Computers do seem to be getting smarter. The wit who routinely slaps the ``just-a-dumb-machine'' label on computers has obviously not yet bumped into a new one that recognizes and responds to personal handwriting styles.
The first thing you notice about Write-Top, the nine-pound portable personal computer built by Linus Technologies Inc. of Reston, Va., is that it has no keyboard, but only a glass screen and an attached electronic pen. You communicate with the computer by writing with the pen on the screen.
The computer is 11 inches square by 3 inches thick, and its compact size makes it possible for lawyers, nurses, insurance adjusters, delivery drivers - anyone who routinely fills out forms or uses a note pad - to use the machine while on the go. It could be carried, or mounted on a wall or possibly in a truck.
The computer can also be used by those who can't type well. An executive could compose and edit a letter or speech on the Write-Top while traveling, then download the information to a secretary's computer.
The first step is to teach the Write-Top the way you draw your alphabet, the appearance of each character. Even if you write sloppily, the machine recognizes letters if it has been shown the sloppy version of each character. Teaching the machine takes an hour or so.
Like a chameleon piece of computer hardware, the Write-Top can adapt to different needs, becoming a word processor, spreadsheet, date book, business form, or note pad, depending on the software package. The machine translates the written word into print on the screen, which can be printed or processed later.
The key to it all is the fancy internal algorithm that allows the machine to ``learn'' to recognize individual handwriting. The Write-Top even accepts and remembers drawings and sketches, thus becoming an incredibly advanced version of a child's Etch-a-Sketch.
``This computer embodies an approach to computing that has the potential, I believe, to change people's whole perception of what a portable computer - or, for that matter, any computer - is,'' writes Andrew Seybold, a computer hardware and industry analyst.
The marketing people at Linus have not, however, attempted to target a mass audience. Instead, the company is focusing on a few key markets that include insurance and health care. The idea is to get nurses and insurance people to carry a Write-Top with them instead of filling out thousands of paper forms.
Claims adjusters, for example, could eliminate paper forms altogether by recording their information on the Write-Top, then plugging into a modem and phone line. The information is collected in a computer data base, processed, and ready for next-day review by managers.
An executive who can't type could use the machine to write and edit a letter, which would then be dumped into a secretary's personal computer at the office.
``Without question, it will make it easier for people to interact with computers,'' says Stephen Bosley, an analyst with International Data Corporation in Framingham, Mass. ``I think, however, that the product is not one of those things that are going to be used by everybody and end up sitting on every desktop.''
Mr. Bosley thinks the Write-Top, priced at $2,800 to $3,600, will find a home in niche markets, but questions whether it will grow beyond them. He says, however, that the handwriting recognition algorithm could find its way into other machines and uses.
Production of the IBM-compatible Write-Top, which is based on the MS-DOS operating system, began only a few weeks ago. The first sales of the machines have been to value-added resellers of computer equipment. These software wizards are expected to create new software to make Write-Top applications that fit other markets.
Linus Technologies Inc., 18890 Preston White Dr., Reston VA 22091; (703) 476-1500.