PC 'FROM ANOTHER PLANET' JOINS WAVE OF UNUSUAL DEVICES Pen-based computers veer away from conventional design


It sounds like something handed down from the mountaintop.

It describes itself as an "all-terrain supertablet."

And this personal computer is at the crest of a wave of devices with unusual shapes and features that in the next year may refashion thinking about PCs.

Manufactured by an unknown start-up with the unlikely name of Tusk Inc., the new personal computer has been designed by managers and engineers from outside the personal computing industry.

Instead of relying on experience, they've relied on heavy market research.

Tusk is based in Lake Park, Fla., a town not often thought of as a technology haven.

"I think its design comes from another planet," said Portia Isaacson, president of Dream Machine Inc., a market research and consulting firm specializing in new types of portable computers, based in Cambridge, Mass.

"It's designed by people who didn't know you couldn't do it the way they did it."

These will be "much more sophisticated machines," often designed to be both desktop and portable machines, said Tim Bajarin, executive vice president of Creative Strategies Research International in Santa Clara, Calif.

The driving force behind the refashioning of increasingly mobile machines will be the pen. This longtime word processor is just coming into play as a means of issuing commands to computers, forcing designers to rethink the machines themselves.

"The pen-based systems allow us to have a lot more innovation. Most of the pen-based computers are going away from conventional design," said Mr. Bajarin.

The most noticeable aspect of the new computers is the frequent absence of a keyboard. Some, like those unveiled by Grid Systems Corp., a subsidiary of Tandy Corp. and NCR Corp., respond only to the touch of a special stylus on a flat screen. To tell the machine what to do, a user taps or writes on the screen with the stylus.

Such styluses are called pens, giving rise to the term pen computer. But the "pens" do not write on regular surfaces and the machines' screens do not respond to conventional pens.

Others, such as those from DFM Systems Inc. and MicroSlate Inc., respond to contact from any object, be it pen, finger or other instrument. Like Tusk, these more unusual devices come from unconventional places such as West Des Moines, Iowa, and Brossard, Quebec, not bound by traditional approaches to computer design.

But these machines are basically note pad-like slates, an inch or two thick.

Upcoming machines from companies such as Tusk and Momenta Corp. are more representative of the next wave. These will be versatile machines that frequently unfold like laptops, but are hybrids of the computers that have come before and the slates that are still arriving.

The Tusk tablet, for instance, is a three-in-one computer. Depending on what parts a user chooses to carry along, it's a desktop, laptop or pen computer.

Typical of a new convention, the versatility is built upon a fundamental rearrangement of the main components of a portable computer.

In conventional portables, the innards of the machine lie below the keyboard. That's where one finds the microprocessor, the main circuit board and key accessories, such as hard and floppy disk drives, telephone modems and the like.

Not so with the Tusk machine. The main circuit board and microprocessor are located underneath the screen.

That means the screen can be detached from the rest of the Tusk package. But because the microprocessor and main circuitry is behind it, it's still a roving computer. It's a stylus-driven slate.

"Mating" the slate back with the keyboard unit makes it a full computer, with attached accessories, such as a floppy disk drive or numeric keypad.

Again, though, the design is a departure.

Laptops almost exclusively have adhered to a "clamshell" design. The screen flips up from the keyboard. The profile is an "L" shape.

In the Tusk case, the profile is an upside-down "T" when in use.

This produces a base that can act as a dock for the screen, when atop a desk. But the whole thing folds up and can be carried, like a laptop.

"It combines the best of data processing," said founder Chuck Krallman, who, in a previous career, had been the president of an international market research firm.

In this case, Mr. Krallman and cohorts, who include engineers from such unusual places as oil field service and heavy-duty engine companies, used a research method called "adaptive conjoint analysis" to guide the design of the machine. In such analysis, users not only indicate what they want in the best of all possible machines, but make the trade-offs between features and costs. That gives the designers a clear target to shoot at, even if unusual, before beginning development.

"We have in essence created a computer backward," said Mr. Krallman. "This is a completely fresh look" at computing, he said.

Even the bulletproofing is not a gimmick, he maintains. Conventional laptop computers are plagued by cracked cases, which in turn can lead to failure of important components, such as the screens. The use of the kind of composite materials found in Stealth aircraft makes it impervious not just to falling to the floor, but falling into water.

"You can submerse the damn thing," said Ms. Isaacson. "Is this a trip or what?"

The refashioning of the computer could even get it into fashion itself. "Not only is the machine rugged, it's gorgeous," she said. At $5,500 or so, it's likely to be "an incredibly upscale accessory."

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