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High-tech copycats: they take it apart or steal it

Computer theft - stealing ideas, designs, or actual hardware from a competitor - may be growing, because another technique - reverse engineering - isn't providing information fast enough.

So say many computer and business experts watching the industry. Companies in the fast-moving computer industry must learn quickly what their competitors are making, either to imitate (and sometimes improve) on it or to build compatible components.

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Reverse engineering - taking apart a competitor's product to learn ''what makes it tick'' and then designing a similar product - has been a widespread technique. The Japanese have been particularly effective in this copycat engineering, industry observers say.

But as components become more complex and miniaturized, the time and money needed for reverse engineering may be pushing some companies into illegal practices.

If a sample of a competitor's new product can be obtained, will reverse engineering be worth the effort? Will it pay off enough - and in time? For example, says Thomas Davis, dean of the Applied Technology Center at the Milwaukee School of Engineering: ''Years ago Hewlett-Packard came out with a scientific calculator called an HP35. Most of the circuitry in it was on one computer chip. A Japanese company spent millions of dollars trying to figure out what it did. They eventually duplicated it, but by the time they did it, the calculator was already out of date.''

IBM, Dr. Davis says, traditionally has been a difficult firm to reverse engineer because it makes its own integrated circuits, the building blocks of computers. ''When you took the top off and tried to figure out what's inside, it was nearly impossible. . . . You could trace a circuit out but when you came down to an integrated circuit, you couldn't really tell what they did.

''Now IBM has changed that a little bit. Its personal computer uses pretty much all standard circuits,'' similar to those used by many other companies.

When standard parts aren't available, today's tiny, sophisticated circuits present a challenge, says Dr. Davis. ''When you get into multilayer circuit boards, (with as many as seven or eight layers of circuitry), the task gets a little more difficult, but still not impossible.'' Reverse engineering techniques might include scanning with X-rays to observe the physical structure or running tests and then analysing the results.

''If somebody put it together, there's somebody else who can take it apart - if you want to spend the time and money,'' agrees John Dinkel, who teaches the business application of computers in the college of business administration at Texas A&M University in College Station. Once the competitor's product is understood, it becomes easy to make changes, some of which may even be improvements. ''If you take apart an auto engine piece by piece, for example, you might make some modifications,'' he says. ''You might have the fan belt run counterclockwise instead of clockwise. But once you know what the fundamentals are, it's easy to redesign.''

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To combat reverse engineering, some use has been made of redundant circuits and other techniques to throw off imitators. But many industry observers doubt it's worth the effort. Dr. Davis, for example, says the time spent getting the safeguards designed and in place ''is going to detract from the time needed to get (the computer) to market.''

''I think that would be foolish because you add cost to the product,'' adds Kenneth Haughton, dean of the engineering school at the University of Santa Clara in the heart of California's high-tech ''Silicon Valley.'' ''Occasionally, there's some design subtlety that you sure as anything don't advertise, and it may take awhile to figure it out.''

And so some firms may be pushed to try to buy trade secrets. In a current highly publicized case, two Japanese firms, Hitachi Ltd. and Mitsubishi Electric Corporation, have been indicted separately on charges that they tried to steal secrets from International Business Machines Corporation (IBM). Both Japanese firms have denied any wrongdoing.

What worries Dr. Haughton is that the Japanese-IBM case may not be unusual. ''I hope it doesn't mean that people are trying to get classified documents from one another,'' he says.