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Different brands will 'talk'; Closing computers' language gap

The computer industry has found a cure for its own Tower of Babel.

This week, 13 major computer-related companies agreed to endorse a standard which will allow different brands of computers to ''talk'' with each other.

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The standard, called the IEEE802.3 or just the 802.3, will allow information on, say, a Xerox computer in one office to be transferred to a Hewlett-Packard computer down the hall.

''Large companies buy more than one kind of computer. They want that equipment to be able to communicate with each other,'' says Kathleen McGinty, a spokeswoman for Data General Corporation - one of the endorsers of the standard.

The 802.3 standard is a set of rules and equipment that governs how information gets transferred from one kind of computer to another, not a computer language. It allows computers to communicate, to interface, in a local network - from office to office in one building or a cluster of buildings.

The companies backing the 802.3 say the standard is something users want - but it's also good for the manufacturers. Users won't be forced into buying certain kinds of computers to go with the ones they already have, they say. Instead they'll be shopping around more.

''The standard will make users a lot more comfortable in their selection, and they will be able to make their choices based on price and performance - not just on compatibility,'' says Keith Johnson, networking product manager at Data General.

Hewlett Packard's Don Loughry says the ''great thing about the standard is that computer companies know that this is it. This is the standard that everyone can gear their products toward. You will see a lot of new products that will emerge because of it.''

Many computer companies will be able to easily modify existing computers to fit with the standard. And some backers of the 802.3 will begin to market 802.3 products as soon as the first or second quarter of next year.

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The companies which have agreed to back the standard include Hewlett Packard (HP), Xerox Corporation, Digital Equipment Corporation, Data General Corporation , National Semiconductor, and Intel Corporation.

But the industry leader, IBM, is not on the list.

Though the computer giant itself would not comment, other manufacturers have said that IBM did not back 802.3 because it is gearing itself toward another type of standard.

But the IBM standard is similar to the 802.3, and is a branch of the 802 group of standards, says Maris Graube. Mr. Graube is the chairman of the ''802'' committee, a group set up by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Incorporated, which is developing computer standards.

Mr. Graube likens the different standards to eating utensils - different tools for different purposes. ''You need forks, knives, and spoons to eat, not just one utensil,'' he says. ''It's the same with a computer standard.

''Instead of having hundreds of standards, we will have only three or four,'' says Graube. ''In time people will build in options that will be able to handle all the standards.''

IBM's different approach to standards will not split the industry, according the Hewlett Packard's Mr. Loughry.

''There is no one single interface solution that's a panacea to all the computer problems. We think the 802.3 works very well in the kinds of office environments that we see. But you can't force fit different kinds of applications into one standard use. It would be inefficient and inappropriate.''

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