Blame it on the computer age, the Bell system breakup, the global market or simple consumer demand. Whatever the reason, equipment in the office place has changed dramatically in the last 10 years.

No more can someone open up shop with a one-line phone and typewriter and expect to keep pace with the competition. Today, the basics include a computer, multi-function phone, laser printer, copier and a facsimile machine.Although the changes in necessary office equipment have come upon businesses rapidly and in most cases require a substantial investment, the change has been for the better, according to vendors and buyers.

For about $10,000, a small business can purchase more and better equipment today than what $30,000 could have purchased in 1978. (See chart on M2.)

"There has been a consistent drop in price and an increase in features," says Paul Archer, general manager of Associated Business Products.

When Dale Zabriskie struck out on his own in 1982 with a small public relations firm, he and a secretary handled a modest number of clients with two IBM electric typewriters, a portable typewriter for Zabriskie and a two-line phone.

The daily routine in the early days consisted of typing out rough draft press releases, proofing the drafts, typing the final versions, another proof read and possibly another final version. Any copies were made with carbons or a dash to Harris & Love Inc. Advertising next door.

"We had to go down four floors and up to the top floor of the building next door for copies," recalls Lisa Badger, an early employee at Zabriskie's.

Two years later, Zabriskie & Associates moved and purchased a used computer system - a clunker by today's standards but a Cadillac in its time - and more electronic equipment gradually followed: a copier, laser printer and new phone system.

"A year ago we bit the bullet and investigated new computer systems," Zabriskie said, noting the old computer is now interfaced with an electronic typewriter to produce monthly billing sheets.

Today, the firm has grown to eight employees, each having a computer with proof-reading programs for speedier and less laborious word processing and publishing. Zabriskie has a personal terminal at home, cutting down on late nights at the office.

"We couldn't handle our current client base under the old system. No way. We would be backed up for a year," he said. "We could maybe handle half the work and not make much money because of the additional employees I would need."

***** The experience of Zabriskie & Associates illustrates how computers have played a major role in the changing workplace. The computer's word and data processing capabilities continue to marvel bosses and secretaries alike, who can't believe how they got anything done in the past without it.

"It's questionable if you need a typewriter or not today, because you can get a computer with a printer that can do data and word processing at a reasonable cost," Archer said.

In addition to the computer, new and improved equipment has also come on the scene speeding up communication and transfer of information between businesses on a global scale.

The latest addition is the facsimile or "fax" machine. Over a telephone line someone can send documents instantly from one fax user to another, practically making overnight mail obsolete.

But, the fax is still considered a luxury and not necessary for all businesses, Archer said. "Most of ours are sold to established businesses who want instant communication," he said.

Zabriskie said his firm gets by using the fax machine at Harris & Love next door or one at a local printing shop. But he did find it economical to purchase a copy machine.

"Most everyone buys a copy machine now," Archer said.

He explained that a copier costing $700-$800 produces a better copy than a machine purchased for $3,000 about 10 years ago. "Copiers have evolved like night to day. Than can do full color now on plain paper and the alternatives (number of different manufacturers) have made the market extremely competitive."

The laser printer, basically a computer-driven copier, has also become a necessity for the modern, computerized office. It has evolved from a cumbersome, noisy typewriter to a quiet, quick printer than can fit on a desk top and turn out typewritten copy originated and proofed on a computer screen.

A significant contributor to the explosion of communications equipment in the office is that most basic of communication tools: the telephone. Since the breakup of the Bell telephone system, numerous telecommunications companies have turned the phone from a simple transmitter of voice sounds to a multi-functional electronic instrument that can be integrated with the office computer and other machines.

"It allows you to use computers and other data machines as simple as using a phone," said AT&T technical specialist Doug Prowse.

In the 1980s, phone transmission signals were digitized, allowing more information to be transmitted over phone lines than just a voice, he explained.

Companies with the now antiquated "push and poke" mechanical phones are limiting themselves, Prowse said, to the amount of information they can receive with the more sophisticated computerized phone systems on the market.

*****

Purchasing new office equipment can be a bewildering experience, particularly buying a phone system.

"Buying our phones was the biggest hassle when we moved our offices," Zabriskie said.

With the increased number of vendors since the Bell system breakup, Archer said his firm, which doesn't sell phones, had to hire a consultant to help it select the phone system that would meet its needs.

Phone system consultants are just one profession that has grown out of the evolution of office equipment. All vendors have to be up on the latest technology in order to service their customers.

"You can't just hire a handyman. You need sophisticated technicians," said Lee Archer, founder of Associated Business Products. "Labor is costly."

Charles Burgoyne said the reason why Burgoyne Computers Inc. has stayed in business for 13 years is because of its effort to keep abreast of technological developments in the industry in order to provide good service.

Just as new office equipment has changed the retail end of the business, users of the equipment have also been faced with changing job descriptions and in some cases job loss because of computers and electronic equipment.

Most firms require office support personnel, and some require management to be computer-literate. And the ability of phone systems to answer, transfer and take messages electronically has prompted some large corporations to eliminate central operators.

***** For the future, it's sales growth for vendors and improvements and lower prices for buyers in practically all types of equipment.

Archer predicts his firm's biggest source of growth will exist primarily in fax machines and laser printers, which are the most recent products to become necessities, as they become faster and more versatile.

Products will also become more combined and integrated, vendors predict, with one terminal performing what several separate components can do now.

Prowse said AT&T is participating in a worldwide project to standardize manufacturing and operating specs of computers, phones and other transmission systems so that integration of equipment can take place more easily.

"One of the drawbacks to growth has been the lack of standardization," Burgoyne said.

So, with improvements and better products on the horizon, should the business operator put off buying a computer or other equipment?

"You could put off buying a computer forever and you would see the price drop and quality improve," Burgoyne said. "But you get a computer when you need it, and you can buy growth paths so it doesn't become a waste."

Buying "growth paths," or capacity to implement improved technology as it emerges, is the only way to start out and keep up with the competition, vendors say.