While personal computers have revolutionized the office, and notebook-sized PCs let users take the office on the road, a good-sized chunk of the American work force has been shut out from computing because traditional computers don't fit the way they work.
An engineer walking the skeleton of a skyscraper isn't likely t whip out his laptop PC to make sure the steel matches the drawings. A salesman trying to close a deal doesn't want to put a computer screen between himself and his prospect. A warehouse foreman dodging forklifts is hardly in a position to update the company's computerized inventory every time a pallette is loaded onto a truck. And typing may not be his strong point, anyway.
Enter the pen-top PC, the hottest computer product of the year.
Pen-top computers radically change the way people pu computers to work. The companies bringing these machines to market like to use the word "paradigm" a lot. A paradigm is an example or model for comparison. If the standard PC uses the typewriter/keyboard paradigm, the pen-top PC uses the paper and pencil.
Instead of typing at a keyboard, pen-top PC users write on th screen of their lightweight, notebook-sized computers with an electronic stylus.
With special operating systems and software designed to mimi the way people work with pencils, paper and forms, pen-top computers can store data digitally without requiring the user to know how to type or even know much about operating computers.
A salesman can take an order the same way he always did wit pencil and paper. Only now, he can dial up the home office computer, call up his customer's file and enter the order in a few seconds, without anyone having to retype it.
A stock clerk can prowl the aisles, check off the inventory on computerized form as he walks and dump the information into the company's main computer system.
A delivery driver can use his pen-top computer to set up hi schedule, check off each delivery and even collect an electronic signature from each customer.
At least a dozen pen-top computers or prototypes were o display at the recent Comdex computer show in Las Vegas, and at least a hundredoftware companies are developing programs for them.
Because they don't require a keyboard, the new pen-tops ar light -- generally less than four pounds. Most of them pack a version of Intel's 80386SX microprocessor and come with at least two megabytes of memory and a 20-megabyte hard disk or a smaller amount of "flash" memory that will store information even when the power is turned off.
They're not for the faint of pocketbook. Buyers can count o spending at least $5,000 a pop, which may dampen the enthusiasm generated by the machines' gee-whiz technology. The pen-tops all use one of two special operating systems designed specifically for the new machines.
The first, produced by the Go Corp. and called PenPoint, uses notebook metaphor. It presents a picture of a notebook with a table of contents.
By tapping the pen on an entry in the table of contents, you can call up a document -- a letter, a spreadsheet, an order form or a drawing. Compound documents can use elements from all of these. PenPoint's main advantage is that the software and commands are virtually invisible. It comes pretty close to the pencil and paper paradigm.
The second, from Microsoft Corp., is called PenWindows. It's a extension of the company's successful Windows graphical environment, with the stylus taking the place of the desktop mouse. Its advantage is that it can run the standard Windows programs many people use in the office as well as special software created for pen-tops.
A few computer makers are hedging their bets. The NCR 1125 one of the first on the market, can use either operating system, as well as a pen-based variant of DOS, the standard disk operating system for IBM-compatibles.
But the key to making pen-top computers work is handwritin recognition, which still is in its infancy.
No software available today can recognize cursive writing. Yo have to print everything, and if the computer I tried out last week is an indicator, you have to print rather slowly at that.
Even so, the best handwriting-recognition software will only ge about 90 percent of the characters right, even after you've trained it to recognize your particular style of scribbling.
This limits pen-tops to simple tasks such as filling in forms o making checkmarks on lists. This kind of work does occupy a large number of people.
And within those limitations, you can work pretty much the wa you can with a pencil and paper, using an "X" or a line through a word to erase a mistake. But it's not going to let you computerize the Great American Novel if you don't know how to type.
The NCR 1125 pen-top I tried out is a sleek and elegant littl machine that really looks like a notebook, with the spine holding a rechargeable battery that's good for three to five hours.