If most people were to choose one word to sum up workstation computers, it would be "unique." Back in the 1980s, when computers were either mammoth mainframes and minis or low-powered PCs, workstation computers were in a class of their own: high-powered, yet reasonably affordable, using one-of-a-kind RISC microprocessors and the arcane UNIX operating system. The joke was that users needed a Ph.D. to operate a workstation computer and, not surprisingly, the science and academic community became its primary user.

But the power and performance of workstations also helped state and local governments, particularly in the area of geographic information systems (GIS). Only workstations could provide the processing power and multitasking capability needed to analyze large amounts of geo-coded data, as well as

to display and redraw electronic

maps quickly.

Today, however, what made workstations unique no longer matters. RISC technology can be found in Apple and other brands of low-cost desktop computers, while Intel's Pentium Pro microprocessor has boosted the power and performance of PCs to equal that

of low-end workstations. These improvements have allowed software applications that were once the exclusive domain of workstations to migrate over to Windows-based computers. And UNIX, which was once praised for its networking strength, has now been nearly equaled by Windows NT, Microsoft's corporate operating system.

But workstation vendors are not about to throw in the towel. The hardware and UNIX software they produce are still preferred by many organizations for use as servers in applications that require lots of horsepower. Workstations now offer 64-bit processing as well as multiprocessing capabilities. They also have found a new life on the Internet, where the lingua franca is UNIX (just look at those 30- and 40-letter URL addresses), and TCP/IP, the Net's communications protocol, is an inherent part of the UNIX operating system, not an add-on.

State and local governments are also finding that workstations still serve a purpose. Some of the more sophisticated GIS applications require the power and performance of a workstation. Certain kinds of business applications, such as finance, are also relying on workstations for crunching large amounts of numeric data.

But the biggest reason today's state and local government market still needs workstations is the growth in visual computing. Government agencies are creating and manipulating computerized images and graphics as never before. For example, fingerprint matching is no longer just a function of law enforcement. A fast-growing number of state welfare agencies now use fingerprint matching to verify the identity of aid recipients. Computer-aided design, document management, forensic evidence, traffic-flow management, computer-aided dispatch -- the list goes on and on with government applications that have become heavily reliant on the manipulation of data, visual information and, in some cases, three-dimensional graphics.

THE BIG FIVE

Five vendors dominate the workstation market: Sun Microsystems, IBM, Hewlett-Packard, Silicon Graphics and Digital Equipment Corp. In 1994, they shipped 86 percent of all workstations and earned 87 percent of all revenue, according to Dataquest Inc. Other players include: Intergraph, Motorola, Unisys, Control Data and Data General.

Back in 1992, Digital introduced the first 64-bit microprocessor, the Alpha, for the workstation market. Today, industry leaders Sun and Hewlett-Packard have also unveiled their versions of 64-bit RISC microprocessors. These high-speed machines are helping to expand the realm of visual computing, creating new applications in the field of computer-aided design, science, defense, technical publishing and GIS.

According to Jack Sweeney, marketing manager for Hewlett-Packard's state and local government program, GIS has been the traditional government application for workstation computers. "Today, however, that's changing," he said. For instance, California's Department of Transportation is using HP workstations to redesign bridges and other types of transportation infrastructure to make them earthquake-proof. Los Angeles uses HP workstations to manage traffic on its mammoth system of highways. The workstations process information coming in from