The networked office
More than a decade before the internet took hold, IBM introduced a line of products that revolutionized how offices work
A man sitting at a desk using a PC

In a 1981 edition of THINK magazine, IBM announced an exciting new technology: “a phone message system that records a caller’s message in his or her voice and stores it to replay to a given receiver.” This early iteration of voicemail helped give rise to the networked technologies that now run the modern office, including digital phone systems, email, shared calendars and file databases — all of which trace their roots to Professional Office System (PROFS), a networked office project that began at IBM in the late 1970s.

The goal of PROFS, which began as networked terminals and evolved to interconnected personal computers, was to replace the holy trinity of pre-digital office machines: typewriters, telephones and photocopiers. In the process, it increased productivity and introduced a generation of professionals to computers.

“In the future we expect to have personal computers as readily available as pocket calculators are today,” Jim Rupp, director of engineering software and technology at IBM’s Federal Services Division, told THINK. “It will be just another requisition within the limits of the technical budget.” In 1981, it was a bold prediction. Today, it’s a testament to how far we’ve come.

In the future we expect to have personal computers as readily available as pocket calculators are today Jim Rupp, director of engineering software and technology at IBM's Federal Services Division THINK magazine, 1981
Paperwork versus productivity

In the pre-networked office, communication among coworkers took the form of a phone call, a written memo or an in-person meeting. Every record was kept on paper and stored somewhere, retrievable in the future by someone who would stop what they were doing to go get it. In 1982, studies showed that managers and professionals spent 25% of their working hours on rote activities, such as filing and seeking out documents, scheduling meetings, locating other coworkers and proofreading.

The guiding vision of PROFS was to streamline those tasks using a system of workstations connected by a digital network. PROFS emerged from an in-house network of individual machines and applications developed at IBM’s Poughkeepsie offices between 1970 and 1972. The earliest version, called Office System or OFS, improved on the initial, in-house system by adding a centralized database server to store and share documents, as well as a centralized virtual machine for managing mail. With these innovations, the networked office was born.

PROFS debuted as a system of networked terminals that allowed electronic word processing and document sharing: manuals, telephone directories and employee handbooks — all of it searchable via a command-line interface. It also provided shared calendars and a program that could send written messages across the network, informally called PROFS Notes. This system streamlined the work of typists, administrative assistants and clerks, while simultaneously making communications available to managers with a few keystrokes. In an effort to maximize impact, the system, as indicated in one of the terminal’s technical specifications, was designed for anyone who could type at least 10 words per minute.

Bill Patzer, a manager at IBM Oswego, was especially taken with PROFS Notes. “It’s eliminated phone calls for me. Instead of trying to contact several people and give them the same data, I enter it into the terminal, just press the ‘send’ key, and they all receive it simultaneously,” he told THINK. He also praised the way PROFS let him sign in to a remote network and view his own files when he was traveling to other offices.

In 1984, IBM introduced a line of personal computer workstations that could send and receive email, share documents and control peripheral devices like printers via the PROFS network protocol. With this innovation, the networked office moved out of the realm of specialized data-processing centers and into general use.

A boon for institutions

The productivity advantage that PROFS provided was especially valuable to organizations that handled copious amounts of forms and data. After the jump from terminals to PCs, PROFS became the backbone of IBM’s Federal Services Division, which provided administrative services to the US government in areas ranging from record keeping at the Department of Defense to instrument design for the Apollo program. PROFS Notes even figured prominently in the Iran-Contra affair: Colonel Oliver North deleted a large number of emails connecting him to the scandal in 1982, not realizing they were archived on magnetic tape backups that became evidence in congressional hearings over the next two years.

In 1984, Pennsylvania’s State System of Higher Education used its PROFS network to streamline the distribution of USD 250 million in funding to the state’s 14 colleges. Chancellor of Higher Education James H. McCormick described PROFS as crucial to his office’s mission, saying, “Our biggest challenge is to avoid spending tax dollars on a centralized bureaucracy, because we’re legally required to give 99.5% of our budget back to the 14 state universities.”

The Pentagon and the State of Pennsylvania were just two of the countless institutions that benefited from the massive increase in efficiency that IBM introduced to large offices with PROFS. Since the system’s creation, networked offices have made workers’ time more productive and reduced the amount of public and private resources expended on logistics and bureaucracy.

The networked office also became the platform on which IBM rebuilt its business for the 21st century. The company acquired Lotus Software in 1995, integrating the popular Lotus Notes email and calendar applications into its own office productivity suites. In partnership with advertising firm Ogilvy & Mather, IBM also launched a campaign around what it called “e-business”: network- and server-oriented products designed to help other companies transform themselves into internet-oriented enterprises. With its new focus on e-business, IBM tripled its net income between 1994 and 2000.

From PROFS in the early 1980s to e-business in the 21st century, IBM brought the idea of the paperless office into the reality of modern work.

The networked office became the platform on which IBM rebuilt its business for the 21st century
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