WASHINGTON — Under complex new rules issued Monday by the Commerce Department, export controls are being lifted today on less-sophisticated personal computers such as the Apple II, Kaypro and Radio Shack Model 100, even as it becomes more difficult to export most forms of high-level computer software to the Soviet Union, Eastern Bloc nations and China.
The long-awaited regulations are designed to prevent advanced computer technology that can be easily adapted for military purposes from being exported to Communist countries by the United States, its NATO allies and Japan. The scope of the rules has been the focus of a debate between the Commerce Department and Pentagon officials, who sought tighter restrictions on sensitive technology.
Relaxing export restrictions on many personal computers and related products could help open up a large market for U.S., Japanese and European computer companies. But exports to the Soviet Bloc of such advanced computers as International Business Machines Corp.'s PC XT and Apple Computer Co.'s Macintosh will continue to be controlled under the new rules.
The new regulations reflect agreements among the United States and the 14 other nations that make up the coordinating committee on strategic exports known as Cocom, which governs sales of all sensitive technology to Eastern Bloc nations.
Last summer, Cocom officials reached general agreement on rules for a host of "critical technologies" that merit special controls. However, the United States still has not issued regulations for other such technologies, including semiconductor production and telecommunications equipment.
Under the decisions made last summer and codified Monday in the Commerce Department rules, the United States for the first time will require multilateral reviews of sophisticated computer software, the instructions that run computers, to determine whether another nation could put it to military use.
Such software would include programs that link computers; computer-aided design and manufacturing software; artificial-intelligence programs that simulate complex logical reasoning, and higher-level computer programming languages such as Ada, a language used by the Defense Department.
Also for the first time, the Pentagon will begin reviewing exports to 15 nations, including Austria and Switzerland, that often are considered sources of illegal exports to Warsaw Pact nations. In the past, such reviews were conducted only by the Commerce and State departments.
Industry experts said computer firms are likely to find it difficult to determine what technology is considered "safe" for exporting under the new rules. "The formulas will challenge even the most talented computer engineers," said Donald Weadon, who represents dozens of high-technology companies on export matters.
Once a computer is approved for export, however, the software used on it will generally be free of all government restrictions.
The rules also could limit technical computer software discussions with foreigners at U.S. universities, even those from such nations as nonaligned Yugoslavia; Romania, which follows the most independent foreign policy within the Soviet Bloc, and China, which has been at odds with the Soviet Union for years.
Weadon, while generally pleased that the rules will open up new markets for high-technology equipment, said the regulations do not settle many crucial issues and may leave smaller computer companies more confused over what exports are permitted.
"If we don't encourage the vigorous sales of our older technologies," he said, "we could seriously jeopardize full funding of research and development for new technologies."
Computer technology is generally considered to be far more primitive in the Soviet Union than in the United States and other advanced Western nations, but there is strong disagreement among analysts over how much benefit the Soviet Union derives from simply stealing generally available Western technology.
Pentagon officials have expressed concerns in the past that even such relatively simple computers as the Apple II can be adapted for military purposes by Eastern Bloc nations. The new rules, however, reflect a consensus among Cocom officials that less-complex personal computers and standard business software for such tasks as word processing and data base management would not pose a serious threat if they were in Soviet hands.