The news earlier this month that the Zenith Data Systems Corp., a division of France's Groupe Bull, had won a $740 million Air Force contract for 300,000 desktop computers marked the third time in four recent government contracts that Zenith Data caught the gold ring.
While the final disposition of the contract is not yet certain -- the Air Force decision has been protested by the Compuadd Corp. of Austin, Texas -- Zenith Data already holds 37 percent of the federal personal computer market, based on machines now installed. Those contracts have given the company a solid base.
But to flourish, it must parlay its success in the government sector into a greater share of the corporate computing market. It has taken a step in that direction with its newest machines, designated the Z-Station, Z-Server and Z-Note computer.
"They're headed back," said Bruce A. Stephen, director of PC hardware research at the International Data Corp., a market research company in Framingham, Mass. "They've been through a down period, but I think with their recent improvements in products, this may help their cachet in the market."
Once the leader in portable computers, largely on the basis of earlier government contracts, Zenith Data stumbled badly in the late 1980s.
"Our market-share calculations show them dropping from a 6.1 percent share of the Intel-based PC market in 1988 to 2.1 percent in 1991," said Michael K. Kwatinetz, a research analyst with Sanford C. Bernstein & Co., an investment research company in New York City.
Zenith Data won the latest Air Force contract on the basis of its standard business computers, not models modified for the military. Now the higher manufacturing volumes expected under the contract may help Zenith Data compete in the broader computer arena with larger rivals, Mr. Kwatinetz said.
The Air Force contract, known as Desktop 4, was originally won by Compuadd and Sysorex Information Systems Inc. of Falls Church, Va. Zenith Data and other losing bidders protested the award, claiming the procedures had been unfair because in its attempt to speed the decision, the Air Force knocked out all other bidders on the technical grounds. The Air Force agreed to reopen the competition, and Zenith Data won.
Zenith Data executives bristle at talk of a "comeback," noting their previous government contracts. But there was a considerable gap between the second and third awards, and Zenith appeared to be catching some Z's rather than making them.
Competition intensified, especially in the portable category from the Toshiba Corp. of Japan and the Compaq Computer Corp. of Houston. Zenith did not respond. The period culminated with the sale of Zenith Data to Groupe Bull, which had previously acquired Honeywell Inc.'s operations in the United States.
Once the sale was completed last year, Zenith Data got a new president, Enrico Pesatori, hired by Groupe Bull from Olivetti. He stepped on the gas, and Zenith Data completely overhauled and redesigned its line of desktop, server and portable computers. The new systems are very impressive.
"They upped their R&D budget by 235 percent" in the last year, said Mr. Stephen of International Data, "and the fruits were the Z-Station and Z-Note lines. They're very ergonomically appealing and have good feature sets."
More than any other company's line of products, the Zenith Data Z-Note and Z-Station computers are designed for use in a modern corporate environment: Each machine has built-in network connectors, can be fully upgraded to incorporate future technologies and has features making it easier to use.
"They've had very aggressive rollouts both in the notebook and desktop arenas," said Randal A. Giusto, PC analyst for Workgroup Technologies Inc. of Hampton, N.H.
(Peter Lewis works out of the New York Times' Austin, Texas, bureau:  328-8258.)