The rule that computers are becoming easier to use is proven by an exception: printers. Even a basic inkjet machine needs complex installation, and gives precious little feedback about when things are actually set up and working properly. Network s make matters worse: an unfriendly printer can hold up whole groups of people.

Makers of laser printers seem finally to have taken this problem to heart. They are developing "smart printers" controlled by a computer-operating system that "knows" a lot more about each printer.

The operating system in question is Microsoft's upcoming Windows 95. This includes a piece of software called Microsoft At Work, which allows a printer to be controlled directly from the computer. The software is supported by more than 40 office-automation, communications and computer firms. Makers of fax machines, copiers, printers, handheld devices, telephone systems, network services and semiconductor chip sets are joining in.

Instead of simply beeping to tell a computer user to go over to the printer to find out what is wrong, printers will send signals to the PC, alerting users when they need more toner, a fresh sheet of paper, an envelope or anything else.

But there is more. Telephones based on Microsoft At Work will have easy-to-follow graphical point-and-touch screens to replace the complex button-and-code combinations needed today for common tasks such as transferring calls or checking for voice-mail messages.

New machines are also supposed to be able to work better in combination and with Windows-based personal computers and printers. In future, you will be able to check which photocopiers in your department are low on toner by electronically polling them from your Windows desktop. Telephone systems might include applications that can log billing rates, sort out how to charge calls to the correct clients and create new billing systems. Users will be able to send a message to colleagues, and leave it to Microsoft At Work to send some copies out by e-mail and others by fax.

Because these devices will use a subset of the standard Windows applications program interface (API) to do this, makers of office machines will be able to carry out development work on the PC, downloading programs on to their devices and then storing them on Read Only Memory (Rom) chips. Software updates could be installed by telephone - thereby reducing the cost of service calls.

Devices based on Microsoft At Work will appear as early as this autumn. Which leaves one question: will the much-delayed Windows 95 itself be out by then?

Geoff Wheelwright