The less paper office due from Microsoft
FIFTEEN years ago, with the advent of the personal computer, the concept of the ''paperless office'' was popularised, only to be discarded about 10 minutes later - along with the tonnes of extra paper created by the information technology ''revolution''.
After that, computer company executives would blush with embarrassment if customers had the poor taste to ask if the paperless office would arrive any time soon.
So, when Microsoft announced plans earlier this month to tie all office equipment together - from computers to copiers, printers and fax machines - it studiously avoided even passing reference to the utopian ''paperless office''.
The so-called Microsoft at Work initiative does, however, promise to ''minimise'' the use of paper.
And despite an inglorious paperless past, initial industry reaction suggests the plan might work.
Firstly, Microsoft is seen by many as the one company with sufficient clout to get office equipment suppliers co-operating on standards development.
Secondly, customers are becoming more vocal in demands for the office productivity improvement that IT has been promising for so long.
Microsoft does not appear to have had much trouble persuading the industry to join its ''digital office'' platform.
About 50 companies - including Hewlett-Packard, Northern Telecom, Canon, Ricoh, Ericsson, NEC and Compaq - said they were co-operating with Microsoft, working on various parts of the digital office.
The Microsoft at Work architecture is designed to make individual products easier and simpler to use. For example, telephones would have graphical point-and-touch screens for functions like transferring calls, setting up conference calls, or checking voice mail.
The machines would work better in combination with each other, inter-operating with Windows-based personal computers, printers and other peripherals.
The idea is to give users a better way to distribute documents. Instead of performing separate and redundant functions like printing, copying and faxing (and then the receiver having to re-key the document), Microsoft's plan is to integrate the machines - and, therefore, the functionality - into a single step.
The Microsoft at Work plan would see a new operating system contained within each office device - controlling the drive, and controlling how it is integrated with other office equipment.
Microsoft obviously hopes to reap the royalties of the millions of office and computing services that would use such a system.
Microsoft claims the new architecture would encourage development of new products. For example, the Microsoft at Work software would mean that so-called personal digital assistants (PDAs) - the hand-held devices - could become extensions of the office computer. The PDA would provide access to desktop information, remote communications, and integration with other Microsoft at Work products in the office.
The company said all Microsoft at Work-based systems would be ''open'' to software developers and hardware systems manufacturers.
Third-party developers will create applications and services for both PCs and Microsoft at Work devices using the same Windows-based development platform and tools now used to develop PC applications.