a desk with drawers, the desk of the future will be a flat writing space with room underneath for a mobile file cabinet on wheels. When you arrive at work, you roll your personal file cabinet, filled with supplies and personal items, out of storage and slide it under a desk. You power up the built-in information appliance and insert your CD. It instructs the information appliance to route all your phone calls and other communications to this "landing site. " It also instructs the information appliance to collect the data you're interested in from electronic news and wire services and to summarize the collected items. It even redefines the information appliance's screen layout and color displays to suit your particular needs. Your waiting mail is flashed on the screen, and the information appliance awaits your command. You're ready for work.

You're now part of the new mobile work force. And when your information appliance responds to your first voice command, you know that you're working in the office of the future.
COPYRIGHT 1991 World Future Society
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1991 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:office of the future
Author:Bleecker, Samuel E.
Publication:The Futurist
Date:Jan 1, 1991
Words:1645
Previous Article:Big messes: problems that grow bigger and bigger.
Next Article:Information superhighways: the next information revolution.
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