BOSTON -- If you want to glimpse the future of computing, just ask David Nanian to empty his pockets.
Whether on a train or by the fireside, the 30-year-old technology freak likely will produce at least two miniaturized computers. "People are pretty surprised to see them," said Mr. Nanian, who lives in Boston. "You don't get any work done because you're busy telling them, 'No, really, it is a computer.' "
Mr. Nanian's palm-sized travel companions represent the cutting edge of computers: In the industry, they call them palmtops. And if several giant computer and consumer electronics companies have their way, very soon you will be wondering how -- and for heaven's sake, why -- you ever lived without one.
So far, most palmtops have been sold more on the basis of novelty than utility. But new models, expected to arrive on store shelves within the next 15 months, will weigh less than a pound and be sized somewhere between a checkbook and a videotape. By using a pocket modem and a phone -- high-end models may have a cellular phone built in -- you will have access to any of the data in your home or business computer, no matter where you are.
On the surface, they are merely the next step in the genealogy of the incredible shrinking computer: from igloo-sized mainframes, to desk-sized PCs, to hernia-inducing portables, to laptops, to notebooks, then subnotebooks and now palmtops.
If they catch on, palmtops could raise the concept of an office to a purely metaphysical level.
No event would be safe from business interruptions; anyone you sit next to on an airplane could whip out a palmtop and subject you to his or her business plan or spreadsheet in fully computerized detail.
Depending on your perspective, the idea is positively enthralling, or absolutely nauseating.
"There is a sad aspect to these," Mr. Nanian said. "We've gotten to the point where we can't ever leave our work. We have so much data, we want to run around with computers."
At their best, existing palmtops have only a fraction of the memory capacity of the average personal computer. But that should change quickly, given the effort that American computer companies and Japanese consumer electronics companies are investing in the technology. Their prices will start at a hefty $500 or so.
The first wave of palmtops generally will be used for rather prosaic purposes. The ones that will come out next year will be targeted at specific users, such as nurses who could check off patient information and send it into a central computer.
They could also become mandatory accessories for the traveling salesperson who wants to access information back in the office, send electronic mail or keep track of his or her golf performance.
"A whole new era of products is opening up," declared Richard Shaffer, publisher of Computerletter. "In the labs, there is as much ferment over these small portable devices as there was in the early days of personal computing."
Because of the miniature size of their keyboards, which have keys comparable to Chiclets, current palmtops won't be of much use to serious writers -- such as those who prefer to hit one letter at a time.
For this group, the palmtops with the most promise won't have keyboards at all. Instead, users will operate them using electronic pens. Some pen-based systems already are on the market. They are used for the most simple data collection; no one thinks that a pen-based system that can flawlessly read your handwriting and input it into a computer will become reality soon.
For serious gadgeteers, the palmtop's possibilities are dizzying -- and not that far off. Three weeks ago, Apple Computer Inc. and Sharp Corp. announced plans to produce several pocket-sized consumer products within a year or so.
Most industry gurus believe it won't be too long -- within a few years -- before a combination personal computer/cellular phone is available that can beam data to or from just about anywhere, providing users with a continuously updated supply of, say, stock quotes or sports scores.
Despite the technology's comparatively primitive state, a fair number of consumers have already invested in computerized companions. According to International Data Corp., a Framingham, Mass., market research firm, sales have been growing steadily. Nearly 300,000 units were sold in 1990, rising to 500,000 last year. And projections for this year run close to 700,000.
About two years ago, Poqet Computer Corp., now a subsidiary of Fujitsu Ltd., brought out the first true PC writ teensy. While previous incarnations had their own proprietary operating systems, Poqet's DOS-based operating system (price: about $2,000) makes it compatible with any IBM clone.