WITH competition in the personal computer (PC) industry increasing rapidly and pushing hardware prices down, the small but powerful systems have seen their role as office automation tools grow considerably during the past two years. According to an expert in the field, a larger number of local companies are turning to client-server networks based on fast PCs to help meet their various computing needs and are managing these networks better than before. Mr Keith Watson, general manager of the Asia-Pacific computer products organisation of United States-based Hewlett-Packard (HP), said networked PCs were being used more, managed better, and thus were helping increase office productivity considerably. ''In the past, PCs were used [mostly] for such tasks as word processing, working on spreadsheets and maintaining databases,'' said Mr Watson, adding that because of varying preferences among users, different sets of software were used on each machine. ''Today, however, computers are being linked, not simply because companies want the different machines to be able to share peripherals, such as printers. ''Companies are moving to a standard server-based operating architecture that makes it easier for an office to function as a single entity,'' he said. ''We [HP] have been installing client-server systems at our various offices, and standardising on the software we run on them.'' For tasks such as word processing, spreadsheets, databases and graphics, HP used a set of products from Lotus which operated according to standard templates, he said. He said this had made information sharing much easier and faster, thus increasing overall productivity. ''The next couple of years is going to see this situation change even more, with such standard operating environments growing in their useage. ''Networking management will grow and be made more efficient because, the more standardised systems are, the faster offices will be able to work.'' The increasing integration of audio-visual technologies into a personal computing environment is also set to make the role PCs play in the office much more important. ''We are already seeing this happen with the integration of video utilities into the Windows computing environment, albeit in a rudimentary way,'' Mr Watson said. ''This doesn't mean that we will have lots of PCs talking to us suddenly, but rather it will provide new uses for PCs.'' The integration of data, voice and video in an electronic mail setting was already taking place and would continue to improve exponentially, making the PC an extraordinarily powerful office automation tool. ''Even training could be made on-line, with training tools built into programs,'' Mr Watson said. ''This would eliminate the need for classroom-type training sessions and make the whole training process much faster.'' The growth in PCs in a client-server environment has not hurt HP's workstation business - an area in which it has traditionally been strong. ''People are down-sizing from mainframes to client-server architectures. ''When large companies scale down, their applications usually end up on UNIX workstations, but strict office automation-type applications can be run much more cheaply on a PC platform,'' he said. Large firms had shown a preference for UNIX systems because of their superior networking capabilities and ability to handle power-intensive transaction jobs. However, there were often times when people who planned to buy UNIX systems opted for high-end PC systems. ''Customers' choices will be based on performance requirements and other individual needs,'' Mr Watson said. ''But with the emergence of the Pentium chip from Intel and Windows NT from Microsoft, we should see more PCs being used as servers.'' HP now had a much larger share of the Asian PC market, Mr Watson said, with record growth seen in Singapore, Thailand, Hongkong, and even in Australia. He attributed this growth to the huge drop in hardware prices seen in the industry during the past two years. 'The whole price cuts' issue has created new demand for PCs, and since HP has followed the price curve down, we have been able to capitalise on this growing market,'' he said. ''We are seeing many companies who bought clones in the past buying brand-name PCs now, simply because they are more affordable and are more reliable than clones.''