Microprocessors. Microcomputers. Micromachines. It seems the world's electronic products never stop shrinking. So at first glance, IBM's Tape Library Dataserver looks like a throwback to the huge, hulking computers of yesteryear. Indeed, at about 8 feet wide by 8 feet tall and up to 92 feet long, it's the biggest machine IBM has ever made.

But for good reason. The Dataserver is made precisely for very big companies, such as American Express or Sears, that store huge amounts of archival information on transactions, customers, inventory, and employees. The stripped model, which stores 42 trillion bytes of data, lists at $400,000.

But the most striking thing about the Dataserver isn't how much it holds, but that you can actually see how the information is retrieved. Behind a glass ceiling and doors, a bright yellow industrial robot zips up and down a track in response to requests for information from terminals at a customer-service center or a human resources department. With a surprisingly fluid motion, the robot uses cameras mounted in each "hand" to locate one of up to 18,900 numbered tape cartridges. Then, it grabs the cartridge and inserts it into a reader that, in less than a minute, flashes the information on the computer screen of the person who requested it.

Why display the robot when there's usually nobody around to see it anyway? "We wanted to humanize the technology by showing it to people," explains IBM designer Martin J. Marotti. In the rival Storage Technology Corp.'s machine, the robot can't be seen from the outside. It doesn't hurt that the robot immediately grabs the attention of a potential customer. Admits Marotti: "We wanted a theatrical effect."

And it sure doesn't look much like a typical IBM product. Marotti even departed from IBM's customary cream motif to make the housing black. Like the wildly successful ThinkPad notebook computer, the Dataserver represents a new freedom in design at IBM. "The Dataserver is an important statement that it's a new era for us," says Marotti. "A lot of designers are itching to do things differently now that we're getting more freedom." So far, so good.

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