Effort will integrate office equipment

June 09, 1993|By New York Times News Service

Microsoft Corp., the software giant, is trying to extend its powerful reach beyond the computer to the rest of office machinery -- the copier, the printer, the fax, even the phone.

For more than a year, William H. Gates, 37, the company's chairman, has circled the globe, signing up equipment makers to become part of his vision of an office in which machines can pass work from one to another seamlessly, thanks to Microsoft software.

Since Microsoft succeeded in setting the dominant standard in personal computer operating software, Mr. Gates gets a hearing when he presents a vision of another standard in software architecture.

His case, and Microsoft's market power, has proved persuasive. Roughly 50 companies -- including Xerox, Hewlett-Packard, Northern Telecom, Canon, Ricoh, Ericsson, NEC and Compaq -- will join Microsoft today in New York to announce that they are working on parts of Microsoft's version of the so-called digital office.

"All these pieces of equipment grew up independently," Mr. Gates said yesterday. "Nobody was thinking too much about how they worked together. Nobody's really tried to bridge the gap. I figured there had to be an opportunity for somebody smart."

Today's office is like an electronic Tower of Babel, with separate machines that do not communicate with one another. Microsoft's new offering, called Microsoft at Work, is intended as the technological interpreter, allowing the various machines to work together.

"These systems will allow for the first time the integration of the paper and electronic mediums," said Paul Ricci, president of Xerox Corp.'s advanced office products and document services division.

For businesses, the appeal of the digital office is that it promises to enhance white-collar productivity, which has proved an elusive goal for many companies. With office machines working together closely, the time and manpower used to ferry documents from the printer to the copier to other workers should be reduced.

"There's no doubt there's a market for what Microsoft and its partners are trying to do," said Richard Shaffer of Technologic Partners, a New York consultant.

"The question is whether Bill Gates has the political skill and Microsoft has the market dominance to pull this off."

There are skeptics. "It's really easy to promise one of these grand integrating schemes, but delivering it is another thing," said William Zachmann, president of Canopus Research, a consultant in Duxbury, Mass. "It's another big vision from Bill Gates."

Although Mr. Gates declined to say how big a business Microsoft at Work might prove to be for the company, some analysts have estimated that it could reach several hundred million dollars annually within five years.

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