Written by David Tebbutt, MicroScope 04/85 item 02 - scanned

THE OFFICE OF THE FUTURE STILL HASN'T ARRIVED (column)

Yesterday I decided to get up to date with office automation. It's been on my mind a lot lately and when I saw that there would be an exhibition dedicated to the subject, I thought I'd go and catch up on how the old convergence game is going. I certainly came back with some lasting impressions, but not perhaps the ones I had expected to form.

The overriding impression is that there's hardly anything new happening at the moment. (I don't count a Commodore IBM PC lookalike as new.) The show had plenty of traditional stuff like photocopiers, printer hoods and microfilm equipment, and I'm sure that many of these broke new ground in the detail of their designs but there was not a lot that could be called really new. The girls that were supposed to entice us onto one stand were so stunning that most of us avoided them for fear of being branded dirty old men. Those who did venture onto that particular booth spent more time examining the ladies than the products on offer.

The so-called 'automated office' is still something of a hotch-potch of incompatible devices trying to talk to each other through inadequate telephone services. You'd need a master's degree in computer science to be able to run some of the packages. One company decided to make an impression by running a terminal under water. For the life of me I couldn't see the point they were trying to make. A charitable friend suggested that it was perhaps there to illustrate that you could spill coffee on the keyboard without ill effect. Oddly enough this same friend discovered that you can dunk a 3in disk in tea, wash it in clean water and use it again when it's dry.

One of the most interesting stands was British Telecom's. At least the company admitted that the present phone system isn't up to much and outlined its plans to improve matters. Unfortunately, things cannot possibly improve fast enough for the on-line community. BT has an interesting observation on that: "...demand for nonvoice services will, for many years, remain small..." Well, I've got news for BT. Demand will remain small until the speed and capacity of telephone lines improves. That's like somebody in 1950 predicting that demand for hotel beds in Majorca will remain small and totally ignoring the changes which low cost air travel would bring.

Bernard Falk, the ubiquitous TV and video presenter, has been roped in to prepare and present an hour long video tape containing news and advertising. This will go to business computer dealers and heads of industry. I've asked for the first issue so I'll update you on that later. It will have to be good to persuade the average dealer to sit still for an hour.

Sony had a most attractive word processor cum general-purpose computer on its stand. At first glance you'd be forgiven for thinking it was a Mac with twin integral disk drives. You'd be wrong, but I think we should keep an eye on Sony.

My other lasting impression came from the show guide, an absolute gem for what I call 'brochure-speak'. I'd like to give you a few examples with my, I regret to say, cynical translations. First of all, the show was billed as an office automation exhibition. This meant that the words "comprehensive", "integrated", "complementary" and "total" were very popular and anybody who was anybody offered "a range" of whatever they were selling. One exhibitor was showing "a range of three facsimile products". I suppose three qualifies as a range but it did strike me as odd. Two enormously popular words were "enhanced" and "improved", which I perceive as "we've ironed out the bugs" or "we cocked it up the first time". One company was so keen to attract custom that it hired "Gina Campbell...the fastest woman on water" to sit in a bar where, presumably, having had the token word with Gina you were to be nailed by the company's salesmen. Do businessmen really fall for that sort of thing?

One of my favourite bits of brochure-speak came from the companies with "highly acclaimed" products. Someone else said that their product had received "much interest and acclaim" which probably meant they hadn't actually sold any. This same company mentioned that its product would "initially support four additional terminals". I suppose I would be going over the top if I added "but later this will shrink to two".

The show wasn't bad if you were interested in a wide range (oops) of office products, from fax to microfilm, from word processors to telephone switchboards. My problem is that I went there expecting to see a lot of leading edge stuff, the final arrival of the automated office in fact. But what I came away with was a realisation that we've still got a heck of a long way to go.