A new technology blurs the lines among word processors, spreadsheets, and other programs

Imagine that you're sitting down to read this magazine, but before you can even glance through the table of contents, you have to assemble all the tools you might need -- a dictionary, a highlighter, scissors for clipping, and a "reading hat." Then if you want to check some prices in one of the tables, you have to get out more tools -- a calculator, a math book, and a "spreadsheet hat."

That's essentially what today's computer operating systems ask you to do. You have to launch programs; create documents within them; merge text, numbers, and graphics from different documents; and so on. But the next big development in desktop computing -- document-oriented computing -- will do away with those steps. Within five years the way you manage computer documents is going to change dramatically.

You'll start with the computer equivalent of a blank piece of paper. As you decide to write, draw, design a page, or create a spreadsheet, you'll be able to switch quickly from one function to another by simply calling up a toolbar and going to work.

Say you're creating a quarterly report. You might write an introduction using a text-editing tool. Then you might create a table with a spreadsheet tool. You could use a single formatting tool to change the typestyle in either the text or the table. To move the table and reflow the text around it, you'd use a page-layout tool. Then you might use a database tool to list your top five officers' salaries and to link those figures to the human-resources database so that any salary changes will show up automatically in your document. All the tools would be available at any time and would work anyplace on the page.

Both the Mac and Windows already have some capability for document-oriented computing. In fact, the icons on the Mac that allow you to open documents directly date back to 1984. But now you can combine documents created in different programs into one document. With the Macintosh publish-and-subscribe feature, you can paste a sales chart into your quarterly report. When your sales department posts new numbers in its files on the network, the correct numbers show up in your document. The next time you open it, a message will tell you that the numbers have been updated. The Windows version, called object linking and embedding (OLE for short, pronounced the Spanish way), goes a little further. It calls up the spreadsheet menu bar so that you can work on the chart from your text document.

Neither Mac nor Windows linking features have been widely used. They can be tricky -- for example, it's not easy to transfer linked files to computers that don't have the same software -- but the main reason they're not being used is that people don't know about them.

Copland, the new Mac operating system that's due out in mid-1997, will add linking to the Internet. You'll be able to incorporate information from the Web into your document, information that will update automatically. Also Copland will be able to search for documents that have similar content.

In the document-oriented computing of the future, tools will probably vary depending on the type of computer and the operating system you use, but documents will be standardized. Chances are they'll look a lot like Web pages -- which are a valuable model for how information will be managed. Currently you're pretty much limited to searching for and viewing Web pages. But this fall Sun Microsystems Computer Corp., in Mountain View, Calif. (800-786-0404), will release a program called Hot Java that can make Web pages interactive. For example, your company might create a Web page that displays your catalog and price list. Customers could compare the discounts and premiums they would get by buying in volume with the price of buying in two or three installments. They could also enter different purchase schedules and watch the numbers change on the page.

Just how we'll get to all the wonderful features of document-oriented computing is an open question. An unprecedented level of cooperation among makers of operating systems and software will be required. Who knows how long they'll take to hash out standards and map out turf? As anybody who's needed help linking products from two different companies has already discovered, it's-not-our-problem technical support can be a nightmare. What's going to happen when everything is interactive? But whether document-oriented computing takes 5 years or 10, once we get there, we'll look back and marvel at the primitive way we manage information today.

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Cary Lu (carylu@aol.com) creates his documents in Seattle.