Big Computer Firms Seek to Set Standards

From Times Wire Services

The nation's biggest computer companies will meet later this month to plan a major effort to make their machines able to communicate with each other, an organizer of the plan said Monday.

Planners hope to make pieces of computer equipment as easy to interconnect as stereo receivers, speakers and tape decks made by different companies, said A. G. W. Biddle, president of the Computer and Communications Industry Assn. in Arlington, Va.

Incompatibility of brands of equipment is the biggest headache of many data managers because it obstructs the flow of information inside their companies, such as from the shop floor to the accounting department to the front office.

'Very Important Step'

"This initiative is a very important step in the history of this industry," Biddle said. "It should free up a tremendous amount of resources for innovation."

Although analysts have attributed at least part of the computer industry's current malaise to the incompatibility of varying systems, many are skeptical that the group will achieve its goal. The participation of International Business Machines has been considered crucial to the success of the group because, as industry leader, many of its machines have become de facto standards in their category. So far, however, IBM is not a member.

Eighteen companies that are spearheading the standardization drive have invited about 50 others to attend a Jan. 23 meeting to discuss their plans. IBM will attend the initial session, company spokesman Brian Ditzler said.

Members of the "Group of 18" hope to persuade IBM and the others to join them in a nonprofit organization called the Corporation for Open Systems that will specify standards and test equipment for compliance. Biddle said he expects IBM to accept.

The organization would start with a budget of $8 million to $10 million a year, Biddle said. Each founding member would put up $125,000 in 1986 and $200,000 each year thereafter, he said.

Richard Stuckey, a partner in the technical services organization of Arthur Andersen & Co. in Chicago, said: "If all of (the other computer makers) agreed to it, even added together they still don't carry as much weight as IBM."

Members of the Group of 18 include such major players as American Telephone & Telegraph, Bell Communications Research, Digital Equipment, Control Data, Burroughs, Honeywell, Xerox, NCR, National Semiconductor, Harris and Hewlett-Packard.

Difficult to Keep Up

In the absence of an agreed-upon set of standards, most companies have sought to make their computers and peripheral equipment able to communicate with IBM computers, but many have complained that IBM makes it difficult for them to keep up with its own changing technology.

Although IBM makes public the specifications for its Systems Network Architecture, other computer makers say it often does so too late or in too little detail, keeping them constantly on the run to catch up.

IBM's Ditzler declined to comment on the criticism but said the company has been working with other organizations to make its Systems Network Architecture compatible with international communications standards.

Making computers able to communicate is a formidable technical challenge because different internal architectures produce output in entirely different formats. The project could also present political difficulties if each manufacturer vies to have the standards fit its own products.

Biddle said it was his "optimistic" prediction that, by 1990, more than half of all computer systems in the United States will be able to work with each other. He said the U.S. group will work closely with a parallel effort under way in Europe.

The basis for the standardization is Open Systems Interconnect, which was recommended in 1978 by the International Standards Organization and has been fleshed out in the years since.

Biddle said Open Systems Interconnect itself is of little value as a standard because it allows too much latitude. He said the Corporation for Open Systems will work to pare it down to a subset that all computer makers will be asked to follow.

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