USER-FRIENDLY THOUGH THEY might be, many computers aren't speaking to one another. Their incompartibility has been wreaking havoc in many offices, but that situation may be about to change.

Thirty computer producers and users have joined to launch Corporation for Open Systems (COS), a nonprofit business that will try to accelerate the adoption of international standards, which will enable computers made by different companies to communicate with one another. A successful effort -- not a sure thing at this point, but looking more realistic as such companies as IBM Corp. and General Motors Corp. join the ranks -- would be a milestone for both manufacturers and users.

Users have long wanted the capability to connect various computers into networks for the exchange of data. GM, fed up with incompatibility problems, last year adopted a communications standard for new computers purchased for use in its factories. Customers are demanding the same for office computers. "This is a top-down initiative," says Norman Dawson, marketing vice-president at Control Data Corp. "It's coming about as a result of chief executive officers saying, 'We've got to get our act together."

Although COS is the offspring of big companies, its success could be good news for small, struggling computer firms. "Their biggest barrier has been users' fear of ending up stranded with products that won't work with what they've got, made by a company that isn't around anymore," says A. G. W. Biddle, president of The Computer & Communication Industry Association. "If a certificate can assure a customer that what he's buying will function as a component of a multivendor system, new opportunities for creative design and marketing will open up."

COS is selecting from among existing standards. It will create compliance tests and establish certification processes for computers and communications products and services. Small companies that adopt the standards will not have to sacrifice the ability to innovate with various features -- a major competitive advantage.