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Go backHow to get around the office without leaving your desk

A sidebar to the article “Xerox xooms toward the office of the future,” published in Fortune, 18th May 1981, pp. 50.

For the past decade, offices have been filling up with an array of “intelligent” machines, all designed to improve office workers’ productivity. What has been lacking is an inexpensive communications system that would enable the word processors, minicomputers, and laser printers of different manufacturers to work together. The Xerox answer is Ethernet, a system that may soon enable a market analyst, for example, to summon files from different electronic memory banks, assemble a report on his video terminal, and circulate an “electronic draft” to fellow workers – all without leaving his cubicle.

The system is made up of an ordinary coaxial cable – like that used for sending cable-TV signals – and computer chips that package and address digital information for sending. Unlike previous office communications systems, Ethernet does not call for an expensive central processor to supervise message traffic. Instead, the machines on the network regulate themselves, somewhat like polite conversationalists on a conference call. Any machine on the wire can send data at will to any other machine; if the wire is busy, or if two machines happen to speak up at exactly the same time, each will wait a random interval (a few hundred microseconds) and try again. Ethernet conveys data at the rate of around 500 pages per second, so that, in effect, many machines can use the network simultaneously.

Niche-pickers to fill gaps

Paradoxically, Ethernet is planned so that customers will not be locked into buying all their automated office gear from Xerox. Although the company usually protects its patents with zeal, it is licensing the cable system for a token fee of $1,000. The objective is to establish Ethernet as an industry standard and thus entice niche-picking competitors into filling gaps in Xerox’s own product line, while also allowing customers to mix and match equipment. So far, nine companies, including Intel and Digital Equipment, have said they will build equipment to plug into Ethernet, and 80 others have taken out licenses.

Critics complain that since every brand of office gear speaks a different electronic dialect, Ethernet won’t in fact carry conversations across product lines. Besides, they say, fiber-optic systems will soon outmode coaxial cables. Nonetheless, Xerox for the next few years may have the most practical approach to communications. And even if Ethernet finally becomes obsolete, it has already burnished Xerox’s reputation as a power in the office.

Page added on 6th October 2006.

Copyright © 2002-2006 Marcin Wichary, unless stated otherwise.