IVREA. ITALY—In a cluttered laboratory on the first floor of a new building in the northern Italy town of Ivrea, three Olivetti employees huddle together at a bench. One scribbles with a pencil on a small electronic slate connected to a computer, while the others peer intently at the screen, where the image entered on the slate appears.

Their goal to shoehorn a telephone, a scanner (for entering documents into the computer), a printer, and the electronic “paper” into a box little more than the size of a small book. If Olivetti has its way, this little box will be the hub of the office of the future— and the key to turning around the company’s declining fortunes.

Two of those in the group at the bench are staff scientists. But the third is 40-year-old Hermann Hauser, Ing.C. Olivetti & C. SpA’s chief scientific officer, who often slips into one...

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