The Ecphorizer

The Electronic Desk
George Towner

Issue #46 (June 1985)

Years ago, I used to pick up Popular Mechanics each month and turn, goggle-eyed, to the cover story. It usually described some novel appliance that was "just around the corner" — the baby helicopter in every garage, the television telephone, the [quoteright]1000 mph train, and so on. Most of these futuristic gadgets were destined to remain in the laboratory, but it was fun to visualize them and speculate on their potential.

This article is in the same vein. I am going to describe an office machine that could be designed and mass-produced now. I call it the electronic desk. I think it would make a lot of money for its originator. Whether it will actually happen, of course, is another matter. It would require large-company development, marketing, and support. But all the required technology is in place; the pieces of it are already out and working. Thus it is not pure science fiction.

The core of the electronic desk is the laser printer, a device only recently perfected. A laser printer closely resembles a xerographic desktop copier, but with one addition: an image can be written directly on the print drum by means of a laser that follows instructions from a computer. This image can be constructed to virtually any fineness; I have seen laser-printed sheets that can be distinguished from offset printing only with a microscope.

Add a simple optical scanner to a laser printer, and you have a machine that does the following:

1. It can copy paper-to-paper,  a desktop copier;

2. It can scan an input sheet, storing it as an image in a computer; and

3. It can take an image from a computer and put it on paper.

Such a machine thus combines the basic functions of a copier, typewriter, computer printer, and facsimile scanner-printer.

We start by building the laser/copier/scanner into a desk. We locate the input slot and output tray so they are convenient to someone seated at the desk. Perhaps we add a simple collater.

Next we add a small computer, with keyboard, mouse, and hard disk memory. It is connected to the laser and scanner parts of the copier; it is also connected to a phone line and perhaps to a larger mainframe or to a local network of other electronic desks. We give it a flat 12"-square screen, so it can display a sheet of paper either vertically or horizontally in exact size.

The following scenario is now possible. While seated at my electronic desk I am handed a letter. I feed it into the copier. It scans the letter and puts an image onto my computer screen. At the same  time it creates any paper copies I might require, stores the image in hard disk memory, and transmits copies over the telephone or local network to other electronic desks, where it is announced as incoming mail. Now I compose a reply. I call my letterhead onto the screen and type under it. I have a variety of typestyles and text formats to choose from. When I need tables, diagrams, or photos, I either call them from the computer memory or create them with graphics software. At any point I can lift an image from another piece of paper by feeding it into my scanner. I build and edit my document; what I see on my screen is exactly what my copier is going to print.

As I finish each page, the copier prints it in as many copies as I request. It also sends the image to a central file.  If my correspondent has an electronic desk, it delivers my reply directly. Through all of this, my computer keeps records of my correspondence, calculates how much time I am spending on each job, and reminds me to eat lunch.

But wait, as they say on TV, there's more! As long as we're hooked to a phone line, let's add a cordless telephone handset and an electronic secretary. The secretary consists of an audio recorder with a digital track on the tape, so it can index sections of speech. We're not talking about voice-to-text conversion, although this could be added later when the technology materializes. We're just storing and retrieving sounds. But now another scenario becomes possible.

I receive a phone call while I'm working on my document. My electronic secretary politely identifies itself to the caller and puts up a screen message that there is someone on the line. It searches a file for the caller's voiceprint and, if possible, tells me who it is.  It shows me a list of existing files pertinent to the caller. At this point, I can choose to receive the call; or tell the electronic secretary to deliver any of a dozen pre-recorded replies; or listen to the caller's message and then decide. Any of my phone calls can be recorded in permanent memory (with the required warning beeps); my computer labels and cross-indexes the sections for later retrieval.

Of course, if I originate a phone call my computer dials the number and keeps track of time and cost. I can ask it to find sections of other phone calls and put them onto the line. It retrieves any written data I need and puts it on my screen. If I am talking to another electronic desk, we can interchange documents without breaking the connection.

If this were Popular Mechanics, I might add a coffee maker and a VCR to my electronic desk, but let's keep it simple. The hardware I have just described will handle 95% of routine office work — typing, phone answering, copying, and filing. Plus it will do all the sophisticated jobs of a computer work station: word processing, database management, spreadsheeting, programming, and so on. Its versatility would be limited only by the ingenuity of software developers.

How much would the electronic desk cost? Most of what I have described could be assembled out of existing components that cost about $12,000. But if the electronic desk were manufactured in an integrated design that cost would drop, perhaps by half. It seems to me that it would easily pay for itself in most offices. On the other hand, maybe it would  like just another trendy gadget. I personally would like to have one; but then I wanted a baby helicopter and a videophone, too. 

Contributor Profile

George Towner

George Towner was born in Reno and grew up near Berkeley. As a teenager he began making gangster movies using an old 8mm camera, one of which featured a car being pushed over a cliff off State Highway 1. He has started and sold two successful technology firms, and currently works for Apple Computer, where he is the most senior in age. He lives with his wife in Sunnyvale. They have two daughters and a son.