NAPA, Calif. — Devising standards to connect many kinds of computers and equipment is serious stuff: Many computer industry experts agree that it is the major issue facing the industry today.
But when industry leaders gather to discuss such matters, as they did here this week during an Infocorp-sponsored strategic issues conference, the consensus dissolves in a Babel of suggested solutions.
"One of the beauties of industry standards is that we have so many from which to choose," said L. William Krause, president and chief executive of 3Com Corp., a Mountain View, Calif.-based company whose products offer one method for linking personal computers.
Krause's comment elicited laughter from the members of his audience but stuck in their minds. It was the most oft-repeated sentiment of the three-day conference.
Segments of the computer industry have developed independently, and computer users have been paying the price. For instance, a company's payroll department often can't use information stored in computers in the mailing room, or the personnel department, or from the field offices, because they all use different kinds of computers, made by different manufacturers.
Users--primarily big businesses--have been complaining of the connectivity problem for years. But only recently, as a maturing computer industry has begun to look at new markets and for new ways to stimulate sales growth, has the subject been given serious attention from equipment manufacturers.
At the Infocorp conference two years ago, there was considerable discussion of connectivity, said Richard Matlack, president of the Cupertino, Calif.-based market research company.
"But that was just talk," he said. "Now I'm personally convinced that the computer industry, particularly the manufacturers, recognize that users are demanding connectivity."
However, Matlack doesn't hold out much hope that solutions to the problem will be devised by industry groups that recently formed to tackle the issue. Committees to investigate open standards have been formed both by major computer manufacturers and by software developers, the companies that create the programs that tell computers how to do tasks.
"It is possible that the connectivity problems can be solved that way," Matlack said, "but the real difficulty is that there is a tremendous lack of cooperation in the computer industry."
Other speakers also warned about the lack of cooperation in the industry, including Edward A. Feigenbaum, a computer science researcher at Stanford University.
Feigenbaum, whose book "The Fifth Generation" detailed the Japanese government's support of so-called artificial intelligence research, said concerted joint research efforts are needed to keep the Japanese from taking control of the information industry--an industry that last year generated $130 billion in worldwide sales.
Much of the attention to connectivity and open standards has been prompted by the proliferation of personal computers, the conference speakers agreed. The problems will become more acute as more workers add computers to their desk tops.
Ralph Gilman, Infocorp vice president, said the worldwide market for personal computers, which brought in sales of $37.7 billion last year, will grow to $89.1 billion by 1990.